Wait Till Next Year (No, Really) | Feature | Chicago Reader

Wait Till Next Year (No, Really) 

The Cubs finally caught on: there's talent ripe for the picking in Latin America. Now that their efforts to cultivate it are paying off, respectability may be just around the corner.

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Oneri Fleita noticed something odd on his first visit to the Cubs' spring training camp. During his seven years as a minor-league player, coach, and manager in the Baltimore Orioles organization, Fleita had become accustomed to a multitude of Spanish-speaking ballplayers. Indeed, the most talented kid on the field often came from Latin America. So in 1995, after taking a job in the Cubs system, he was confused by the club's Mesa, Arizona, complex. "I didn't say anything to anybody, but I walked around wondering, 'Where are the Latins?'"

A year later, Fleita was put in charge of the Cubs' Latin American scouting operation. "Everyone said 'find me a shortstop,' but it wasn't that easy. And it was hard to explain what we were up against."

The Cubs had some scouts in Latin America, but they obviously weren't producing. Fleita needed someone he knew, someone he could count on. He tracked down a recently released second baseman named Jose Serra whom he'd managed several years earlier in the instructional league. He offered to make him the Cubs' full-time scout back home in the Dominican Republic, and Serra, who was then living with a cousin in Philadelphia, gladly accepted. He became Fleita's tour guide to a Caribbean nation that has emerged in the last quarter century as a gold mine of baseball talent. With a population roughly the same as metropolitan Chicago's, the Dominican Republic now accounts for 8 percent of baseball's major leaguers and nearly a quarter of its minor leaguers.

Scouting ballplayers there was unlike anything Fleita had ever known. In the U.S., where he'd made the shift from minor-league managing to scouting, big-league scouts track amateurs at high school and college games and file reports with their player-development offices. Because of the draft, unless you're the only scout to spot a future phenom in Sacramento or Tallahassee, being first offers no real advantage.

Not so in the free market of Latin America. There are virtually no organized amateur leagues, so the scouts and bird dogs have to go out and find the players. There's no draft, so everyone is a free agent hankering to make a deal.

Serra went on the Cubs' payroll on November 4, 1996. The next day he headed to a diamond in Santo Domingo, found a dozen or so kids playing there, and ran them through a tryout. As this motley crew ran, batted, and pitched, Serra tried to project their potential against his notion of major-league skills, which was based on players he'd seen in the minors who'd been called up. There was nobody worth signing.

He intended to go to every field in the country where he might find a player. He'd travel quietly, holding tryouts on the spot like this one or discreetly arranging tryouts through contacts. As Serra explains: "I know my island."

On day 11 he landed his first prospect. Fleita had flown to the island for the first time and they were visiting the Cubs' modest training facility in the town of Santana, an hour east of Santo Domingo. The pitching coach there said he'd been working with a kid they might want to see--a six-foot-five 16-year-old with a good motion. For a $6,500 signing bonus, Serra and Fleita had their first prospect, Francis Beltran. He wound up the 2002 season as a rookie reliever with the Cubs. Weeks passed before they found a second kid good enough to play even A ball.

The way the scouts compete, the Dominican Republic today is like an orchard being worked over by a flock of birds. Sometimes you have to pick fruit that's yet to ripen. Newly signed players are sent to academias--training camps where they live in dorms and get three meals a day. Over a year they learn baseball and English and, as needed, how to eat with a fork and use indoor plumbing. In the last 20 years every major-league team has formed its own academia and begun fielding teams in island-based rookie leagues. The best prospects compete for the coveted visas to America.

One of the last clubs to set up shop in the Dominican Republic, the Cubs were at a huge disadvantage. Fleita wasn't even based overseas. He lived in Atlanta, and his full-time job was tracking young players in Georgia and northern Florida. But he felt good about his relationship with Serra, and after two visits to the island decided that his bosses in Chicago should see conditions there firsthand. "That way," Fleita recalls, "I could justify the investment in facilities and equipment that I felt were necessary to put us on the map. We needed everything from bats and balls to a cook."

