It was late in the season and the Phillies had a Wednesday night game against the New York Mets.
First in a three-part series about the recent rise of Latin American players on the Phillies' big-league roster and within the entire organization.
In Gabe Kapler's first year as manager, you never knew what to expect when you walked into the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park. Smoke billowed from machines after victories and the genre of music playing was as unpredictable as the high-leverage inning — or, more likely, innings — Seranthony Dominguez would be used in that night.
The pregame music selection on this particular late afternoon was fitting for myriad reasons. It was Dominican night at the ballpark, so a series of rhythmic Latin songs seemed perfect. Of course, in the Phillies clubhouse these days, Latin influence is the norm, not the exception. No special day is required. The Phillies in fact used 19 players from Latin American and Caribbean countries in 2018, matching the club record they had set a year ago. No team in the National League used more Latino players than the Phillies and only the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, with 22, and the Chicago White Sox, with 20, used more.
This growing connection hasn't gone unnoticed. A reader asked about efforts the Phillies were making to recruit Latin American talent through Curious Philly, our Q&A forum that lets you ask us about the things you want to know.
Four of the team's regular position players for most of the season were born in Venezuela (Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera) or the Dominican Republic (Maikel Franco and Carlos Santana). Catcher Jorge Alfaro is from Colombia.
After the trade deadline, the Phillies typically started six Latino players, with Wilson Ramos (Venezuela) replacing Alfaro and Asdrubal Cabrera (Venezuela) replacing Scott Kingery at shortstop.
For those of us who can remember the 1989 season, when Juan Samuel was the lone Latino on a roster that included as many players born in France (Steve Jeltz) and Spain (Al Pardo), the transformation of Los Phillies is fascinating, albeit entirely in line with what has happened across baseball's landscape.
You want to win these days, you had better be good at signing and developing players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and the other countries where beisbol is the unchallenged king of sports. The Phillies had lost their way in that regard for a long time, but they are obviously back in the game now with their foot firmly pressed on the accelerator.
The Phillies opened a new academy in the Dominican Republic 22 months ago, and they still operate an academy in Venezuela at a time when most major-league teams have pulled out because of the political unrest that has made the country so dangerous.
Predictably, the Phillies clubhouse has become a comfortable place for Latino players.
"There is definitely a lot of pride having a clubhouse full of Latino players," said Diego Ettedgui, the Phillies' Venezuelan-born Spanish-language interpreter, whose clubhouse role goes far beyond translating words.
"One of the first comments I always hear from a newcomer is that they can't believe how many Latino guys we have here. For them, it's great because they always look for that comfort level, especially with the language. They want to feel at home, and they want to feel like they belong. I know what it's like to be someone from abroad, so I absolutely love the environment the Phillies have created for them."
Ettedgui said the tight bond among the Latino players extends beyond the clubhouse and it does not matter what country a player comes from. The Phillies, for the record, used eight players from the Dominican Republic, seven from Venezuela, two from Puerto Rico, and one each from Mexico and Colombia.
"To be honest, I don't think there is any rivalry," Ettedgui said. "The second they know someone speaks Spanish or is from a Latin American country, it's like that person becomes a brother to them. Language unites all these guys. It happened with Jesen Therrien. He was a Canadian-born pitcher who learned Spanish in the minor leagues and he became part of the group [in 2017]."
The bond extends beyond the clubhouse and field, too. Meals are shared at home and on the road, where there is an endless search in every big-league city for restaurants with Latin foods from a variety of countries.
"They respect each other's backgrounds and cultures," Ettedgui said. "We eat pretty much the same foods — rice, beans, chicken — but there are some slight differences. The Dominicans have a lot of different soups, and Carlos Santana and Maikel Franco will bring them in and share them with all their teammates. If we order Dominican food one day, we'll try to do something from Venezuela the next day."
>> FROM THE ARCHIVES: Visiting the Dominican Republic, where the Phillies are investing in talent
With the increase of Latin American players and a more elaborate academy in the Dominican Republic, the Phillies' brand is becoming more identifiable in Latin American countries.
"When I was a kid, my favorite team was Boston because they had [David] Ortiz and Pedro [Martinez]," Franco said. "I knew a lot about the Yankees because they were always fighting it out with the Red Sox. I do think the Phillies are becoming more popular in my country. People are starting to talk about this team, and when I go to our academy, the young players want to know about Philadelphia."
Ettedgui said he returns to Venezuela every offseason to see his family and he does his part to spread the word about the Phillies.
"They have definitely become more popular now that they have so many Latino and especially Venezuelan players," he said.
Only the White Sox with nine and Texas with eight used more players from Venezuela than the Phillies.
"You see a lot more people now with Phillies hats down there," Ettedgui said. "I see a lot of Mariners and Astros, too. Every time I go back, I try to give away some Phillies gear to family and friends. They are a team that Venezuelan people have noticed, and it helps that they still have an academy there."
Sal Agostinelli, the team's international scouting director, believes the Phillies have an advantage in identifying and signing Venezuela players because of their willingness to remain there in such turbulent times.
