The images from Sao Paulo and other Brazilian cities shown during last year’s World Cup were dank: Kids playing in dirty ghettos with makeshift goals or chain-link fences as sidelines.
There certainly are areas with grass fields, but many children in Brazil’s larger cities play sports on broken glass and cement rather than blades of grass.
If that’s the case for the national game of soccer, ask yourself how many baseball diamonds you’ll likely find.
Royals outfielder Paulo Orlando knows. A native of Sao Paulo, he only played baseball on the weekends.
“There’s no season there,” Orlando said. “You just play two games one day, because there are no stadiums with lights.
“At the school, I said I play baseball. They said, ‘What? What sport is that?’ Nobody knew baseball.”
That’s because when he was a 12-year-old, Orlando’s friends dreamed of being the next Ronaldo and didn’t know anything about Mike Sweeney.
Thing is, Orlando wanted to be a soccer star as well.
Orlando’s mother is a nurse, and a doctor friend suggested he give baseball a try as a 7-year-old, but he waited five years before stepping into a batter’s box — or whatever facsimile there was in Brazil.
Japanese immigrants play baseball in Brazil, Orlando said, and he found them welcoming when he made it there on the weekends.
Orlando eventually joined a team, but the allure of soccer was too strong. He recalled that as a 13-year-old he tried to break the news to his coach that he was going to play soccer full-time.
“No, you’re too young to play soccer for tryouts,” the coach said.
“But I love soccer,” Orlando protested.
“Just wait until you are 15 or 16 and we’ll bring you to a team for a tryout,” said the coach.
“OK,” Orlando responded. “If you take me over there, I’ll still play baseball.”
That promise was either ignored or forgotten.
By then, Orlando was dabbling in track and field, and he found success in the 200- and 400-meter dash. In baseball, older players were inviting him to join them in tournaments.
At one of these tournaments, he met a coach from Cuba who also was working as a White Sox scout.
In 2005, he signed with Chicago, but still had designs on competing in track and field at the 2007 Pan American Games, which were going to be held in Rio de Janeiro.
“I thought I’m 19 years old, I just signed to play baseball, but if it doesn’t go well, I’ll go back to track and field,” Orlando said before adding with a laugh: “Now I’m too old.”
Once with the White Sox, Orlando played briefly in the Dominican Republic, and it was an eye-opener.
“At that time, I played every day and they really taught me how to play baseball,” Orlando said. “Running, how to catch a flyball and where to throw the ball.”
After 2 1/2 seasons in the White Sox minor-league system, Orlando was traded in 2008 to the Royals.
Orlando’s ability as soccer player and a sprinter appealed to his new employer.
“You look at the way our team is built and our ballpark and our emphasis on being able to cover the outfield, he fits that mold,” said assistant general manager J.J. Picollo. “He fits our prototype. He’s a very good outfielder. He can play center field, he’s got some power. He’s getting better every year.”
Slowly but surely, Orlando has climbed through the minor-league system. In 2013-14, he was part of Class AAA Omaha’s national-championship teams. His slash line of .276/.326/.379 in 2013 jumped to .301/.355/.415 a year ago.
In 2014, Orlando was an All-Star who tied for second in the Pacific Coast League in games played and triples and was fourth in hits and stolen bases. In November, he was added to the Royals’ 40-man roster two days after his 29th birthday.
This spring he was batting .500 and was tied with a team-high seven RBIs heading into Sunday’s game.
“Aside from from what his birth date says, he’s still a very young baseball player,” Picollo said. “He’s our type of player: plays defense first. Not necessarily because we don’t think he’s got hitting ability, he does. He’s shown improvement in putting the ball in play, he’s got occasional power, he can steal a base. If the ball’s in the gap, he’s going to score from first.”
Although Orlando has no illusions of baseball supplanting soccer as the dominant sport in Brazil, he’d be glad if kids at home had an idea of who the Royals are. Growing up, he only knew of the Yankees and didn’t have an idea of how many major-league teams there were.
But the success of Cleveland catcher Yan Gomes and Miami pitcher Andre Rienzo have opened eyes south of the equator.
They are the only Brazilian-born major-leaguers, but Orlando hopes to be the third.
And he helped Brazil qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, beating out Panama, Nicaragua and Colombia in the process. That helped shine a light on his sport, too.
Baseball, it seems, is no longer just for Japanese immigrants and curious kids.
“There are a lot of coaches and players go there and teach how to play baseball,” Orlando said.”It’s much bigger than when I signed.”