In January 1997 Jim Hendry, then the Cubs' player-development director, and David Wilder, then the farm director, joined Fleita in the Dominican Republic. Hendry, today the Cubs' general manager, was also new to the organization. He'd been to the Dominican Republic once before when he worked for the Florida Marlins, an expansion team with an excellent Latin American scouting operation that would win the 1997 World Series. The best teams have strong farm systems, and the Cubs had one of the weakest; Hendry recognized that building it up meant establishing a steady supply of talent from Latin America.

The trip dismayed him. The Cubs' academia was a shambles compared to the ones run by the Diamondbacks and the Athletics and another that the Reds were building. The talent under contract didn't consist of much beyond the skinny Beltran kid. "I was appalled," Hendry recalls. "Our Latin American scouting operation was producing no ballplayers. We had bodies, but no prospects."

Five years later, the Cubs have one of the best minor-league organizations in the game. Last spring, Baseball America predicted that a "deep and well rounded" talent pool would turn Chicago's lovable losers into pennant contenders by 2004, thanks in large part to a "strong Latin American program starting to deliver high-ceiling prospects." Of the organization's 200 minor leaguers, nearly 45 percent are from Latin America--all of them either Dominicans or Venezuelans.

The first two Latin Americans to come up through the system and reach Wrigley Field are pitchers Juan Cruz and Carlos Zambrano. They made their major-league debuts as starting pitchers on successive nights a year ago in August. Cruz stuck with the Cubs. Zambrano was sent back to the minors, but since getting a second big-league start this July, he's looked more and more like a big-league pitcher. Both pitchers attracted bids from other teams before this year's midsummer trading deadline, but the Cubs turned down the offers.

Fleita became player-development director in 2000, taking charge of the entire Cubs minor-league operation, and he no longer makes those monthly trips to the Caribbean. Serra runs the Latin American scouting operation on a day-to-day basis, Hector Ortega reports to Serra from Venezuela, and the Cubs pay ten part-time scouts.

Overseas scouting can be traced back to 1911--three years after the Cubs last won a World Series--when two Cuban winter-league players caught the eye of a vacationing Cincinnati Reds official. Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida debuted with the Reds during the second game of a July 4 doubleheader at the Cubs' old West Side Grounds. Within a decade a dozen other Cubans reached the majors. One was Adolfo Luque, who won a major-league-leading 27 games for the Reds in 1923. By 1933 the "Pride of Havana" was pitching for the New York Giants, and when he came out of the bull pen to nail down that year's World Series against the Washington Senators, he inspired the losing team's owner, Clark Griffith, to send his own man to Cuba. Over the next 25 years, Joe Cambria fed hundreds of Cubans into the Senators organization. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the Dodgers, Pirates, and Giants joined the Senators in tapping Caribbean talent. The Reds were laying the foundation for a Cuba-wide scouting network when Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and sent the American teams packing. Two decades later the Reds' model took root in the Dominican Republic, with the Blue Jays and Dodgers in the lead.

The current dean of Latin American scouting is Cuban-born Ralph Avila, who oversaw the Dodgers' Caribbean operation for a quarter century. Avila calls Sammy Sosa the most popular Latin American player in baseball history, and he believes that Dominican boys aspire to play for the Cubs in the same way that a generation of black youths once dreamed of joining Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Serra questions the importance of this advantage. Sosa's reputation helps, he says, but the agents who push kids on scouts are looking for the highest bidder. Jose Rijo agrees. "Every Dominican wants to be like Sammy Sosa," he says, "but they want to sign with the Dodgers or Yankees because they pay the biggest bonuses."

In 1990 Rijo was the World Series MVP pitching for Cincinnati. Today he's building a new career back home as a baseball entrepreneur. Several years ago he bought a tract of land near Santo Domingo and built a training complex with gyms, dining rooms, classrooms, dormitories, and seven baseball diamonds. The Reds are the original tenant of Rijo's Loma de suenos (field of dreams) and the Cubs considered becoming the second. When they decided to build their own place instead, the Yankees signed a five-year lease. For now the Cubs run an academia in San Pedro de Macoris and lease a winter-league stadium from the Dominican government. They house the prospects they sign in a nearby hotel.

