O's foreign legion grows to be force

O's imported dozen lead majors in number, offer world of hope for future

April 12, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Orioles reliever Jorge Julio hails from Venezuela, and his English skills are developed to the point where he can understand most of what he hears. Julio can speak the language pretty well, too, but he still needs all the practice he can get.

These days, it isn't easy.

Out in the bullpen, Julio can speak Spanish with Mexican native Rodrigo Lopez and Dominican Republic native Willis Roberts. In fact, the entire Orioles clubhouse has become a melting pot, with 10 players on the active roster from outside the United States.

"I need to talk more English, but it's hard," Julio said. "Seventy percent of the time you speak Spanish, and 30 percent of the time you speak English."

Once a team that lagged behind in the development of foreign-born players, the Orioles now have more diversity on their roster than any other team in the majors.

Counting Luis Matos and Luis Rivera, who are on the disabled list, the Orioles have 12 foreign-born players. As of Opening Day, that was the most in baseball, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Montreal Expos tied for second with 11 foreign-born players.

Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president for baseball operations, said this didn't happen by accident. Since coming to the team eight years ago, Thrift has made a concerted effort to find foreign-born talent.

"I think we're all God's children," Thrift said. "Baseball is a world game. It's America's pastime, but it's a world game."

Five years ago, the Orioles opened the season with four foreign-born players on their roster: Armando Benitez, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Johnson.

Last year, that number increased to six: Jose Mercedes, Melvin Mora, Roberts, Sidney Ponson, Calvin Maduro and Fernando Lunar.

This year's list includes: Lopez, Julio, Roberts, Ponson, Maduro, Mora, Lunar, Garcia, Tony Batista and Geronimo Gil.

These numbers are increasing throughout baseball, with 26.1 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters from other countries. That's up from 25.3 percent a year ago.

Of the 10 foreign-born players on the Orioles' roster, only Ponson and Maduro came through their minor-league system. Thrift acquired Julio, Mora, Lunar, Batista and Gil through trade, and he signed Lopez, Roberts and Garcia as minor-league free agents.

"When I came here, they only had eight players from the Dominican Republic in the system, and no more than 10 total from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela," Thrift said. "So right away, I said we have to change that. We made a dramatic push, and Mr. [Peter] Angelos supported it. So now, years later, we have 30 players from the Dominican and 18 from Venezuela playing in our system."

The Orioles have the only two Aruban-born players in the majors, Ponson and Maduro, and they also have three of the 18 Mexican-born players in the majors, with Garcia, Gil and Lopez.

The Dominican Republic boasts 73 players in the major leagues right now, with Roberts and Batista both hailing from there. The Orioles also have three of the 38 Venezuelans in the majors, in Mora, Lunar and Julio.

"Throughout the years, we've had our share of Latin players, but some people didn't take the time to work with them," said longtime bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, a native of the Virgin Islands who sometimes serves as a translator for the Spanish-speaking players. "Like with anything else, we're very impatient.

"EBW [former owner Edward Bennett Williams] started offering English classes in spring training. After that group left, our organization took a step backward, and now, since we've had our present owner [Angelos], we've put it into high gear."

Imported O's

Players on the Orioles' major-league roster from outside the United States (Luis Matos and Luis Rivera are on the disabled list):

Tony Batista..........Dom. Republic

Luis Garcia.............Mexico

Geronimo Gil..........Mexico

Jorge Julio...............Venezuela

Rodrigo Lopez.......Mexico

Fernando Lunar......Venezuela

Calvin Maduro..........Aruba

Melvin Mora..............Venezuela

Sidney Ponson........Aruba

Willis Roberts...........Dom. Republic

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