On a recent Friday night in Sao Paulo, the Brazilian megalopolis where soccer is king, the 20 or so patrons crowded into a small hamburger joint in the Carandiru neighborhood offered a scene seldom witnessed here: fans intently watching a video feed of what in Brazil is definitely a minor sport, baseball.
For this group, however, there was nothing small about the team they were watching, the Kansas City Royals, or the player who had drawn their interest, Paulo Orlando, the Royals’ Brazilian outfielder who, baseball fans hope, will prove to be the star who finally kicks Brazilians’ interest in America’s pastime into high gear.
On this particular night, the Royals lost to the Detroit Tigers. Orlando, who started his rookie season with an unprecedented three triples for his first three base hits, went zero for four at the plate. Still, these fans are not fickle.
Brazil’s baseball community is a small one, and several of the people gathered at The Captain Hamburguer & Conveniencia played with or against Orlando as teenagers. Some have remained friends, and their support runs deep, wishing not only that he sees the success they feel he deserves, but that he and the Royals help catalyze baseball growth in this soccer-crazy nation.
Dan Silva, the 26-year-old who owns the Captain, played with Orlando in 2000 on Nikkey Santo Amaro, one of several recreational clubs in Sao Paulo, the closest thing Brazil has to a proper baseball league. The Captain is Silva’s first restaurant, and this year he’s made Royals baseball its centerpiece.
In February he bought a subscription to MLB.TV. On the five days of the week that he’s open, he shows customers every out of every Royals game live. Before the first live pitch, he shows the prior day’s game recorded.
He made the decision during spring training. Seeing Orlando play “brought us happiness, whether he made the team or not.”
It is Orlando’s unusual start and taxing journey to the majors that have won over many here.
As a kid, he was unfamiliar with baseball and instead became a standout in track, in the 200- and 400-meter runs. But a Brazilian physician of Japanese ancestry at the medical clinic where his mother worked as a cleaning woman suggested that Orlando try baseball and paid for his equipment. So as an 11-year-old, Orlando joined the Nikkey Santo Amaro, which like other clubs at that time was made up mostly of Brazilians of Japanese ancestry.
Orlando initially was not a star, even by Brazilian standards. “At least four others on Nikkey were better than him,” Silva recalls. But, he added, “None of them play anymore.”
Rafael Ariki, 29, an early teammate, agrees. “I had more triples than he did,” he said.
Orlando had other skills, however. Ariki recalls that whether he played right field or left field, when the ball was hit into the outfield, teammates would yell “Paulo,” and he would be the one who caught the ball. And while his hits rarely reached the outfield, Orlando often reached first base before the fielder’s throw did.
In 2005, he quit track to focus on baseball, his wife, Fabricia Silva, said in an interview last week. He started playing in the Dominican Republic and then Venezuela. His batting improved. He reached the minor leagues in the United States in 2006, shuttling between teams in Kannapolis, N.C., Springdale, Ark., and Omaha, Neb., while also playing winter league baseball in Latin America.
In 2011, he was invited to the Royals spring training, but he got injured and needed surgery.
During his long odyssey, his wife stayed back in Sao Paulo. When she was expecting their now 5-year-old daughter, Orlando was in the United States almost the entire pregnancy, making it back just for the birth. “It has been very difficult,” she said.
Last year, Orlando even contemplated quitting the sport. “He was tired,” Fabricia Silva said. Yet throughout, she remained his strongest supporter. She recommended against taking an offer to play in South Korea and sticking with hopes of playing in the big leagues.
Playing with the Royals this season is a victory for Orlando’s family, said Alexandre Nita, 29, who’s known Orlando for a dozen years. “His wife has been very influential,” he said.
Baseball in Brazil is not new. Mackenzie Presbyterian University, founded in 1896 and based in Sao Paulo, fielded a team here in the early 1900s, according to Brazilian journalist Ubiratan Leal, thanks to its the American Presbyterian missionary George Whitehill Chamberlain and his wife.
But the sport died out, and it wasn’t until Japanese immigration to Brazil took off, spurred by World Wars I and II, that the first organized baseball clubs came. There is a record of a national baseball tournament held in Sao Paulo in 1936.
Brazil’s first taste of Major League Baseball came in 1992, when pitcher José Pett, from Sao Paulo, signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. Though he was a top 100 prospect, according to Baseball America, Triple A was the furthest he got.
Another Bazilian prospect, Jo Matumoto, was signed to a minor league contract in 2007, again by the Blue Jays. He was 36 at the time, but his wife had emailed agent Randy Hendricks, pleading with him to give her husband just one shot, MLB.com reported back then.
It was only in 2012 that a Brazilian played for the first time in the major leagues, when Yan Gomes joined the Blue Jays. Gomes, now the Cleveland Indians’ catcher, went to high school and college in the United States, however, and so is not as well known in Brazil as is Orlando.
Major League Baseball is still looking at Brazil. In February, it sponsored its fifth annual Elite Camp here for top prospects. More than a dozen MLB teams sent scouts, Caleb Santos-Silva, coordinator of international game and development for MLB, told McClatchy in an interview. The Tampa Bay Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks have full-time scouts in Brazil.
While baseball still has to compete in Brazil with sports such as volleyball, judo and more recently surfing, the hopes are high at the Captain that finally baseball will win a place of respect.
Yet there are reminders of how much of an underdog baseball is. The Captain is in a run-down section of the city, inside a gas station. That’s largely because of economics, Silva said. “Renting in Sao Paulo is very expensive,” he said. And having an establishment specialized in baseball is not how one gets rich.
So Silva embraces almost every customer who arrives. He approaches several women seated on bar stools to take their purses, storing them in the back.
They all hope that Orlando gives them more to celebrate this season. But even if he falls short, their support seems likely to endure.
Leal, the journalist and Brazil baseball historian, recounted an episode on opening night this year in Sao Paulo at a party that ESPN held. Orlando had not yet played a game, but Leal said that most people there were saying in Portuguese that “Big Paulo is the man.”
“Everyone knows all the effort Paulo put in,” he said. “We all want him to succeed.”
Sreeharsha is a McClatchy special correspondent.