Rays to open first academy in Brazil

Rays to open first academy in Brazil

ST. PETERSBURG -- For years, the Rays have lagged behind other teams in terms of international development and scouting for talent overseas.

On Tuesday, the Rays announced an agreement to become the first Major League baseball team to construct an academy in Brazil. Suddenly, Tampa Bay has jumped ahead of the curve.

Reaffirming their commitment to organization-wide change and scouting expansion, the Rays signed an agreement with the city of Marilia, Brazil, to build the country's first baseball academy, an effort that Tampa Bay's senior vice president of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker said was long overdue.

"This is a pioneer-type effort," Hunsicker said at a news conference Tuesday, which featured Marilia Mayor Mario Bulgarelli and MLB vice president of international operations Lou Melendez. "We are pleased to be paving the way for what we feel is going to be the next new frontier for baseball talent."

In a news conference that was at times celebratory, ambassadorial and even emotional -- Bulgarelli's translator broke down in tears of joy as he recited parts of Bulgarelli's speech -- Tampa Bay welcomed in its newest enterprising venture as a historical opportunity for all of Major League Baseball.

Known almost exclusively as a soccer-centric nation, no Brazilian has made it to the Major Leagues. That didn't prohibit Hunsicker and special assistant for baseball operations Andres Reiner from looking into Brazil as a potential home to an academy. The Rays recently signed their first Brazilian player, 19-year-old Leonardo Reginatto, in February. The hope is that five or 10 years down the road, Brazil will flourish into a hotbed for baseball talent.

"There is absolutely no reason for a country with this amount of young athletes why they wouldn't be good players," Reiner said. "I'm convinced there is tremendous potential there. We need to teach the youngsters to play the game, because they don't know."

The academy will consist of four fields -- two youth-sized, two professional -- batting cages, administration buildings, dormitories, training and locker facilities, all situated on approximately 22 acres of land within a densely populated area in Marilia. Reiner estimated the cost to be about $750,000. Construction is expected to begin in September, with a hopeful opening date of April 4, 2010.

"We hope we are a tree that can have a lot of fruit in the future," Bulgarelli said.

Marilia has a population of 250,000 and is 230 miles northwest of Sao Paulo. It's size, demographics and location were part of the reasons it was chosen as the host of baseball's inaugural Brazilian national academy.

It is that distinction that particularly excites Hunsicker, the former general manager for the Houston Astros who's in his fourth year with Tampa Bay. During that span, the Rays have opened academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, following in line with almost every MLB team. Now they have a spot they can call their own.

"The thinking outside the box, being creative atmosphere that we have here, we gave the go-ahead for Andres to pursue this," Hunsicker said. "And today, finally, the dream is here."

Reiner is in his third season with the Rays' organization, after spending 17 years with the Astros. He founded the first baseball academy in Venezuela in 1997, which has now produced more than 100 professional players.

Reiner has been tapped to continue that success, this time in Brazil. He's confident it can be a valuable resource as well.

"I think we have a tremendous market there," Reiner said. "It's just a question of time and opportunity."

Zach Schonbrun is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.