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Thursday, May 29, 2003 12:22 pm

Lovable losers plan to go all the way

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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Sammy Sosa remembered when he was just another skinny teenager desperate to escape poverty. His message to the Cubs’ director of player development: look beyond the undernourished bodies and terrible technique and into the kids’ hearts befor

In Spanish, "umbilical cord" is cordon umbilico, or--as Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano told reporters--"almost the same thing." The topic came up three weeks ago, after the 21-year-old Venezuelan went head-to-head with St. Louis Cardinals ace Mike Morris, losing 6-3 before a capacity crowd at Wrigley Field. Zambrano had spent the previous two nights at a hospital where his wife gave birth to their second child.

"I cut the . . . " Zambrano began, his voice trailing off as he wondered how to say cordon umbilico in English. The room was packed with reporters. Five TV cameras were pointed at him. Somebody helped Zambrano complete the sentence, and a post-game interview about his one mistake--a pitch that Fernando Vina hit for a grand-slam homer--turned into a Spanish lesson.

Spanish should come in handy at Wrigley, as Cubs management builds a strategy for success around its Latin American scouting operation. Nearly half of the players in its highly regarded minor league system are Spanish-speaking foreigners. The first two Latinos to come up through the system to reach the majors are pitchers Zambrano and Juan Cruz.

"Zambrano is a young guy with brilliant arm strength," Cardinals assistant general manager John Mozeliak says. "Both he and Cruz are developing their skills at the major league level, which is a little risky. But the Cubs have a lot of depth with starting pitchers." Mozeliak thinks the Cardinals' central division rival is becoming a better team, thanks in no small part to their minor league system. "They've decided to become much more aggressive in Latin America."

• • • • • • • •

The key to the Cubs' new focus is Oneri Fleita, the 37-year-old director of player development. Though Fleita grew up in Key West, Florida, his father was from Cuba. As a high school senior in 1984, he was drafted by the Montreal Expos 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, now the Cubs general manager.

Fleita eventually signed with the Orioles, but his career in the field went nowhere. Increasingly he was using his limited Spanish skills to act as an interpreter for coaches and their Latin American players, and soon 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 Cubs president Andy MacPhail to become the team's 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, 50, who comes from a line of baseball executives. In the 1920s his grandfather, Larry MacPhail, worked for the 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 Yankees when that team dominated baseball in the 1950s, and later became 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. Since 1994, he says, the Cubs have increased spending on their farm system sevenfold, mainly to develop expensive draft picks like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.

In 1995, on his first visit to the Cubs' spring training camp in Mesa, Arizona, Fleita noticed something odd. In the Baltimore Orioles organization, he'd become accustomed to a multitude of Spanish-speaking ballplayers. Indeed, the most talented kid on the field often came from Latin America. "I didn't say anything to anybody," Fleita recalls. "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 already had some scouts in Latin America, but they obviously weren't producing. Fleita needed help from someone he knew, someone he could count on. He tracked down Jose Serra--a recently released second baseman whom he'd managed several years earlier--and offered him a job as the Cubs' full-time scout in the Dominican Republic. Serra gladly accepted, becoming 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, and put 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 in 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 signed Francis Beltran, who wound up the 2002 season as a rookie reliever with the Cubs (and this season pitches AAA ball in Des Moines).

Weeks passed before they found a second kid good enough to play even A ball. The way the scouts compete today, the Dominican Republic 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, or 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 had been there 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 to 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."

Fleita learned a little more about what he was getting into over dinner 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 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 started the day with their eye on someone else. Eventually a Texas Rangers bird dog noticed him and Sosa signed with the Rangers for $2,000. His message to Fleita: look beyond the undernourished bodies and terrible technique and into the kids' hearts before placing your bets on who will succeed.

Fortunately for Fleita, Jose Serra knew how to play that game. A native of San Francisco de Macoris in the northern part of the island, Serra moved to San Pedro de Macoris in the southeast in 1988 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 ballplayer 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 gaunt 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. Through his older brother, he met Julio Figueroa, a former Olympic baseball player trying to make a name 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 minor league in the States. 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.' "

• • • • • • • •

Overseas scouting can be traced back to 1911 when a vacationing Cincinnati Reds official liked the looks of a couple players in a Cuban winter-league game.

After Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans found their way north, other Cubans followed the same path. 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. Jose 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 sueños ("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.

The Cardinals, who have never had much success scouting in Latin America, are currently cutting back there. With 85 percent of their budget earmarked for major league salaries, John Mozeliak says St. Louis can't afford a Latin program. As a subsidiary of media conglomerate Tribune Company, Mozeliak says, the Cubs can afford to invest more in research and development.

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.

Today, the Cubs have one of the best minor-league organizations in the game. In spring 2002, 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.

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 baseball's owners and 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.

• • • • • • • •

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. This season, nearly a third of major league players are born outside of the continental U.S. The Dominican Republic leads the way with 79 players. The Cubs international talent search focuses on the Dominican, 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.)

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, San Pedro de Macoris, and Puerto Cabello.

"Those blue tabs represent a visa," Fleita says, pointing 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."

Zambrano and Cruz made their major-league debuts as starting pitchers on successive nights in August 2001. Cruz stuck with the Cubs. Zambrano went back and forth between Chicago and Des Moines, eventually earning a spot as a starter last summer. Both pitchers attracted bids from other teams, but the Cubs have declined, as good young pitchers are too hot a commodity to give away.

"The sooner you can get up there in the big leagues and get through that transition period the better off you are," Fleita says. "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.

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."

GOING TO WRIGLEY?

Believe it or not, you don't have to be a CEO to get tickets to a Cubs game. They can be purchased online at www.cubs.com or over the phone by calling 1-800-THE-CUBS (800-843-2827). There are still two more series against the Cardinals at Wrigley: July 4 through 6 and September 1 through 4.

Ticket prices range from $6 to $45, depending on the game date and seating location. "There are standing-room-only tickets sold on the day of each game," says Cubs spokesperson Samantha Newby, "so no game is ever sold out."

Also from Robert Heuer

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