Latin fans love their baseball

On or below the surface, it's a ridiculous idea, right?

Seriously, how could Major League Baseball even consider placing one of its franchises in a Latin American city?

Before such an idea is quickly dismissed as little more than senseless talk, think about the possibilities. Like it or not, the future of the game -- at least when it comes to its most precious commodity, the players -- is south of the border, not above it.

The numbers simply do not lie.

Baseball has seen the number of Latin-born players rise from 13 percent in 1990 to 28 percent last year. That means 195 of the 750 players on Opening Day rosters last season were born with Spanish as their first language.

The figures will only continue to climb in the coming years. Of all the players on minor league rosters last season, a whopping 40 percent were born in Latin American countries.

"You go to the Dominican Republic and such places and you see seven- and eight-year-olds playing with broom sticks for bats, milk cartons for gloves and wads of tape for baseballs,'' said Sandy Johnson, assistant general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"Down there, it's what it was like here in the States in the '40s, '50s and '60s. They play from morning till they can't see anymore. They play because they love the game. You drive by most any fields in the States now and they're empty. Even in places where the weather is great, there's no one practicing.''

Before we go any further, the reality is that putting a big league club in Latin America will probably never happen, but it's not for a lack of enthusiasm.

The financial disparities between the economies in the United States and Canada and the most likely destinations for a big league franchise -- the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico -- make it improbable to believe such a scenario could ever take place.

When you consider the average monthly salary in the Dominican Republic is around $100 and a decent ticket at a major league game is at least $15, well, just do the math and it's easy to see this possibility will remain a dream.

It's impossible not to consider the reality that a club with a $60 or $70 million payroll cannot let fans into the games for a mere $2 or $3 per game, the average price for a winter league game in those countries.

In addition, where would the local radio and television money come from? The Yankees receive more than $70 million combined. At the other end of the spectrum, the Kansas City Royals take in around $14 million a year.

No local outlets in these countries could even come close ponying up amounts anywhere near the bottom end of the scale. Also, take Mexico City, whose metro area tops 20 million residents. Until recently, Mexico's capital city was
home to two Mexican League franchises, the Tigers and Diablos Rojos. The Tigers were forced to move to Puebla, while the Diablos Rojos average only around 2,000 fans per home game during the regular season.

It's a shame that the economic imbalance would play the deciding role in bringing a major league club to Latin America, because the truth is that such a move would be a tremendous success, instantly becoming the envy of most big league clubs.

"If it were somehow possible to take away the money differences, a club in Latin America would be the best thing to happen to baseball in some time,'' Johnson said. "Baseball is everything to so many people down there.''

It's also everything to so many fans up here. Some of the greatest names in the game today were born in Latin America. Start with Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez and look toward some of the youngest stars in the game, like 24-year-old Albert Pujols and the even younger Miguel Cabrera, who emerged with the World Series champion Florida Marlins after being called up midway through last season.

But don't stop there. The list also includes modern superstars like Magglio Ordonez, Moises Alou, Mariano Rivera, Carlos Delgado, Bernie Williams, Carlos Beltran, Manny Ramirez among others. It also includes former MVPs Pudge Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada.

"Check out where all the young stars are coming from,'' said former All-Star and two-time World Series champion Dave Stewart. "They're coming from the Latin countries. I don't see that trend changing any time in the near future.''

Imagine a big league club playing its home games in Santo Domingo, where local legends like Pujols, Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero might patrol the outfield together. Imagine Martinez taking the mound and close your eyes for a moment and think about the scene in the stands.

It would entail trumpet players blaring their sweet tunes into the Dominican night sky with throngs of fans dancing alongside. Fans rarely sit at games where national pride is on the line. It was evident earlier this month during the
Caribbean Series and at all winter league games played in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

It's a non-stop party at these games. Think of the bleachers at Yankee Stadium and then season it with passion, the kind of emotion seen on college campuses and sprinkle unconditional love throughout an entire stadium. That's baseball in Latin America.

It's really a shame it probably won't happen because of money complications. If it were somehow possible to eliminate the economics from the picture, placing a major league club in Latin America would be an overwhelming success.

It's an overused cliché to call baseball a religion in these baseball strongholds in Latin America. The truth is that these fans treat the game as an honor, the same way fans in the United States once did.

If only for the sake of allowing us all to remember the way baseball once stood out as America's Pastime, bringing the game to those whose love affair never wavers would be a welcome treat for anyone who calls themselves a baseball fan.

Pedro Gomez, who is a bureau reporter for ESPN, covered the Oakland A's from 1990-97 for both the San Jose Mercury News and the Sacramento Bee and was the national baseball writer for the Arizona Republic from 1997-2003.