Baseball in Ecuador Beisbol

Beisbol Ecuador FlagBy Steve Henson Yahoo Sports - The message was unmistakable to Jaime Jarrin the moment he set foot in Ecuador a month ago: Welcome home. We are honored. Tell us more about the sport you have devoted your life to, the one that isn’t soccer. Fifty years in baseball and you are a contented, prosperous man. Maybe it’s time we gave it a try.

Jaime Jarrin Los Angeles Dodgers Beisbol Ecuador BaseballThe country’s largest newspaper, El Universario, published a full-page story on Jarrin, who grew up in Ecuador and has spent a Hall of Fame career broadcasting Los Angeles Dodgers games on Spanish-language radio and television. Another paper stripped a story across the top of page one. Not in the sports section, the news section.

Jarrin couldn’t believe it. He was flattered and grateful, of course, but this visit was about planting seeds, helping children and checking on the progress of a baseball academy in its incubation stage. Oh, and the $60,500 check Jarrin had in hand, the result of his own fundraising effort, would ensure the project wouldn’t soon wither.

So after a quick round of TV appearances and radio interviews, Jarrin reached his destination, a poverty-stricken speck across the mighty Guayas River from the urban sprawl of the nation’s largest city, Guayaquil. The academy is in the town of Duran, a commuter suburb known mostly for shortages of clean water (the river is filthy), electricity outages and kids roaming the dirt streets while their parents work for pennies on the other side of the river.

“They have nothing, not even shoes. I want to help them as much as possible,” Jarrin said this week during an interview near his home in San Marino, Calif. “The most important thing is that this program keeps the kids from the streets. Their parents are working all day in Guayaquil and they have nothing to do. No parks, no recreation facilities. Baseball is something they can embrace.”

Jarrin, along with his partner, Jose Freire, are providing structured activity to about 100 children ages 7-12 every day after school and all day Saturday and Sunday. Coaches were trained by longtime Major League Baseball scout Ralph Avila, whose friendship with Jarrin dates back to the 1960s Dodgers, to Jim Gilliam and Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Equipment and crisp new uniforms came from the Dodgers, their logo adorning a discreet shoulder patch.

What began as a trash-strewn empty lot two years ago is now a manicured field with dugouts, a backstop and bleachers. Jarrin brought a video camera and television from the U.S. to use as instructional tools. “I didn’t bring an antenna for TV reception,” he said. “It’s for baseball videos only.”

Rounding up cash

It felt strange to Jarrin to ask friends and ballplayers for money. He’d never done it before. Always impeccably dressed, cordial and courteous, Jarrin, 74, is best known for his rich vocabulary and mellifluous voice. It is no exaggeration to say he is the Vin Scully of Spanish-language broadcasting.

But for these kids, the ones in Duran, Jarrin picked up the phone. He approached players in clubhouses and on flights. Businessmen Gilbert DeCardenas and Scott Davis each donated $10,000. Gifts of $5,000 came from Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, Angels owner Arte Moreno and Chicago White Sox executive Dennis Gilbert. Mike Piazza’s(notes) father gave, and so did superagent Scott Boras. Donations of $1,000 each came from Russell Martin(notes), Nomar Garciaparra(notes), Jeff Weaver(notes), Brad Ausmus(notes), Bengie Molina(notes), Trevor Hoffman(notes) and Adrian Gonzalez(notes). Jarrin won’t stop now. A little cash goes a long way in Duran. An equipment shed and a sprinkler system are next on the agenda. Meanwhile, the ballplayers at Escuela de Beisbol El Recreo have improved their skills, to the point where they are playing against the small handful of other teams in the greater Guayaquil region.

Freire grew up in Guayaquil before emigrating to the U.S. He’s been a Spanish-language broadcaster for the Los Angeles Angels and is a retired high school teacher. The city of Duran donated the land for the academy through his efforts, and it wasn’t long before Freire realized that enlisting his longtime friend Jarrin would speed things along.

“Jaime has taken this project to his heart,” Freire said. “It means so much to both of us to bring baseball to Ecuador and help these children. After such a long time in the United States and being so blessed, giving back to our native country is very satisfying.”

The project has caught the attention of Major League Baseball, which has an aggressive grassroots development program in about 60 countries, from Iraq and Ireland to Malta and Mozambique. Ecuador, despite its proximity to baseball-crazy Venezuela, is not on the list. Yet.

“We sent two coaches there,” said Paul Archey, vice president of MLB International. “It’s a start. It looks like a nice facility.”

Freire and Jarrin are convinced Ecuador could be fertile ground for developing players who could eventually become professionals. No Ecuadorian has played in the big leagues, and pitcher Alfredo Venegas of the Seattle Mariners organization is the only minor leaguer.

“I see Duran as similar to San Pedro de Marcoris in the Dominican Republic maybe 30 years ago,” Freire said. “These kids are good athletes. Out of our first 100, I hope one or two will sign professionally. They already can compete at the highest level in Ecuador.”

Giving back to his homeland

Returning to Ecuador for just a few days was moving for Jarrin. He recalled leaving for the U.S. in 1955 on a cargo boat loaded with 100,000 bunches of bananas, and the awe he felt seeing the Gandy Bridge that connects Tampa to St. Petersburg, Fla.

Only 19, Jarrin already was a well-known news broadcaster in Quito. But he felt greater opportunity awaited in the U.S. and within a few months he’d made it to L.A. and latched on at the only Spanish-language radio station, KWKW. He worked in a fence factory all day, then broadcast boxing matches at the Olympic Auditorium at night. Another fledgling broadcaster who would become famous in the business, Dick Enberg, was also ringside.

When the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A., KWKW became the team’s Spanish-language station. Jarrin spent a year learning the game, then signed on as the play-by-play announcer in 1959. The Dodgers won the World Series that year and Jarrin has been in the team’s employ ever since. He never missed a game from 1962 to 1984, more than 4,000 in a row, and was the 1998 recipient of the Ford Frick award by the Hall of Fame.

“I’ve been treated very well by the Dodgers and I love my job,” Jarrin said. “This is a time in my career when I’m looking around and see where I can help those less fortunate than you. Helping disadvantaged kids in Ecuador learn to love baseball is ideal.

“It’s such a good program. I am in love with this project.”

During Jarrin’s visit in November, Duran city officials said they are considering donating six acres of vacant land to the academy so that a regulation-sized field can be built. The current one is of youth dimensions, and players outgrow it by age 14.

“We want to extend the program up to age 18 or 19,” Jarrin said. “There is land. There is a good chance. We have the 100 percent backing of the local baseball officials.”

And Jarrin will continue to do his part, raising money in the U.S. and making periodic visits to Duran, watching with delight as youngsters in his homeland learn the game that has been his life.

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