Mexico's government lends a hand in developing baseball stars

MEXICO CITY -- This past Opening Day, players born outside of the United States accounted for nearly a third -- 259 to be exact -- of all roster spots in Major League Baseball.

However, Mexico, a country associated with a long, proud tradition of distributing big league-caliber players, was responsible for just nine of them. Despite a few other Mexicans toiling in the minors and being brought up to the majors during the ongoing campaign, the number was among the lowest figure the country has had in recent times. The number of Mexicans in MLB is a far cry from the 93 players produced by the Dominican Republic and the 76 hailing from Venezuela.

To that effect, Mexico has decided to bolster its unearthing of talent by helming a government-led initiative via the Academia CONADE project.

The nationwide campaign in search of players between the ages of 11 and 16 was born in the hope of developing prospects in a more consistent manner for the domestic Liga Mexicana de Beisbol (summer) and Liga Mexicana del Pacifico (winter) leagues as well as foreign pro circuits, such as MLB.

For this initial stage, CONADE (Comisión Nacional del Deporte or National Sports Commission) is setting up tryouts in 16 of the 32 Mexican states. Last month, camps were successfully held in eight locations: Tijuana, Guadalajara, Leon, Hermosillo, Chihuahua, Cancún, Mérida and Campeche. A camp scheduled for May in Mexico City was delayed to July due to atmospheric conditions.

“Think about all the kids out there who are playing,” said Ismael Valdez, a former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and current baseball analyst for ESPN Deportes. “I grew up watching Fernando [Valenzuela] and wanting to be like him. You think I was the only one? A lot of these kids get lost along the way.”

Valdez, along with other former Mexican players of note, has been present at several of the camps that Academia CONADE de Béisbol has organized across the country. The project also has a decided focus on developing capable coaches for both the youth and adult levels.

While an obvious focus might be on the baseball-mad northern region (responsible for producing Valdez, Valenzuela and current Dodgers phenom Julio Urias), tryout sessions have been set up in places as far flung as Cancun, in the country’s southeastern area.

Former Yankees and Indians outfielder Karim Garcia has been impressed at the sophisticated methods employed by the organizers.

“I’ve played in the United States, Japan, Korea and Mexico,” Garcia said. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this level of technology for children’s tryouts. I wish I had these tools available to me when I started playing.”

Those tools include tech gadgets that CONADE says are also used by the NFL, MLB and top European soccer teams such as Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United.

“These are advantages [these kids] have that people like me didn’t,” Garcia said.

The program has shown to be selective in its early stages. At the tryouts held in Cancun, the entity said it had extended invitations to about 4,000 local youngsters. Toward the end of the event, a grand total of three prospects were pre-selected to move on to the next stage of the academy program, while a small group of others were pre-selected to compete for spots on their state’s official youth team.

CONADE is hoping that the success of their baseball project can spawn achievements in other sports as well.

The organization is planning to hold similar nationwide tryouts for basketball, boxing, mixed martial arts, tennis and volleyball with the aim of filtering talented youths to parallel academies under their control.

Those selected to move on and continue their development within any of the sports under CONADE’s stewardship will also be offered an added bonus: the ability to continue with their studies.

The initiative, not usually afforded to many who involve themselves in professional sports at an early age, is intended to attract parents into allowing their children to exploit their athletic talents without giving up on school.

“You never know when you’ll stop playing sports, sometimes you don’t get to decide when that happens,” Valdez said. “An education, on the other hand, can last a lifetime.”