By Georgia Grimond, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – A young boy from Irajá in Rio’s Zona Norte (North Zone) has begun a journey that could take him all the way to the heights of the professional baseball leagues in America. Leonardo Monteiro, 13, earned a place at Brazil’s top baseball school, Confederação Brasileira de Beisebol e Softbol/Yakult, in Ibiúna in São Paulo State. He starts training there today, August 3rd.
Monteiro began playing baseball with Baseball Escolar (Baseball School), a Rio-based project that goes into schools, introduces children to the sport and then encourages them to play at the weekends. With 120 kids involved in the project at the moment, its popularity is growing and Monteiro is the first pupil that has been chosen to attend the academy.
At the school Monteiro will be one of 45 pupils aged between thirteen and eighteen years old. He will train for six hours a day to perfect his skills as catcher, as well as doing academic lessons and fitness training. Three or four times a year talent scouts from America visit. The hope is that he will be signed and drafted by one of them and eventually move to play in America.
“My dream is to be a professional player,” Monteiro says. “Baseball is an unusual sport here but it is played a lot in the U.S.” Compared to soccer, baseball remains a niche sport in this country. However, it is gaining fans. ESPN Brasil has started to show games and there are three Brazilians in the America Major League. Players, however, have tended to come from São Paulo where there is a large Japanese population that has brought with it the tradition of playing baseball.
The sport is becoming better known in Rio, thanks mostly to the work of Baseball Escolar. Started in 2012 by Uilson Oliveira, a former softball teacher at the American School, the project is now so successful that schools are lining up to be involved. The kids that attend Baseball Escolar are required to do well and behave in class. As Wylie Levone, an American who is involved with the project says, “There are no downsides to kids playing sport, only upsides, like better grades and better discipline.”
The project has gained a fan in the new Consul General of the U.S., James Story, and benefits from kits donated by the Major League. However it lacks a proper field to play on.
After Saturday morning practices in Zona Norte, many members of the team travel to Lagoa, in Zone Sul (South Zone) to practice on the only, but not even full-sized, field in Rio. “We have high expectations for the future,” says Oliveira. “We have access to some land in Duque de Caixas but we need to raise money to make it suitable for play.” The hope is a corporate sponsor will step in to cover the US$20,000 needed.
Baseball Escolar will also fund Monteiro’s time at the academy. As he leaves for school and moves away from his mother for the first time in his life, he is understandably apprehensive. As Levone says, however, “There is a whole group of people around him who support him. That’s a tremendous thing.”
To find out more about the project, please visit their Facebook page.