THE PITCHER IS FROM MEXICO — Watching an Orioles game these days is like catching a scene from the Festival of Nations.
The pitcher is from Mexico -- or maybe it's Venezuela, Australia or Aruba -- and he leans in for the sign from the American catcher. The ball gets hit toward the outfield, where the budding young talent from Puerto Rico waves off his American teammate to make the catch.
They celebrate the out by throwing the ball around the horn, with the two veterans from the Dominican Republic on the left side of the infield touching the ball last.
On Opening Day, the Orioles had 12 foreign-born players on their 25-man roster and major league disabled list, second only to the Montreal Expos, who had 14.
Once seen as an organization that lagged behind in finding international talent, the Orioles have become a model for Major League Baseball's rapidly growing diversity.
"I would say the Orioles are part of that group of teams that may be coming to this a little bit later than others, but they're certainly coming on strong," said Tim Wendel, author of the recent book called The New Face of Baseball: The 100-year Triumph of Latinos in America's Favorite Sport.
Six years ago, the Orioles opened the season with four foreign-born players on their roster, but the increase is a bit deceptive. Of the 13 foreign-born players on their current 25-man roster and DL, just one started in their system: center fielder Luis Matos, who was drafted out of Puerto Rico in 1996.
The rest -- a group that includes their two most recent All-Stars, Tony Batista and Melvin Mora, and last year's Rookie of the Year runner-up, Rodrigo Lopez -- came to the Orioles through trades, waivers or free agency.
Orioles vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan hopes to change that.
"Close to 30 percent of all major league players are from Latin America, including some of the cream of the crop," Flanagan said. "So we need to get more involved out there."
Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' director of Latin American scouting, watched the organization's youngest Dominican hopefuls take batting practice Friday morning in San Pedro de Marcoris, thinking about the progress made and the progress yet to come.
Bernhardt has spent the past 18 years working for the Orioles, mining for talent in the fertile Dominican soil with far fewer resources than his counterparts from opposing teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays.
In that time, the only big-name Dominican player to come through the Orioles' system was Armando Benitez. When Peter Angelos bought the team in 1993, the Orioles increased their commitment to finding Latin American talent.
"The Angelos family so far has been outstanding," Bernhardt said. "Now, with Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie, this is the first time I feel 100 percent it's going to get better."
The Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Blue Jays are just some of the teams with Dominican academies, complete with multi-field facilities, batting cages and housing for the players. Up until last year, the Orioles had a ramshackle field about 20 miles outside of San Pedro de Marcoris, with no electricity and no water for toilets or the infield grass.
This year, after former Orioles vice president Syd Thrift laid the groundwork, the Orioles moved to a field inside San Pedro de Marcoris, which is the hometown of Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa.
"This field is considerably better," said Orioles roving hitting coordinator David Stockstill, who watched the Orioles' Dominican Summer League team this past week. "When we look at our facility compared to the others, we still have a long way to go."
Within their current structure, the Orioles have their Dominican players (ages 17-20) in camp for three months in the summer and three months in the winter, with a two-month gap in between.
When those players are in camp, the Orioles provide them with food and lodging. It's not uncommon for a player to leave at the end of the summer session weighing 180 pounds and come back for the winter session weighing 160. The English they learn in the daily one-hour tutor sessions is quickly forgotten.
"From the bottom of my heart," Bernhardt said, "the most important thing in the Dominican Republic is to have a complex with more than one field where you can work, year-round."
The Orioles have actually purchased land for a potential academy right next to where the Anaheim Angels built theirs. But so far, the Orioles have yet to build on it.
For now, Flanagan said, the front office is still researching its options, figuring out how best to spend its international scouting budget.
The Orioles also have a team playing in Venezuela, where there has been heavy political unrest. They're exploring the relatively untapped markets of Aruba, Curacao and Panama. Like speculators searching for oil, before they invest millions, they want to ensure they're spending it in the right place.