I’m looking out my window upon the initial decent announcement from the captain as the feint outline of Santiago, Chile comes into view.
I’m immediately struck by the amazing picture of the orange glow of a new day breaking over the majestic Andes Mountains. Yes, it’s a new day for Chile amidst the shining snowcapped diamonds. Chile is the long gem of South America that reaches more than 3,000 miles from north to south. Its capital is Santiago, home to more than 5 million people and a modern portrait of beautiful architectural steel and glass sky scrapers.
The country is a soccer stronghold and like most of Latin America lives under the shadow of soccer giant Argentina. In addition to its natural terrain, Chile is known for having more earthquakes than anywhere else on the planet with over 1,500 in the past year. The people are resilient and are well prepared for the trembles and accept it as the cost of living at the foot of the Andes. However, there is a new rumbling that most in the southern territories are unfamiliar with, a new sport that my host believes will eventually capture the imagination of the country.
Mario Fernandez is a true baseball enthusiast and has invited me to visit the league he began in 2014 on the outskirts of downtown Santiago. Fernandez is a Cuban migrant who escaped from the tyranny of Castro as a young man and found his way to South America. He also owns a burgeoning software company that is revolutionizing E-commerce not only in Chile but across the Latin America spectrum.
My host was waiting for me as I left the airport terminal and he soon ushered me to my hotel for a quick stop before taking me to his office in the financial district of Santiago.
His office is a reminder of his love of Cuban baseball with photos of his hero, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and signed baseball of various names. Mario is determined to give Chileans a true sports option other than soccer and he has the blueprint to prove it.
There is a historical record of baseball being played under the Chile Lone Star flag that Texans believe was plagiarized from them. North American miners in the 1920’s first introduced the game in the northern part of the country in two cities, Antofagasta and Tocopilla. The tradition continues today with baseball fields and national championship trophies the pride of the two cities with a combined population of over 400,000. Unfortunately, baseball expansion to other areas of Chile has been met with resistance due to the politics of the governing sports system.
The existing system, like most of Latin America, consists of a Ministry of Sport arm within the government that oversees the operations of all sports within the country. The Minister for Sport then delegates the oversight of sport activities to individual Federations of each sport. And it’s the Federation bureaucracy that controls the funds and the rules that govern local sports. The Chile Baseball Federation has a national team it supports and gives limited assistance to those interested in growing the game, but ultimately the Federation is littered with individuals with little knowledge of baseball and appear content with titles and comfortable salaries.
But rumblings of change are growing as more migrants from established baseball countries find their way to Chile and are forcing a new direction for the game.
From this backdrop the Organized League of Baseball Chile (LBOC) under the guidance of Fernandez began its operations two years ago. The LBOC is independent of the vice grip of the Federation because it’s self-funded and only seeks a true cooperation with the governing body to assist in growing the game. In my conversations with Fernandez, he explained that when they began, close to 90% of his league players were from baseball countries including Cuba, Venezuela, Dominican Republic and the United States. His goal was to plant roots in the community by putting together an educational outreach into the schools and an aggressive media campaign using local cable to promote his 3 minute videos of league action.
His social media platform on Facebook started and now has over 100,000 views in the past year alone as “Beisbol Vivo” is garnering more attention daily. Two years later, his plan is working as over 25% of his league now includes native Chileans and his free afternoon training sessions has created youth divisions for U10, U12 and U16.
Just as interesting is the launch of an educational cooperation with a school in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to create a pipeline for academic minded players who want to study abroad.
The bigger vision is to create more LBOC conferences in the northern and southern areas of the country and to have a high level of play that attracts more fans. Eventually, the goal is to take the blue print to neighboring countries and piecing together a united baseball association of South America. My time with Mario proved not only interesting and impressive, but more importantly, I was left with the true belief that baseball diamonds are being mined by a true visionary that is determined to use the game as a conduit to make the country better and to create friendships across borders. Yes, it truly is a new day for Chile, God bless the Mario’s of the world!