Committed to Latins, Orioles' foreign exchange rate is disturbing

Ken Rosenthal

October 02, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

In four straight trades, the Orioles have parted with Latin players, and outfielder Luis Mercedes could be the next to go. The pattern is disturbing, but the rationale for each deal was legitimate. We'll hold off any indictments -- for now.

Under strong urging from club president Larry Lucchino, the front office has done a commendable job reforming an organization once barren of Latin players. But if those players continue to be purged as they reach the major leagues, what's the point?

Consider Mercedes. Here's a guy who has finished first or second in four straight minor-league batting races, but it's doubtful the Orioles will protect him in the expansion draft, in which he likely would be a first-round pick.

The fear is Mercedes will lose as many games as he wins with his inattentive play in the outfield. Like fellow Dominican Juan Bell before him, he's unpopular in the clubhouse. And, of course, he was suspended twice at Rochester in 1991.

Latin players require nurturing, Dominicans especially. The Orioles understand this at the minor-league level, and hire special instructors and English teachers to help bridge the culture gap. Now they must take the same approach in the majors, where the pressure to win is undeniably greater.

Take it from Lucchino, one of several club officials who has visited the Dominican: "If you see the life experience of these players, you recognize they need and deserve special patience. It's such a different cultural and socio-economic experience.

"It's also in the best interests of the club to keep the talent here. There is unquestionably a lot of talent in the Dominican Republic. We've got to keep this place warm and hospitable for Dominican players, and we will.

"If people don't agree with it, they can find another organization that shares their concern. But the people who are going to be here are going to have to sign on for the commitment."

Lucchino isn't fooling around.

It's too late to turn back.

This season, the Orioles carried 25 Latin players in their farm system, three more than the maximum allowed by the U.S. Department of Immigration. They've requested a visa increase for next year, for they met the 1992 quota only by borrowing two from the Florida Marlins and one from the Cincinnati Reds.

The major-league club, on the other hand, included only two Latin players before rosters expanded Sept. 1. One was third baseman Leo Gomez, a Puerto Rican. The other was first baseman David Segui, whose father is Cuban. (Chito Martinez was born in Belize, but grew up in New Orleans and does not speak Spanish.)

The low number of Latins is understandable, considering the Orioles started virtually from scratch after Roland Hemond replaced Hank Peters as general manager in November 1987. But eventually many of those players in the low minors will reach Baltimore, and the club had better start preparing.

Gomez had a smooth transition, for Puerto Rico is practically the 51st state, and Segui's was even easier, for he grew up in Kansas. The Dominicans often find it harder to fit in. The Toronto Blue Jays grew so frustrated with their chemistry two years ago, they purged George Bell, Tony Fernandez and Junior Felix.

AThe Orioles prefer tranquility. They aren't charting a deliberate course, but in the last seven months, they've traded three Dominicans -- Juan Bell, Jose Mesa and Francisco de la Rosa -- plus Ricky Gutierrez, a Spanish-speaking native of Miami.

If Mercedes is next, what kind of message will that send Manny Alexander, the ebullient Dominican shortstop expected to replace Cal Ripken in 1994?

It's a valid question, but the Mesa deal is the only one worth disputing.

The New York Yankees selected de la Rosa from a group of prospects, and the Orioles got a better pitcher (Alan Mills) in return. The erratic Bell was going nowhere behind the Ripken brothers, and is now batting .204 in Philadelphia. Gutierrez also was a shortstop, caught between Ripken and Alexander.

The Orioles obtained Steve Scarsone for Bell, Craig Lefferts for Gutierrez (and pitcher Erik Schullstrom). With Mesa, they were stuck. Rather than lose him on waivers, they struck the best deal possible, acquiring Double-A outfielder Kyle Washington from Cleveland.

Mesa is 4-4 with a 4.06 ERA since the trade, and Cleveland is 9-5 in his starts, with his next one coming against the Orioles tomorrow night. Everyone in baseball knows he has a great arm, so the Indians figure to protect him in the expansion draft.

Of course, that doesn't mean he'll be a success. Two Orioles pitching coaches -- one black, one white -- couldn't solve the Mesa puzzle. He worked hard, he welcomed instruction, he wanted to improve. But for whatever reason, he didn't win.

In the end, he might turn out like John Habyan, a pitcher who just needed a change. Certainly, the Orioles didn't trade him because he was Dominican. In fact, they gave him every chance, supporting him through two elbow operations and then 33 maddening starts over the past two seasons.

Fair enough. But when it comes to helping Latin players, there's always more work to be done.

The Texas Rangers are loaded with Puerto Rican talent. Two years ago, they promoted a Puerto Rican coach (Orlando Gomez) from the minors. This year, they hired Mr. Baseball in Puerto Rico (Luis Mayoral) as assistant public relations director.

Ultimately, the Orioles must head in the same direction. Elrod Hendricks is their only coach who speaks Spanish, and he's from St. Thomas, not the Dominican. Carlos Bernhardt, the Dominican scout, is with the club in spring training, but he's gone once the season begins.

Again, consider the fiery Mercedes. According to his best friend Segui, he was a quiet, religious type until he got beat up in an elevator by four white teammates at Frederick in '89. For that reason alone, he should remain on the Orioles' conscience.

It's not only their obligation.

It's for their own good.

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