Thursday, February 18, 2010

The struggle for baseball in a soccer world

Special Report by: Steve Gartner
Edited by: Steve Gartner

Jorge Marcelo Ramia from Buenos Aires, Argentina will never forget the first time he felt a ball hit the pocket of the leather glove he wore on his hand. Ramia might call it love at first catch. From the moment he caught that ball, he knew baseball was a sport he wanted others to love as much as he did.

So he decided then he would do everything in his power to spread the joys of baseball across his homeland.

But spreading this decidedly American sport across soccer-crazed Argentina would be no easy task. In a country that has only let soccer win its heart, Ramia faces what some Argentines call an impossible challenge.

Don’t tell him that, though.

“Soccer is like the earth of the body,” Ramia said in broken English. “Baseball can be the soul, the sensations and feelings.”

Indeed, soccer is Argentine’s national pastime. Boys start playing the sport as soon as they can walk and upward of thousands of them participate in organized soccer. Baseball can’t boast a fraction of that number (500), a fact not lost on Andres Burgo, a journalist from Buenos Aires who works for the Spanish-language newspaper Critica.

“I am sorry,” Burgos said, “but baseball doesn't matter to 99.99999 percent of Argentineans.”

And Burgo isn’t alone in his assessment. For many Argentines, soccer is the only sport that will ever matter. In its storied history, Argentina is tied with Uruguay with 19 international titles, including two World Cup victories.

Baseball’s not even an afterthought.

“At every paper I’ve worked at, I don’t remember an article about baseball in any daily,” said Claudio Cepeda, sports editor at Diario Popular a Spanish newspaper located in Buenos Aires. “Argentina is not fond of baseball.”

Cepeda said the Super Bowl has drawn interest recently in Argentina because of the “show business factor,” but he has not seen the same interest in the World Series.
Neither has Andres Destilo, sports editor at La Nacion. Destilo goes farther; he said baseball can’t and won’t succeed in Argentina.

“Baseball doesn’t have the history or following that soccer has here,” Destilo said. “There are people who play here but very few. If it were practical, we’d cover it more.”

Maybe not yet, but if Ramia has his way, baseball will be part of the country’s soul soon.

His effort to give baseball a soul began shortly after he first discovered the sport in 2003. From there he did all he could to bring baseball to Argentina. He investigated various Argentine leagues like the International Baseball Federation before opting to cast his lot with Little League Baseball.

“There was better spirit about the sport, more support, better people,” he said.
Ramia traveled to Puerto Rico and met Carlos Pagan, director of Little League International. The two had breakfast, and Pagan made a decision that changed Ramia’s life forever: He was named district administrator of Little League Baseball in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

“It was a great sensation receiving the official envelope from Little League Inc., informing my position at South America,” Ramia said.

After selecting Ramia for the position, Pagan learned quickly how committed Ramia was going to bringing baseball to Argentina.

“He sends me about 12 e-mails a day,” Pagan joked. “He’s very into it there.”
Yet Ramia learned he wouldn’t have the resources of the typical American, Japanese or Canadian Little League team. The lack of a baseball history in Argentina meant a shortage of equipment. Plus, Ramia wasn’t exactly overflowing with knowledge about this foreign sport he’d fallen in love with.

“After practice, we washed the balls to clean them again,” Ramia said. “Of course, it was wrong, but considering our little experience about baseball, we did some things wrong. There were no balls, no bats, no players and no field.”

Even when he received support, problems arose.

Ramia befriended a man from Virginia, and when the man sent Ramia supplies, customs officials in Argentina held up the package for a year because of document problems.
Other national baseball organizations, such as the IBAF, didn’t like the idea of Little League gaining a foothold in Argentina. IBAF looked at Little League as taking funding away from its initiatives.

“Funding? What is that?” Ramia said jokingly. “In Argentina there is no funding. Our volunteers support with their personal time, all about Little League fields and works.”

Pagan said he has tried to get Ramia in contact with donors and sent starter kits, but those only go so far in a country the soccer dominates.

“It’s going to be easier in Brazil,” Pagan said of Little League succeeding. “Brazil has the Japanese who have already laid the groundwork for baseball in that country. In Argentina, (Ramia) will have to work much harder because it’s a soccer nation.”

Getting the word out about baseball has been difficult as well. Ramia has targeted youths who can see their talent grow over the years. He hasn’t, however, been able to grab the attention of sports journalists or the general population.

Ramia isn’t naïve to the naysaying, though. But like any persistent baseball hitter, he steps back into the batter’s box each time he strikes out.

“It’s like ‘Mission Impossible,’ ” Ramia said. “But I am Little Leaguer. They cannot hold me.”

Ramia said people always ask him why Argentina hasn’t competed in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. He cites cost. He estimated that it would take $20,000 for one team to play, not exactly couch change for an already underfunded program.

With all these odds against him, does Ramia think baseball has a chance against the monster that is soccer?

“With a real support, a marketing campaign, with the TV support,” Ramia said, “maybe.”

Absent that TV support and well-funded marketing campaign, he’s continued to push the game one youngster at a time.

For he knows firsthand that all it takes is one catch and you’re hooked.

photos courtesy of Marcelo Ramia and Justice Hill

1 comment:

Lindsay said...

It is true that all Latinamerica is part of the soccer culture and baseball is only reserved for the United States and maybe Canada. When I travelled to Argentina, I realized how much people loved football because every Sunday (day of the most important games of the week) the bar that was near my apartment for rent in buenos aires was full of fans watching tv and drinking beer screaming to the players. That is what I call passion!