"Most everybody has closed down," Agostinelli said. "We still have our own team in the Parallel League, which gives our young kids that have just signed a chance to play against guys who have played in double A and triple A during the winter. A lot of those games are played at our academy."
>> FROM THE ARCHIVES: In the D.R., Phillies offer an education beyond baseball
It is difficult to tell exactly how much impact the Phillies' Latino infusion has had on the Hispanic communities in the Philadelphia area.
NBC Sports Philadelphia has offered its Phillies telecasts in Spanish for more than a decade, but it does not track the number of viewers who switch to the alternative audio. The two men who handle the Spanish telecast, Bill Kulik and Angel Castillo, believe that the Phillies as well as the Eagles have become a staple in Latino communities
. Kulik also hosts a Spanish-language radio show before games on WTTM-AM (1680), a Philadelphia-area station based in Lindenwold, and it is the feedback he gets there that leads him to believe the Phillies' fan base is growing.
"When I started doing this in 2005, everybody was a Bobby Abreu fan," Kulik said. "They weren't Phillies fans in the Latino community. Now when we do our call-in radio show, they debate things like [Zach] Eflin and [Vince] Velasquez staying in the rotation, so they have developed as a fan base dramatically."
The 2010 census reported that the Latin/Hispanic population in the city of Philadelphia was 187,611. That's 12.3 percent of the total population with the highest numbers coming from the countries of Puerto Rico (121,643) and Mexico (15,531).
"Do I think it matters that there are more Latinos playing for the Phillies? I think it's nice," Kulik said. "But I don't think it makes as big of a difference as you might think. I think winning makes a bigger difference. But if you are winning with Pedro Martinez or David Ortiz or Albert Pujols, it is definitely more special. But, in general, the Latin population cares more about winning."
That, of course, matches the sentiments of the rest of Philadelphia's population. Before the Phillies' epic collapse in the final six weeks of last season, Castillo said they were the talk of the Latino community.
"Every time I go to a restaurant or the Latino market, everybody would be talking about the Phillies," said Castillo, a Mayfair resident. "You might not see them that much in the stands at the ballpark, but believe me they are watching and they are listening. I do believe the Latino community is getting more involved every single year as Latino players have come to this team, and believe me, there are more coming. You know the passion we feel about baseball."
Castillo, a Dominican Republic native, said the Latino fan base does not give free passes to Hispanic players based on where they came from.
"One hundred percent they get frustrated with Odubel," he said. "When they see the talent he has … they know he can be maybe the best hitter on the team. But when Latino fans see the way he plays sometimes, they get mad. They know guys like Santana and Alfaro did not hit the way they can hit, either."
Castillo said he believes Latino players could use a leader among them.
"Santana is a veteran, but he is quiet," Castillo said. "Cesar is quiet. I can say maybe Franco. He's a good talker."
Of course, there's a good chance he will not be here next season.
"Hector Neris could be a leader among the pitchers," Castillo said. "He's a good guy in the clubhouse. He has to pitch well, but he is funny and he is always trying to help other guys. So I'd say maybe Franco is the leader, but it's not like he is Chooch [Carlos Ruiz]. It's really, really hard to get another guy like him."
Will Gonzalez, the executive director of Ceiba, a coalition of Latino community-based organizations in Philadelphia, has written extensively about baseball in general and the Phillies in particular for decades. He also has worked with the Phillies over the years to help them connect with the area's Latino population.
"I do think it's something they could do better with," Gonzalez said. "But I don't want to say it is not something they have not tried because they have. They have relationships with one or two nonprofit organizations in the community, and that's really great. I'd just like to see them widen their relationships in some areas."
Gonzalez also believes that if the Phillies could develop or acquire a Latino superstar willing to connect with the Latino community, it would be a game changer. He agrees with Castillo, however, that Latino fans ultimately just want a winner.
"Let me just say that I think it helps when a team has great Latin players, but the Latin community here did have strong connections and feelings about Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley," Gonzalez said. "They had a stronger connection with guys like Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino than they did with J.C. Romero, who was from Puerto Rico."
Romero, for the record, also was the winning pitcher in the Phillies' World Series-clinching win over Tampa Bay 10 years ago, but middle relievers rarely become fan favorites.
"We could be the people who save the sport," Gonzalez said. "I think I read the average age of a baseball fan right now is 50. The demographics of the baseball fan are changing rapidly. There's a renaissance of sorts with baseball going on in Puerto Rico with its academies, and you know how they feel about baseball in the Dominican and Venezuela. The world keeps getting smaller, and we're waiting for Cuba to open up even more. It is going to be important for the future of baseball to keep us hooked on the game."
While the Phillies are proud of their academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela as well as their growing international program overall, Major League Baseball has become part of a grand jury investigation relating to how teams acquire talent from Latin America. The Los Angeles Dodgers were named as one of the teams being investigated in an October Sports Illustrated story. Kapler worked as the Dodgers' director of player development from 2014 to 2017.
When the story broke, the Phillies said they had not been contacted by the authorities investigating the issue. They also said they would not comment further while the investigation was in progress. Kapler declined to comment on the investigation.
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