A source in the baseball commissioner's office estimates that major-league teams collectively spend about $20 million a year in the Dominican Republic--not much more than the Cubs pay Sammy Sosa for a single season. Fleita won't say what the Cubs spend. The biggest expenses are the signing bonuses, which average about $20,000. Mark Prior, the second overall pick in the 2001 draft, signed for $4 million out of the University of Southern California and was guaranteed a huge four-year salary. Zambrano signed for a $120,000 bonus, and all Cruz got was a $3,500 contract.

In the judgment of Baseball America's executive editor, Jim Callis, the Cubs' scouting effort in Latin America is now at least the equal of that of teams that have been working the region years longer. No wonder the Cubs opposed an international draft--one of the provisions in the newly approved contract between the owners and the players. They've learned how to find and sign players in countries where there's no high school or college ball and names and phone numbers don't necessarily match. The new agreement calls for a global draft starting in June 2004. Fleita promises to play by the rules, but he's skeptical of how they can be applied to Latin America.

Oneri Fleita, 35, grew up in Key West, Florida. He's tall and burly, with a cleft chin, piercing blue eyes, and thinning blond hair. His father was an immigrant from Cuba. As a high school senior in 1984 he was drafted in the 18th round, but he decided to polish his skills in college. After injuring his arm pitching at Miami-Dade Community College, he was recruited by Creighton University in Omaha to play first base. The Creighton coach was Jim Hendry.

Fleita eventually signed with the Orioles, and during his years in that organization often found himself using his limited Spanish skills as an interpreter for managers and coaches and their Latino players. His playing career went nowhere, but he landed work as a manager--in no small part because he could communicate with the many Latinos in the Orioles' farm system.

In 1995 Hendry lured Fleita to the Cubs. Hendry had just been brought to Chicago by Andy MacPhail to become Cubs farm director.

"This franchise's chief problem over the last half century has been a reliance on a patchwork-quilt approach for finding players via trades and free agency," says MacPhail, the Cubs' president. MacPhail, 49, comes from a line of baseball executives. In the 1920s his grandfather, Larry MacPhail, worked for the Saint Louis Cardinals under Branch Rickey, who created the farm system in the 30s. Rickey recommended MacPhail for the general manager's job in Cincinnati, and MacPhail later ran the Dodgers and Yankees. Andy's father, Lee, was director of player development for the Yankee teams that dominated baseball in the 1950s and later president of the American League. Andy grew up thinking of the farm system as a franchise's "primary artery for talent." He won two World Series in Minnesota before becoming the Tribune Company's point man at Wrigley. He says that since 1994, the Cubs have increased spending on their farm system sevenfold, mainly to sign expensive draft picks like Prior and Kerry Wood.

Last opening day, 26 percent of the 849 players on major-league rosters had been born outside the United States. They represented 15 foreign countries and Puerto Rico, with two-thirds of them hailing from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. When MacPhail took over, the Cubs were so far behind the pack that he decided not to follow the teams that had begun scouring places as far afield as Australia and states of the old Soviet Union. Taking "the low-beam approach," he focused on the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and the Pacific Rim. (Leon Lee, who played in the Japanese League, scouts Korea and Japan. His finds include rookie first baseman Hee Seop Choi and two top-rated minor leaguers, pitcher Jae Kuk Ryu and catcher Yoon-min Kweon.)

Fleita would meet with anybody who could help him find his way in Latin America. He learned a little more about what he was getting into over dinner in 1997 with Hendry and Wilder in the Dominican home of Sammy Sosa. Acquired in a trade with the White Sox in 1992, Sosa wasn't yet the household name he became during the '98 home run derby with Mark McGwire. He remembered when he was just another skinny Dominican teenager desperate to escape poverty. Like all the other kids, he'd gone to the organized tryouts and done the whole routine--running a 60-yard dash, throwing the ball, taking a few swings--hoping to make an impression on scouts who'd begun the day with their eye on someone else. Eventually a Texas Rangers bird dog noticed him and he signed with the Rangers for $2,000. Sosa's message to Fleita: look beyond the undernourished bodies and terrible technique and into the kids' hearts before placing your bets on who will succeed.

