IN THE SPOTLIGHT
While the Triple-A All-Star Game has always been a showcase for some of the game’s top prospects, tonight’s contest at Durham Bulls Athletic Park will also show how much the sport has grown internationally.
The first pitch, scheduled for 7:07 p.m., will feature a Brazilian who wanted to be a professional soccer player facing an Australian who was a member of the Australian rules football youth national team.
“The diversity in this game has come a long way in the past decade,” said International League starting pitcher Liam Hendriks, a native of Perth, Australia.
The first batter Hendriks will face is Pacific Coast League outfielder Paulo Orlando, a 28-year-old from Sao Paulo who will become the first Brazilian to appear in the Triple-A All-Star Game.
“When I was young I love sports, so I talk about playing professional soccer,” Orlando said. “But baseball came in my life and it changed everything.”
He was introduced to the game at the age of 12 by a Japanese doctor who worked in a hospital with Orlando’s mother. When the doctor first showed him how to swing, Orlando assumed he would be playing tennis.
Orlando started playing baseball on the weekends, though he participated in track and field between the ages of 15 and 17 because there was no baseball team for his age group. Still, Orlando showed enough potential to sign with the White Sox as a non-drafted free agent in 2005 — at which point he finally saw a Major League game after spending his teenage years watching videos of games in Japan.
The speedy outfielder has been progressing steadily through the minors and has spent the past two seasons exclusively at Triple-A Omaha. He is attempting to become the third Brazilian in the Majors — Indians catcher Yan Gomes debuted in 2012, followed last season by White Sox pitcher Andre Rienzo.
This year Orlando is second in the PCL with 25 steals (in 33 attempts) while hitting .314.
“He’s an exciting player to watch,” PCL manager Bob Mariano said. “That’s why I was going to lead him off and maybe get an early lead.”
Like Orlando, Hendriks also started playing baseball around the age of 12. His father was a successful Australian rules football player, but after undergoing knee surgery Hendriks decided to devote himself to baseball.
“If I didn’t do well over here for a couple of years I would have gone back and played football,” Hendriks said.
He was signed by the Twins as a non-drafted free agent in 2007 and has been in Triple-A since 2011. The 25-year-old is 7-1 with a 2.19 ERA this season with Buffalo and has made three starts in the Majors, going 1-0 with a 6.08 ERA for the Blue Jays.
When Hendriks takes the mound, he will be surrounded by Puerto Rican infielders Ruben Gotay and Ivan De Jesus and Venezuelan infielders Jesus Aguilar and Jose Pirela. Cuban Felix Perez will play in the outfield, Dominican Wilson Betemit will be the starting designated hitter and Colombian Jhonatan Solano will spend half the game behind the plate.
While the Caribbean and Latin America have always been hot spots for baseball talent, the presence of Hendriks and Orlando shows how much the game is expanding. Hendriks’ parents were in attendance in March when the Diamondbacks and Dodgers started the 2014 MLB season in Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
“It’s becoming the world game, and MLB has done a fantastic job of bringing it into other countries,” Hendriks said. “The more of that they do, the more widespread it’s going to get.”