Baseball pioneer paved way for 1st academy in Venezuela, had knack for recognizing talent
By Richard Justice
The story goes that Andres Reiner became interested in the 15-year-old Venezuelan while watching him play center field. There was something about the kid's footwork and grace, his arm speed and the ease with which he did everything.
Reiner, who died Wednesday at 80, never really was able to explain what he saw in Johan Santana that first game, and that's a thing a lot of baseball's best scouts have in common.
They don't really know why they know. They just know. Right there at the start, Reiner believed Santana had a chance.
At the time, baseball was in the middle of an ugly work stoppage, and when Reiner asked for $400 to make the 12-hour trip to Santana's tiny hometown, his bosses with the Houston Astros didn't think it was such a hot idea.
Reiner cajoled and pleaded, and in the end, pursued the kid anyway. Years later, former Astros general manager Bob Watson said, "When he felt that strongly, you knew he was onto something."
Reiner got to know the Santana family, and in the end, signed the then-16-year-old for $15,000 in 1995.
Santana would be in the Major Leagues five years later, and he would stay there for a dozen, winning two American League Cy Young Awards and making over $160 million.
To this day, Santana will tell you he owes all the wonderful things that have happened to him to Reiner, who believed in him and remained his friend.
If the Hall of Fame is reserved for those who have made a positive impact on the game -- for the best and the brightest, for the innovative and the courageous -- Reiner will have a plaque in Cooperstown someday soon.
During 50 years with the Astros, Rays and Reds, Reiner changed baseball profoundly. He pursued baseball talent in Venezuela with a passion that bordered on fanatical.
His opening of baseball's first academy in Venezuela changed the sport, and because of Reiner, the Astros had a huge head start there.
Reiner remembered that six of his first 10 signees reached the Major Leagues, including Bobby Abreu and Raul Chavez. Among the others who owed their career to Reiner: Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo, Carlos Hernandez, Wilfredo Rodriguez and Melvin Mora.
Baseball had a rich history in Venezuela before Reiner began to pursue talent, but it was Reiner who convinced plenty of kids they might have a future in the sport. In that way, he's tied to Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Jose Altuve and dozens of others. Reiner was a baseball pioneer, but he was way more than that, too. He was a person who absolutely loved his job and his life. Reiner loved trading war stories about players he'd found and players he'd whiffed on.
People gravitated to Reiner -- not just to pick his brain or look for tips, but because they liked being around him. His energy and enthusiasm were contagious.
Reiner was born in Hungary, and he moved to Venezuela in the 1940s. He played organized baseball despite the fact that a childhood accident cost him his left leg. When Reiner's playing career ended, he would immerse himself in the sport at every level.
Reiner did part-time work as an instructor in the Venezuelan Minor Leagues, and he was then was employed by the Magallanes baseball club when it was one of the most popular teams in the country.
Reiner helped establish an array of youth baseball initiatives in the country. He also convinced dozens of American players to play winter ball in Venezuela, promising them the experience would be something they'd remember forever.
Reiner's larger legacy will be convincing the Astros to finance the construction of an academy in the 1980s. He was convinced it would create an easier path for Venezuelan talent to get to the big leagues.
Other teams followed, and virtually every team has benefitted. The Astros remember that it was Reiner's perseverance that sold them on the original project.
"It came down to believing in him," said former Astros general manager Bill Wood.
Plenty of people in and out of baseball came to believe in Reiner. They also admired him, and they will miss him. However, Reiner's legacy will endure.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.