Jose Serra, whom Fleita had hired a couple of months before that dinner with Sosa, is a native of San Francisco de Macoris in the northern part of the island. In 1988 he moved to San Pedro de Macoris in the southeast to finish high school and work on his brother's chicken farm. San Pedro de Macoris is a port city ringed by sugar plantations renowned for the ballplayers they've produced (Sosa was born on a plantation and grew up in town). The rare Dominican who not only attended high school but even graduated before signing professionally, Serra had good speed and range at second base, but a weak bat kept him out of the majors.

Serra signed six or seven kids in his first eight months, and on July 4, 1997, went to a tryout arranged by part-time scout Jose Estevez. He saw six kids but didn't like any of them, and he was ready to leave when a skinny right-handed pitcher named Juan Cruz showed up. "Jose asked me if I wanted to take a look at him, and I said, 'Sure, that's what I'm here for,'" Serra recalls. He was soon on his way to Cruz's house (his father had a small rice farm) to talk to the teenager's parents about a contract.

"Juan weighed only about 135 pounds, but he threw 84- and 85-mile-an-hour fastballs with a lot of life on his pitches, and he was real quick off the mound," Fleita says. "A couple years later he'd gained 30 pounds and was throwing 95-mile-an-hour fastballs."

Eight days after Serra found Cruz, Fleita was in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, signing Zambrano. By age 14 Zambrano was already pitching and playing right field for an amateur team. He was tall and skinny, with a strong arm. He dropped out of high school to work in a gas station and help his truck driver father support the family, and through his older brother he met Julio Figueroa, a former Olympic baseball player trying to make a name for himself by introducing prospects to major-league scouts. Figueroa taught Zambrano the mechanics of pitching, and when Zambrano turned 16 shopped him to his big-league contacts. "Carlos was something special," Fleita recalls. "With an 86-mile-an-hour fastball, you knew he was going places." Toronto was interested, but the Blue Jays wanted to send Zambrano to an academia; the Cubs offered to send him directly to a rookie league in the States. Besides, he'd already become a Cubs fan from watching their games on TV.

The day the Cubs signed Zambrano, they also signed Figueroa as a pitching coach. Today Zambrano's six-foot-five, weighs 250 pounds, and throws in the mid-90s.

There was nothing inevitable about the rise of these two young pitchers to the majors. "Juan Cruz was in the organization for three years before anyone in the front office even heard his name," says Fleita. "And Zambrano wasn't anything at the beginning. It was two years later before people started saying, 'Wow, we've got this guy Zambrano.'"

Fleita occupies a small second-floor office above the main entrance of Wrigley Field. On the wall over his desk is a big white board listing the 200 players on the organization's nine teams. The names appear under their respective teams on small magnetic tiles. From left to right he's got the major-league club, the Iowa Cubs (Class AAA), the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx (AA), the Daytona Cubs (A), the Boise Hawks (A), the Lansing Lugnuts (A), and the three rookie-league teams in Mesa, Arizona; San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic; and Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. Of the 83 players on opening-day rookie-league rosters this season, 70 were Spanish-speaking foreigners. "Those blue tabs represent a visa," Fleita says, and points to markers next to about a quarter of the players on the Cubs' U.S.-based minor-league teams.

"We've built a base," Fleita says. "We have a good first floor and now we want to keep it going."

The Cubs led the Central Division for much of 2001, but their pitching fell apart. When the front office needed to fill two spots in the injury-plagued staff, Zambrano was brought up from the Iowa Cubs, Cruz from the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx.

On August 20, 2001, Zambrano became the first ballplayer born in the 1980s to appear in a Cubs uniform. He threw three innings of no-run, no-hit baseball but fell apart in the fifth inning. He was soon back in Des Moines.

