SAO PAULO - With Brazil about to make its first appearance in the World Baseball Classic, the sport which is barely known in the land of soccer is starting to attract some rare attention.
Little by little, Brazilians are realizing that baseball is actually played in the country and that there is a national team good enough to compete among some of the most traditional powers in the sport.
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At the WBC, Brazil will have the experience of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin as its manager, but it won't have top player Yan Gomes -- the country's first major leaguer -- after he decided to stay with the Cleveland Indians to try to make its roster this season.
Seattle Mariners prospect Luiz Gohara, who's 16 and already one of the country's top pitchers, also won't play. Brazil will debut in the WBC on Saturday against the defending champion Japanese team -- in Japan -- and as the pace of the team's preparations picks up, so does baseball's exposure in the Brazilian media.
Although coverage remains minor compared to soccer and other sports, some of the country's main television stations have aired rare specials about baseball recently, producing pieces on the Brazilian team and many of its players. There have been some tutorials about the sport's rules and traditions too, and newspapers and some of the nation's top web portals have been reserving some valuable space for the Brazilian squad.
The attention is significant as the vast majority of Brazilians have very little connection to the sport, which is played mostly by members of the nation's Japanese community in the country. There are only about 20,000 baseball players in Brazil, and the local confederation was founded just over two decades ago, in 1990.
"The community of baseball fans in Brazil is still limited but it can develop and it can grow," Larkin told the Terra web site in one of his many interviews to Brazilian media recently. "It doesn't happen overnight. I know that traditionally this is the country of soccer, but Brazil is also strong in other sports, such as volley, so the hope is that we can recruit athletes to play our sport in the future."
Larkin's arrival has been key for the sports' increased exposure in Brazil.
The former Cincinnati Reds shortstop was hired last year after the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation reached a partnership deal with Major League Baseball. He took over just before the team's participation in a qualifying round for the WBC and eventually led the team to its first ever spot in the main tournament.
Larkin had been in Brazil before to instruct young South America players for MLB's "Elite Camp." His connection to the country goes beyond the sport, too, as his daughter, a singer who performs as CymcoLe, last year recorded a single which became one of the themes of a top soap opera in the Latin American nation.
Despite having virtually no international experience, Brazil's won its qualifying group unbeaten and clinched its spot in the WBC with a surprising 1-0 victory over Panama. The win came thanks to an RBI by Gomes, who will be heavily missed by Larkin after his decision to stay with the Indians.
The catcher, who can also play first and third bases, is the first Brazilian-born person to play in a major league game. He made his debut in May last year while playing for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The 25-year-old Gomes said it was a tough to leave the Brazilian team after helping it qualify for the WBC, but felt that his teammates understood his decision.
"I got a hold of a lot of the players on the team and they seemed to be very supportive about it. They really understood what I was going through," he told MLB.com.
The 16-year-old Gohara, a hard-throwing left-hander who signed with the Mariners late last year, also will skip the WBC to try to show his potential to his new team this season.
Brazil's initial WBC roster had 11 players linked to MLB teams, including top prospects such as pitcher Andre Rienzo of the Chicago White Sox, outfielder Paulo Orlando of the Kansas City Royals, infielder Lucas Rojo of the Philadelphia Phillies and pitcher Thyago Vieira of the Mariners.
Many of the other players are with teams in Japan, and the squad also has the experience of 40-year-old Cuban pitcher
Brazil, which is already in Japan getting ready for the tournament, is ranked 20th by the International Baseball Federation. It will also face Cuba and China in Pool A. The first round will feature a round-robin format with the top two teams in each of the four groups advancing.
"Brazil has a promising future with a team which is young and very strong," Jorge Otsuka, president of the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation, told The Associated Press. "Our goal is to continue promoting the sport to help make it more and more popular in the country."