First of two parts
IN 1988, IF PHILLIES second baseman Juan Samuel wanted to talk to a teammate in Spanish, he had to hope Luis Aguayo wasn't on the phone or out getting some lunch. Then Aguayo was traded to the Yankees at midseason. A couple of days later, the team picked up Jackie Gutierrez. That was it for Latin American representation for the team that season.
Then it got worse.
Samuel, a native of the Dominican Republic, was the only Latin-born player to break camp with the Phillies in 1989.
Then it got worse.
Samuel was traded to the Mets in June. So a team that was among the pioneers in scouting the Dominican Republic and Venezuela finished its schedule without a single player born in that talent-rich part of the planet.
Then, believe it or not, it got even worse.
After the World Series ended, the Inquirer ran a story that noted incredulously that the Phillies had more players on the major league roster born in Europe (two) than Latin America (zero). And that their top-rung minor league affiliates at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Double A Reading had a total of just a single Latin American player. That was Ramon Henderson, who would eventually make it to the big leagues . . . as a coach.
So when Samuel returned this spring to the organization that signed and developed him as the new third-base coach, he immediately noticed how different the Bright House Field clubhouse he walked into was from the one at Veterans Stadium he walked out of all those years ago. And we're not talking about the decor.
"When I came to spring training, I'm like, 'We have our own little neighborhood over here,' " he noted earlier this season. "I was joking with Danys Baez and Carlos Ruiz in spring training. I called that end of the clubhouse the barrio. 'Let me go to the barrio and talk to the guys.' "
Eight of the players in that room ended up on the Opening Day roster, including several the team would lean on heavily in pursuit of its fifth straight National League East title.
* Catcher Carlos Ruiz, from Panama, who has become a favorite of both the fans and the pitching staff he handles.
* Righthander Jose Contreras, from Cuba, who would become the closer and go 5-for-5 in save opportunities in Brad Lidge's absence until being shut down by elbow problems.
* Starting third baseman Placido Polanco, from the Dominican Republic, widely considered the best situational hitter on the team.
* Both lefthanders in the bullpen, J.C. Romero, from Puerto Rico, and Antonio Bastardo, from the Dominican Republic.
* Starting second baseman Wilson Valdez, from the Dominican Republic, who filled in admirably when shortstop Jimmy Rollins was hurt last season and now is being asked to hold the fort while Chase Utley rehabs.
* Righthanded reliever Danys Baez, from Cuba, and backup infielder-outfielder Michael Martinez, from the Dominican Republic, round out the list.
Not only that, even though starting leftfielder Raul Ibanez was born in New York, his parents emigrated from Cuba. Ibanez speaks fluent Spanish.
Baez can't really imagine what it must have been like for Samuel back then.
"Every organization has a signed a lot of players from Venezuela, Panama, Dominican Republic, Cuba, everywhere," he said. "So most of the time there are a lot of guys to talk to and share experiences from when you were a younger age.
"It's very important. Sometimes it's good even when you're supposed to talk in English. When you're learning, it's important to have somebody to talk to. Again, you can tell them about how it was when you were younger and how things were in your country. What it's like. Because every [Latin] country is different. So it's good to have somebody to share that kind of experience with."
Now, it's true that only Ruiz and Bastardo are products of the Phillies' scouting and player-development system. Contreras and Baez were signed as big-league free agents. Valdez was signed to a minor league contract before the 2009 season. Martinez is a Rule 5 draft pick. Polanco originally arrived in a trade from St. Louis and returned last year as a free agent. Romero was signed as a minor league free agent after being released by the Red Sox in 2007. The Phillies did not pick up his option for 2011 but re-signed him in January.
That can be a little misleading, however, since they also had three Latin American players they signed on the 40-man roster in camp: 20-year-old second baseman Cesar Hernandez, 21-year-old shortstop Freddy Galvis and 24-year-old second baseman Harold Garcia, all from Venezuela.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was born in Philadelphia. But his father, who also played for the Phillies, was born in Mexico and was instrumental in helping the Phillies make their first big push into Latin American scouting years ago. The youngers Amaro sees the recent influx as a happy coincidence.
"Just like in any workforce, I'm all about diversity," he said. "But when it comes to guys on the field, I'm kind of colorblind. And I think that's the way it should be. But I think a different mix of cultures and backgrounds, just like any other workforce, is a positive thing.
"You don't necessarily have to have 10 Latinos on the club or five African-Americans. But I think, overall in your workforce, it's good to have diverse cultures, diverse views and opinions. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
On a practical level, he said, it's difficult to win without tapping every possible source of talent.
"Is it possible? Yes. Is it less likely? Probably yes. Because you're trying to look for the best athlete you can possibly get. And it really doesn't depend on color or cultural background, you want to get the best athletes," he said. "And it's pretty obvious that there are excellent athletes who are African-American, excellent athletes who are Latin American. And that's probably one of the reasons they've made up a significant percentage of professional athletes on the field in baseball."
Before the Phillies discovered Samuel, it wasn't easy for Latin kids to make it to the big leagues.
"We didn't have a field to work on and to practice. We used to throw batting practice to each other," he remembered. "Five of us signed by the Phillies from San Pedro de Macoris, we used to throw BP to each other, rent the field for a couple hours after the Houston Astros and the Braves got off the field. We'd pay the field administrator to let us in and take batting practice.
"I think we gave him a couple hundred pesos. Probably about 35 or 40 bucks at the time for a couple of hours. Because he needed to pay a couple of guys to fix the field for us. I used to throw to one guy, he'd throw to me and that's how we got our work in. Now it's different."
Now the Phillies have a brand-new academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, and a clubhouse full of Latin players. And Samuel can only look around and marvel at the difference between then and now.