ONCE UPON A time, the Phillies were a dominant scouting presence in Latin America. When later generations of baseball people arrived, they found the scouting and player development equivalent of the ruins of an ancient civilization.
Mike Arbuckle was hired as the team's scouting director in October 1992. He came from the Braves, a team that put a premium on finding the best players all over the world. "When I came, I think we had only two or three Latin players in the whole organization," Arbuckle, now the Kansas City Royals' senior adviser, said recently, the note of astonishment in his voice after all these years. "Coming from Atlanta, not scouting Latin America was like saying you weren't going to scout Florida, Texas and California."
Ed Wade replaced Lee Thomas as acting general manager in December 1997 and 3 months later was given the job full-time. Arbuckle already had begun to beef up Latin American scouting by then, but he wanted to accelerate the pace. Earlier this season, he identified what he believes were the two biggest changes.
"No. 1, [promoting] Sal Agostinelli [to international scouting supervisor] and allowing Sal to be Sal and be aggressive not only in the continental United States but Latin America as well. Because I think his aggressive approach really paid dividends," said Wade, now the Houston Astros' general manager.
"And the other thing, frankly, was the facility [in the Dominican Republic]. It was embarrassing. Our people kept telling me about our situation in the Dominican and how we were sharing a stadium with homeless people. Our players were living in the third-base clubhouse and they were living in the first-base clubhouse. All the porcelain facilities were gone, torn out and sold so people could eat. All the wooden bleachers were gone out of the stadium so people weren't cold at night."
After flying in to see the situation for himself, Wade came back to Philadelphia and reported to club president Dave Montgomery.
"I said, 'This is a very embarrassing, inhumane circumstance,' " he recalled. "And we immediately built a place that I guess they've moved out of now. But upgraded the facility. Sometimes facilities are important down there because it's a bit of a showcase. But from a human standpoint, it was the right thing to do. You can't get past the fact that it's about people. It's about Sal and the other guys finding players and knowing they have the ability and the support to sign guys at the same time."
The results have been dramatic. The Phillies had five Latin-born players they signed on their 40-man roster this spring.
And even before the renewed emphasis on scouting and signing players in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela began to take hold, that seemed to spark a change in the organizational approach.
In 1991, the Phillies had only two Latin-born players appear in 10 games or more. Five years later, it was still just three. By 2001, though, the total was 10, and 5 years later it was still at seven.
In some ways, that's part of a larger trend. According to the DLB Group, a nonconventional global marketing agency, the number of Hispanic players in Major League Baseball has jumped from 13 percent in 1990 to 28.3 percent on Opening Day a year ago. That number is down somewhat this season, to 27 percent according to Richard Lapchick's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.
So the Phillies have been doing an admirable job resurrecting the Latin American operation, and that's a story. It's also a story of how a franchise that discovered talents like Juan Samuel, Julio Franco and George Bell became nearly invisible in the region and was forced to play catch-up in the first place.
When the late Paul Owens became general manager in 1972, he quickly realized the impact that stars like Roberto Clemente from Puerto Rico and Juan Marichal from the Dominican Republic were having, sensed that the game was changing. He was determined that the Phillies should get in on the action. And he knew just who he wanted to spearhead the effort.
"The key guy was Ruben Sr.," said Phillies senior adviser Dallas Green, referring to the father of current general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "He built all the relationships down there and really started the first school."
Green was the Phillies' minor league director at the time. And with the blessing of his bosses, he authorized the elder Amaro to hire full-time scouts in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela along with Mexico and Puerto Rico.
"Ruben Sr. always believed that you had to have a local contact," Green recalled. "And I trusted Ruben. He brought us good players."
None of the local contacts was more important than Kiki Acavedo in the Dominican Republic and his assistant, Cookie Acavedo. The two men were not related.
That system worked well until Green left to run the Chicago Cubs' baseball operations after the 1981 season. At that point, things began to go very, very wrong, as the Inquirer reported in a lengthy examination of the Phillies' Latin American problem in November 1989.
The elder Amaro had been Green's first-base coach in 1980 and 1981. He was assured that he would retain that position, so he was shocked to read in the papers after leaving to manage Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League that he'd been replaced by Pat Corrales. He remained as the team's Latin American scouting supervisor, though, until the Phillies fired Triple A Oklahoma City manager Ron Clark. Needing help, they called Amaro, but not to ask him to take over the top farm club. Instead, late director of scouting and player development Jim Baumer offered him Double A Reading in order to be able to promote the newly hired John Felske. Amaro refused, was released from his contract at the end of the season and joined Green in Chicago.
