More Visas Spur Deals From Haiti to India; Korean Teen Scores Big
By JOEL MILLMAN
BOISE, Idaho -- Like many teenagers spending this summer abroad, Hak-Ju Lee is immersing himself in a foreign culture, making friends and tasting exotic food like moose stew. Unlike most teens, however, he's getting paid three-quarters of a million dollars to do it.
Mr. Lee, 18 years old, is a shortstop, and the culture he is experiencing is American minor-league baseball, where major-league teams develop their talent in small towns across the country.
For decades, minor-league rosters seemed the essence of America's heartland. But thanks to growing numbers of foreign players like Mr. Lee, the minors are fast turning into a veritable United Nations.
The Boise Hawks' Imported Talent
Hak-Ju Lee is one of 18 international players on the Boise baseball roster.
The gangly infielder is one of three South Koreans playing this summer for the Boise Hawks, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. The Hawks' opening-day roster boasted 18 of 25 players from abroad -- mostly Venezuela and the Dominican Republic -- making it one of the most "imported" of all minor-league teams.
Recent changes in U.S. immigration law and growing competition in baseball for raw talent have allowed the minor-league farm system to flourish with imported players. It has been a home run for globalization, but bad news for U.S.-born players, who suddenly have much more competition. Across the minor and major leagues, the total number of foreign-born players is growing fast, to almost 3,500 of the 8,532 players under contract this summer, from 2,964 three years ago.
Boise Hawks' hitting instructor, Ricardo Medina, a native of Panama who translates at team meetings in what has become almost a bilingual program, notes that Mr. Lee and his Korean teammates are getting something else from their summer in Idaho. "I think they may be learning more Spanish than English," he jokes.
The three South Koreans on the Hawks' roster matches the total number playing at the major-league level. Today, 19 Koreans play in the minor leagues, compared with just seven five years ago.
This summer's crop of foreign players in the minors includes baseball's first-ever pros from India, two of them on the Pittsburgh Pirates' Gulf Coast league team. That league's rosters include players from Honduras, Haiti, Russia and the Czech Republic.
Eight teams have minor leaguers from Brazil, including Fábio Murakami, an outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies' Williamsport, Pa., minor-league team, the Crosscutters. Mr. Murakami is one of several South Americans of Japanese descent in the minors, a list that includes Claudio Fukunaga and Lucas Nakandakare, both from Argentina and under contract to Tampa Bay.
One Red Sox farm team boasts an even more exotic tandem: the brothers Crew Tipene Moanaroa, called "Boss," and Hohua Moanaroa, called "Moko." Born in New South Wales, Australia, the Moanaroas are believed to be the first members of New Zealand's Maori tribe to play baseball professionally in the U.S. "Boss" is a first baseman. "Moko" plays outfield.
New Zealand's representative in the minors is Scott Campbell. He plays third base for the Blue Jays' Eastern League affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
The surge of young foreign players into the U.S. minor leagues began in 2007, a few months after then-president and former major-league team owner George W. Bush signed the Creating Opportunities for Minor League Professionals, Entertainers and Teams Act, known as the Compete Act. It freed the farm systems of major-league teams from having to compete with all U.S. employers seeking H2B work visas for foreign employees, the supply of which usually was exhausted each year by February. Now, teams can import as many prospects as they want.
"There is no longer a limit on work visas," explains Oneri Fleita, the Florida-born director of minor-league development for the Cubs. "So, yeah, you might see more foreign players getting an opportunity."
The Cubs, who signed Korea's Hak-Ju Lee right out of high school, have become one of the most aggressive signers of foreign players. In 2006, 86 players in the Cubs' major and minor-league system were foreign-born. This year, 142 Cubs are imports.
The changes pose a challenge to American teens hoping to make the big leagues. Instead of signing hundreds of U.S. amateurs out of high school -- the traditional business model for stocking minor-league rosters -- teams are drafting fewer U.S. kids and signing more so-called nondraft free agents, the vast majority of them teenagers from Latin America.
See the statistics of the players mentioned in this story:
This summer, major-league teams spent over $70 million signing nondraft free agents from outside the country. That is up from $54 million last year, and just under $30 million in 2006, the last year before the Compete Act.
Economics plays a huge role. U.S.-born players drafted out of high school rarely sign a contract to turn pro without a cash bonus, most in excess of $100,000. This summer, the Cubs have forked out more than $6 million in signing bonuses to 26 U.S. prospects, an average of nearly a quarter million apiece.
While some foreign players like Mr. Lee got hefty signing bonuses, the majority do not. Latin players in particular can be had for a lot less -- just $10,000 in the case of Venezuelan pitcher Eduardo Figueroa, one of Mr. Lee's teammates. Third baseman George Matheus, another Hawk from Venezuela, received $15,000 for signing.
Lifting visa limits creates an opportunity for players like Eric Gonzalez, a 22-year-old Spaniard in the San Diego Padres' farm system. Mr. Gonzalez was the last player drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2005, when he was a 17-year-old high-schooler in the Canary Islands. But under the work-visa cap then prevailing in baseball, the Braves would have had to release another foreign prospect to sign him, Mr. Gonzalez explains, "or else send me somewhere overseas to play, probably Australia."
So Mr. Gonzalez didn't get a shot, and instead polished his skills at the University of South Alabama. Signed by the Padres after graduating last year, he has already whipped through one level of minor-league competition, winning a promotion from the Fort Wayne TinCaps to the Lake Elsinore Storm in July. But the cash rewards will have to wait. "I signed for $1,000, before taxes," laughs Mr. Gonzales, one of two Spaniards in the minors this year. "Basically, I signed in exchange for a plane ticket and a work visa."
In the past, visa restrictions meant many foreign prospects were sent to play for sister teams in places like the Dominican Republic and Australia, where they tried to get enough visibility to fill a coveted visa spot. Nowadays, teams figure they can train foreign talent personally, and give youngsters a chance to learn English and assimilate with U.S.-born teammates.
On both counts, South Korea's Mr. Lee is an enthusiastic student. "Stolen base! Slider! Fastball! Right down the middle!" the teenager recently shouted with a smile, demonstrating the English terms he's mastered since arriving in Idaho.
Much like in an exchange-student program, local families host foreign ballplayers, getting season tickets in return. Mr. Lee lives in a suburban home festooned with heads of antelope and deer and other hunting trophies. He has learned to play Rock Band with his 17-year-old host-family "brother," a ballplayer who is entering his senior year in high school.
His typical teenage observation about life in America: lack of sleep. "Bus ride after game from Vancouver?" he groans, feigning fatigue. "Thirteen hours! Oh, my God. Tired!"