Cruz had better luck. He pitched six innings his first game, striking out eight and giving up three hits, and despite losing to the Brewers the skinny right-hander with the blue glove was impressive enough to earn a second turn. Five days later in Saint Louis, he struck out six batters in five and two-thirds innings of scoreless pitching. That game gave him his first big-league win, and at the end of the season he was 3 and 1.

Waiting to play a game against Cincinnati the last week of the season, Cruz sat in front of his locker holding a plastic fork and looking over a Styrofoam plate covered with eggs, ham, and toast. "My goal," he said, "was to finish the year in the major leagues." Once it ended he was flying to Santo Domingo, and he and his mother, father, and girlfriend had plans to drive north to Bonao, the town where he grew up. He said that on October 15 he'd celebrate his 21st birthday.

Would he? Latino ballplayers have a reputation for shaving years off their age. Last summer a top New York City team was disqualified from the Little League World Series because its 12-year-old Dominican-born pitching ace turned out to be 14. And that morning Cincinnati announcer Marty Brenneman had been saying Cruz was actually 28 years old. Reds outfielder Ruben Rivera had announced in the clubhouse that he'd batted against Cruz back in 1992.

Cruz heard about this and leaped to his feet. "Where?" he exclaimed. He tossed his plate in the garbage and walked over to pitcher Julian Tavarez, a Dominican-born veteran (who'd be traded to Florida over the winter), and asked in Spanish who Ruben Rivera was.

Es panameno, Tavarez told Cruz. El primo de Mariano Rivera. What would a Panamanian know? Cruz let it drop.

Last winter American embassies began requiring Latino ballplayers to produce their birth certificates before getting a visa to travel to the U.S. The Cubs found out that Cruz's birth certificate showed he was five years younger than Ruben Rivera supposedly had said he was, but two years older than Cruz had told the team. Baseball America reported recently that nearly 300 Latino minor leaguers have turned out to be older than they'd claimed. When he was caught, Cruz shrugged it off. Fibbing about his age, he told me, was "not a bad thing."

Says Fleita, "I was just glad to learn that he's only 23."

Cruz entered the 2002 season in the starting rotation, but there were doubts that he had the weight to pitch more than six innings. Kerry Wood said endurance would come with experience. "Cruz has a little bit of Pedro in him," Wood told me, referring to Red Sox pitching star Pedro Martinez. "He's got that same style and kind of looks like him. His stuff isn't quite there yet like Pedro. But he's got good stuff. And he's young enough that if he stays healthy you're going to see a lot of Cruz for a long time--hopefully in a Cubs uniform."

Getting little support from Cubs hitters, Cruz lost his first seven decisions. He avoided becoming the first Cubs pitcher ever to start a season at 0 and 8 when the Cubs came from behind on a three-run Sosa homer to beat the Pirates 4-3. Cruz was visibly relieved a few days later. "I tried to be very perfect and the result was that I walked too many batters," he said. "All the boys--Sammy, Oneri, the manager, the pitching coach--encouraged me, saying someday this slump has to end."

Cruz speaks Spanglish--Spanish mixed with English words like "slump," "manager," and "pitching coach." Some thoughts were expressed entirely in English, such as "Oh no, here we go again." That's how he said he'd felt just before Sosa's home run made him "super-bien."

Cruz was sent to the bull pen, and three months went by before he posted his second win of the season. At least he was in the major leagues. After getting blown out in his debut a year ago, Zambrano bounced back and forth between Chicago and Iowa, every time down becoming more resolved to succeed.

"Major-league batters are much more experienced than those I faced in the minor leagues," he said, recalling his first start. "Batters get acquainted with a pitcher they've never faced before. They talk among themselves in the dugout about what the pitcher is throwing. You have to learn to put the ball over the corners. It doesn't matter if you can throw 100 miles an hour because the batter can swing at that speed too. The harder you pitch the ball the harder it's going to be hit."