The other fatal mistake was that the front office failed to realize that while Kiki Acavedo was the front man in the Dominican, it was Cookie Acavedo who was doing the real grunt work and finding the players.
Cookie was making $150 a month at the time. When he got an offer from the Indians for $400 a month, he offered to stay for the same money. The Phillies declined. It was all downhill after that.
"It turned out we were paying the wrong Acavedo all the money," Baumer said in the article. "We should have done everything we could to keep him."
All of which helps explain the sorry state of the Latin American scouting system that later generations of Phillies baseball men were left to deal with. And getting back in was an uphill battle.
"It's apparent on the international front that if you step out, the void gets filled very quickly," Wade said. "Particularly before the agents and the buscones [local bird-dog scouts] got involved, which they are now. If you had a presence and you withdrew that presence, it didn't take long for the Torontos and the other people to come in and fill in the gaps just like you'd never been there before."
Slowly, the Phillies rebuilt. They hired more scouts. Arbuckle said that when Allan Lewis was hired for Panama and the rest of Central America in 1999, he felt as though the organization had done a complete 180 in that regard.
New facilities were built in the Dominican and Venezuela. Both facilities can easily accommodate 50 players and generally house between 35 and 50 at any given time. Summer-league teams were added in those countries.
"It was just knowing that there were good players out there and we had to be a force. The approach, the philosophy, was that all the money comes out of the same pocket. As tempting as it would have been to spend all the money at the big-league level or put it into out-of-slot signings in the draft, we had to salute the fact that other clubs were being very successful at the international level," Wade said.
"Sal Artiaga was a big part of what we were doing. We brought Sal over [in 1999] when Steve Noworyta came over from the White Sox. And I really thought having that English program once guys got into our organization, they had a better chance to succeed. We're doing the same thing in Houston."
Nothing is forever, of course. The Phillies did not renew Artiaga's contract a year ago in what was apparently a financial decision. His duties have been absorbed by assistant director of minor league operations Lee McDaniel. Artiaga now holds a similar position with Royals.
They also have one fewer Latin American scout than they did for the decade before 2010, but that shouldn't dramatically impact the coverage.
Green, for one, believes the market is becoming tapped out. "I think the boon of Latin America is almost over," he said. "I really feel that because agents have gotten involved. The Dominican is almost fished out to a degree. There's still some action in Venezuela, but the government situation is not good. And the money has gone way, way out of whack.
"So the same guys who are trying to get themselves involved in Latin America can't afford it anymore. That era that we were in, we could sign kids very, very reasonably. And if they didn't pan out, it wasn't such a big loss. But I really think that's going to start going downhill because of the agents and money problems and the fact that, truthfully, you'll still find a gem here and there. No doubt about that. But most teams have an academy down there. So they've upped their scouting. They've upped the ante, too. So you're not going to see the same [results], in my opinion."
Arbuckle sees it slightly differently, noting that the percentage of Latin American players across baseball is increasing.
"It's because kids in the United States are playing basketball, football, soccer. More kids in Latin America are playing baseball. I think the amount of talent is still there, it's just that instead of 15 to 18 teams mining it, now all 30 are," he said.
"It's awfully hard to be competitive without being in that market. I always looked at it as a cushion for mistakes in the [domestic] draft. No matter how good your organization is, you're going to make mistakes. But if I could pick up two or three real solid prospects in Latin America, that helped make up for it. Multiply that by a 3- or a 4-year period and you start to have something."
And Amaro Jr., who is now ultimately responsible for all things baseball, said decisions have to be made on the basis of a constantly shifting set of circumstances.
"It's a good facility [in Tronconero], but there are some issues with Venezuela right now as far as the government is concerned," he pointed out. "There are only like six teams in there now and we're one of them. We're still making daily assessments about the viability of it. I think it's important to have a presence there, because there's a lot of talent in Venezuela as well.
"A lot of teams are combining the [Dominican Republic and Venezuelan] facilities. Which in some ways may be great and in other ways it's not. Because it's really two different cultures. It would be like taking somebody from London and putting them in the States and thinking it's just going to be hunky-dory. And it's not. Even though they speak the same language, there's a different cultural background."
The Phillies will probably never return to their glory days of being one of the premier teams in Latin America. The era in which a handful of teams dominated the region is over. The hope, of course, is that they'll never sink as low as they once did again, either. *