'Baseball! Beisbol!' debuts in Houston

'Baseball! Beisbol!' debuts in Houston

HOUSTON -- Juan Marichal isn't among those who fear for baseball's future. And after watching the Hall of Famer take a bunch of school children past a panel exhibit commemorating Latino baseball, you quickly find out that Marichal's faith in the game isn't just words.

To Marichal, "Baseball! Beisbol!" represents more than just another part of baseball history.

Marichal was on hand at Minute Maid Park on Friday afternoon to help unveil "Baseball! Beisbol," a national touring museum exhibit that will provide fans with an interactive experience recreating the rich history of Latin American baseball.

"This is a thrill," said Marichal, who won 243 games over a 16-year Major League career with the Giants, Red Sox and Dodgers. "To see all of these pictures really brings back a lot of memories. Back then, there weren't many players from Latin America in the Major Leagues. Now it's like 25 percent. We've all grown with baseball and I think it will continue to grow."

The exhibit contains dozens of photographs and artifacts from years past, such as the photo of the 1955 Santurce (Puerto Rico) Crabs. That year, the Crabs had a pair of outfielders well known to baseball fans around the world: Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays.

"Latino baseball wasn't just Latinos -- a lot of great American players played too," Marichal recalled. "Mays, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson ..."

Each panel highlights a Latin American country with anecdotes, photos and exhibits detailing each nation's history with the game. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia are represented.

The exhibit covers the Winter Leagues, the Carribean Series, Spring Training and various other aspects of the game with ties to Latin America. Each caption is presented in both Spanish and English.

Baseball's link with Latin America was a subject Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum President Dale Petroskey wanted to present.

"We want to explore the growing Latino influence in the game, the way the game is played and loved throughout Latin America," Petroskey said. "Over the next five years, we want to bring the rich history of Latin American baseball to the largest American audience ever."

Frank Gygax, CITGO Chief Operating Officer, wholeheartedly endorsed the five-year commitment between the Hall of Fame and CITGO.

"We hope this display will find a permanent home in Cooperstown," Gygax said.

Houston is the first of 10 Major League cities to host the panel exhibit. "Baseball! Beisbol!" will be on display at Minute Maid Park through April 26 before moving on to Minneapolis.

The Astros used the occasion to unveil several new Hispanic marketing initiatives. During the press conference, the Astros relaunched their redesigned Spanish-language website, Astrosdehouston.com and a new television show, "Contacto con los Astros." These initiatives coincide with the Cronicas en Linea e-newsletter and the monthly Cronicas de los Astros program.

The school children had a chance to surf the website and see the interactive programs as Marichal and two other former Major Leaguers, Jose Cruz and Alex Trevino, looked on.

"[Astros owner] Mr. [Drayton] McLane challenges every day to two areas," said Rosi Hernandez, Astros vice president of market development. "No. 1, to be a champion; No. 2, to make a difference in the community. The Houston Astros have a very lengthy history of attracting a Hispanic fan base to our audience. Today the Astros continue to pursue these two visions."

The growing popularity of the sport in Latin American is undeniable. And it's why Marichal has hope for baseball's future amid growing concerns in this country as more and more youngsters in recent years have forsaken baseball in favor of football, basketball or video games.

Not to worry. Marichal believes Latin America remains an underutilized resource in terms of developing Major League players and that any shortfall from this continent can be met.

"Especially with what the organizations are doing in Latin America," Marichal said. "They're opening up academies, teaching kids not only how to play the game but how to speak English. When I signed, they put you on a plane and you were on you're own. Today they're learning to play the game, and when you play it you grow to love it, and they're getting a great opportunity.

"I think the World Baseball Classic was the greatest thing to ever happen to baseball. It is going to help grow the sport even more in the future."

That growth can only be helped by exhibits like "Baseball! Beisbol!"

And who better to kick off this tour than the Dominican Dandy with the sky-high leg kick?

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.