Zambrano went 3 and 0 with a 2.83 earned run average playing winter ball in Venezuela, and after an uneven spring began this season in Des Moines. Kyle Farnsworth broke his foot and the Cubs brought Zambrano back to Chicago. When he phoned his parents he found out about the rioting in Caracas, the capital. Protesters were being shot dead in the streets and President Hugo Chavez was falling from power.

The day Zambrano entered his first Cubs game this season, throwing a scoreless inning in relief, an interim government claimed power in Venezuela. Four decades of democratic rule ended as American newspapers fretted about the reliability of one of our key sources of oil.

The coup lasted just 24 hours and Chavez regained control. Zambrano monitored the news via the Internet and called home every day for more than a week. "I worried a little about my country, but was calm because I knew that my family was OK," Zambrano said later, after Venezuela had disappeared from the headlines.

He was sent back to Iowa to nurse an injured arm, and when recalled struggled in relief, unable to get his curveball over the plate. But after the All-Star break he became a starter again and began to draw notice. As Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey observed in August: "Until a few months ago, the only thing most people knew about Zambrano was that you smoothed the ice with him between periods of a hockey game." He finished the year 4 and 8, losing his last start 1-0 to the Reds.

In late June, a spot on the roster that opened when Jason Bere was hit on the leg by a ground ball was filled by 22-year-old Francis Beltran, the Dominican-born reliever who'd been the first Latin prospect Fleita and Serra signed (he turned out to be six months older than the Cubs thought). Beltran stayed around only a few days and made one brief appearance. But the visit to Chicago was an eye-opener.

Putting on a major-league uniform three lockers away from Sammy Sosa, Beltran wore a joyful smile that looked like it had been frozen in place since he boarded the 6 AM flight from Memphis. He changed expressions only once, frowning almost in shame when asked about his signing bonus. After his tryout six years earlier--he was a high school freshman then, and had been playing baseball only a year--Fleita and Serra took him to dinner and offered him $2,000. Beltran brought the Cubs officials to his home, and his father, a gardener, drove the Cubs' offer up to $6,500. It seemed like a fortune then. But now he stood among millionaires. The smile returned. Cab fare to Wrigley was $26, and he'd given the cabbie a $15 tip. "I was so excited," he said. "If you were me, you'd have done the same thing."

The Cubs' pathetic 2002 season wasn't entirely unexpected--they had a lot of holes in their lineup. But thanks to their minor league operation, Baseball America is calling them a team of the future. If next year's Cubs start Hee Seop Choi at first, Bobby Hill at second, and Corey Patterson in center, they'll have three products of their farm system in the everyday lineup. Wood, Prior, Zambrano, and Cruz would all be homegrown pitchers.

Down in the minors, Mesa, Boise, Lansing, and West Tennessee had good years. All the top prospects finished strong, Fleita says. As for Cruz and Zambrano, he's pleased. "The sooner you can get up there in the big leagues and get through that transition period the better off you are. Other teams don't see an easy spot in our pitching staff. And we've got other guys who could be there soon." Indeed, the Cubs were second only to Atlanta with 17 players on Baseball America's end-of-the-season list of the game's 320 top prospects.

Fleita explains that Atlanta built its winning teams around a core of players brought up through their system. The Yankees spend a lot of money cultivating young players acquired in the amateur draft and the international free market. For every prospect who climbs up through the organization, several are traded away for established players. Those high-priced stars the Yankees sign as free agents are just the icing on the cake.

"Why we have failed until recently to develop a good minor-league system is a good question," says executive vice president Mark McGuire. "Perhaps the problem in the past was one of implementation--not having the right people evaluating players."

Or perhaps the problem was ownership that regarded profitability as victory. Given what's happening down on the farm, the Cubs management now seems serious about developing a winning program, but McGuire understands the fans' skepticism. "Everyone who comes to work in this organization has to strap on the baggage of this franchise's history," he concedes. "Everyone has to answer for a century of futility."

"I refuse to listen to all of that," says Fleita. "At some point you have to run out of bad luck."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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