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CLEARWATER, Fla .– Baseball is Venezuela’s national sport. The country sent 428 players to the major leagues – a number surpassed only by the United States (over 17,000) and the Dominican Republic (794), according to the Baseball-Reference website.

Some of the biggest stars in the sport in recent decades hail from the South American country: Miguel Cabrera, Félix Hernández, Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, José Altuve. New Venezuela star Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Atlanta Braves may just be Mike Trout and Mookie Betts as the best baseball player.

Given this rich tradition, many in the sport were astonished that a Venezuelan did not reach the top echelons of the front office of a major league club until December, when the Phillies promoted Jorge Velandia, a former player who had progressed in the organization. , to the Deputy Director General.

“When we were first getting ready to make an announcement and talking about it and somehow it turned out that this would be Venezuela’s first deputy general manager, I was like, ‘Really ? I had no idea, ”said Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations for the Phillies, who has led teams for more than two decades. Dombrowski’s squads included Venezuelan stars like Magglio Ordóñez, Carlos Guillén, Víctor Martínez and Cabrera, but never one of their compatriots as well placed as Velandia, 46.

“I was surprised,” Dombrowski continued, “because the number of quality baseball players from across the country on and off the field is immense.

Velandia checks a lot of boxes for the demands of modern baseball. His resume includes playing, training, scouting and management experience. He is fluent in English with his native Spanish. And he’s made a concerted effort in recent years to become more adept at the analytics and technology that now drives decisions throughout the game.

“He’s been there and he’s been doing it, which is a little different from today’s GM,” said Benny Looper, a former Phillies assistant general manager who helped Velandia make the transition to the training and screening. “I don’t think you have to do this, but I think it helps to have walked in these shoes.”

Credit…via Norfolk Tides

Born and raised in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Velandia played professional baseball for 18 years, including eight-season games for six teams in the major leagues, in large part due to the strength of the field as a player. infield and a baseball IQ that outweighed his weaker and smaller hitting. stature.

Velandia never expected to play this long. His parents came from humble beginnings and became lawyers, moving the family into the upper middle class. They expected Velandia to go to college after going to the best private schools, but by then their son had fallen in love with baseball.

They relented, allowing Velandia to travel nine hours by car to Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, to train and play. At 17, he signed with the Detroit Tigers for $ 7,500, a moderate bonus even in 1992, and came to the United States to play, speaking only the bits of English he had learned at the school. But he made a pact with his parents.

“Our plan as a family was to give baseball five years,” Velandia said. “And if in fifth grade I wasn’t good, I would study law or sports medicine.”

He was good enough, however. In 1997, he made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres. Throughout her career, Velandia was also curious about the scouts and managers who sat behind the plate during games and decided the fate of those on the pitch.

During Velandia’s last season as a player, in 2009, he was at the Phillies Class AAA branch in Allentown, Pa., When he was asked to become a player coach. Ruben Amaro Jr., who had been Velandia’s teammate in the Venezuelan winter ball and was then the general manager of the Phillies, had told Looper that Velandia was someone they should consider for positions after the game. So Looper started giving Velandia blank scout reports and asked her to fill them out on opposing players.

“He’s got a really good talent for seeing the game and seeing little things that a lot of us overlook, a lot of fans overlook and even scouts overlook,” Looper said. “And it was instantly recognizable.”

The Phillies have blazed a trail for him. They sent him to recognition schools. They asked him to train strikes for a Class A team. They promoted him in the agricultural system and in the front office, where he spotted internationally and nationally, amateurs and professionals.

“Every time I went to the minor leagues during spring training and attended some meetings I would listen to him talk about the players and break them down, I was pretty impressed with the way he saw the game, saw the players. abilities and his own ability to assess, ”said Amaro, who is of Cuban and Mexican descent.

Amaro, whose father became a mentor to Velandia after signing him to the Tigers, even asked Velandia to become an interim major league coach in 2015. Away from the Phillies, Velandia helped build the lineup of the Tigers. Venezuela for the 2013 World Baseball Classic and was the general manager of the Tiburones de la Guaira of the Venezuelan Winter League for five years.

After the Phillies replaced Amaro with Matt Klentak in 2015, Velandia was promoted to special assistant to the general manager, a position he held for four years. He asked Klentak and his boss, team president Andy MacPhail, who bolstered the Phillies’ meager analysis department, if he could find out more about that aspect of the game.

From time to time, other teams have interviewed Velandia for coaching jobs in the major leagues or top scouting positions. The Phillies interviewed him for their managerial role ahead of the 2018 season, but that post ultimately went to Gabe Kapler. They did the same last winter, this time for their position as general manager. That job was ultimately given to Sam Fuld, a former player who had become the director of integrative baseball performance for the Phillies, as Dombrowski decided that Fuld had more front office experience.

Still, Dombrowski came away so impressed with Velandia that he promoted her to deputy general manager. Dombrowski said Velandia would be a jack of all trades, including learning the administrative side of running a team.

“We wanted to meet him regularly and use his knowledge because I think he has a lot of ability and he is a future general manager,” said Dombrowski.

This is an expectation that Velandia shares. “It’s not just being one,” he said, “but doing a good job.”

He’s not sure why no other Venezuelan has reached these big-league heights before. Although he did not want to be a Venezuelan pioneer, he said it would be an honor to represent his country on top of a squad.

In MLB, there are a lot of Latinos on the court – nearly 30 percent, and more in the minor leagues – but a lack of them running, a situation Amaro called “really excruciating.” “. Omar Minaya, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Queens, was the first Latino GM in MLB history, in 2002 with the Montreal Expos. Al Avila of the Detroit Tigers, of Cuban origin, is the only current one.

Velandia said he never felt like he was ignored because he was Latino or because “I speak with an accent”. He added: “I feel the sky is the limit and if I do my job right the doors will open.”

But, said Velandia, there are a few things that might help overall: having the key decision makers – as former Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein said last summer – recognize and address uneven representation; increased university training opportunities for Latin American players, who often give up school to sign with teams from the age of 16; efforts to encourage more Latinos to aspire to jobs as senior team executives once they retire; and more analytics training in every organization, which he said the Phillies had made a priority.

Many of the early adopters of analytics in baseball were non-players who ended up occupying the front offices. The majority of baseball operations chiefs in MLB are now white males who attended elite colleges and did not play the game professionally. Velandia said he believes the players are catching up and GM’s next wave will be former players, like Chris Young with Texas Rangers and Fuld, who understand the role of analytics and technology, but also have first-hand experience of life in the field.

“In baseball there is room for everyone,” said Velandia.

As he spoke one recent morning, Velandia sat on the balcony of the executive offices at BayCare Ballpark, the Phillies’ spring training facility in Clearwater, Fla. Earlier, Velandia had interrupted an interview to take a phone call from Phillies manager Joe Girardi, calling from the field during a morning batting practice.

Next to Girardi were Larry Bowa and Charlie Manuel, two former Phillies managers, now in their late 60s, who serve as special advisers and gregarious presences during spring training. Before her promotion, Velandia joined them in uniform so they could be on the pitch to help the players. They were called the Three Amigos, and Bowa and Manuel would often tell Velandia not to forget them when he one day becomes general manager. Now they were teasing him again.

“Now that I’m at the top level, they say I’m too cool for school to hang out,” Velandia said with a laugh.

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