Your first association when you think of the nation of Brazil is likely not baseball, and understandably so. Brazil’s sport is obviously overwhelmingly soccer, and while the American pastime has spread to numerous Latin countries like Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, Brazil is not counted among them.
In keeping with that, the world’s fifth largest country isn’t producing many professional baseball players; almost none, in fact, making Chihuahuas pitcher Andre Rienzo a rare exception.
The Brazilian born Rienzo began playing baseball when he was just four years old. After his parents divorced, Andre’s mother signed him and his two older brothers up to play baseball while she began playing softball. “She started to play softball to make us like to go,” Rienzo recounted. “Baseball in Brazil is Japanese style,” Rienzo explained, and his mother believed that getting her sons to participate in the culture of Japanese baseball would teach them discipline and help to keep them out of trouble.
“[In Brazil] we played for fun, we liked to play on Saturday and Sunday and practice two times a week…we spent most of the weekends on the field, with just a couple of friends. I enjoyed playing with family and friends. That was the best baseball I played; it’s not about numbers, it’s not about money, it’s about having fun,” Rienzo said.
Despite this modest attitude, Rienzo eventually found success in baseball at the highest level, becoming only the second Brazilian player in history to don a Major League uniform—Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes was the first—and the first-ever Brazilian pitcher to start a big league game, which he did with the Chicago White Sox on July 30, 2013. As luck would have it, the White Sox happened to be playing the Indians that day with Gomes starting behind the dish for Cleveland, marking a historic moment with two opposing halves of an all-Brazilian battery playing against one another in a Major League contest. Rienzo also became the first Brazilian player with a Major League win, a feat he accomplished less than a month later on August 21st against the Kansas City Royals.
However, even with these notable achievements on his résumé, there is something else in Rienzo’s career that he is maybe even more proud of still. “I’m most grateful to put on a Brazil jersey and represent my country,” Rienzo said, in reference to his time spent playing on the Brazilian national team, “I always go if I can help.” Rienzo represented the 2013 Brazil national team piloted by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin that qualified for and played in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, ultimately losing in the first round.
Speaking of some of his teammates from the 2013 WBC, Rienzo said: “I am good friends with Paulo Orlando…he was a world champion with Kansas City.” Orlando actually became the third Brazilian player to make it to the Majors in 2015, and the first to become a World Series champ later that year. “Spring training is a time when we always try to have dinner with the other [Brazilian] guys. We have, I think, 10 minor league guys. We try to get together when we’re in Arizona, we have a couple in Florida, but we try to have dinner. There’s not that many [of us] so we all know each other,” Rienzo added with a laugh.
Before representing the Brazilian national team or making it to the Majors, however, Rienzo had to work his way up the minor league system, beginning with the Dominican Summer League back in 2007 and then the Appalachian Rookie League in 2009, which brought with it the challenge of language barriers. Rienzo proved himself to be a very capable linguist, however, now nearly fluent in three languages.
“Portuguese is my best. I played in the Dominican where I learned Spanish, and when I came here I learned English. Spanish and Portuguese are close; I got [Spanish] easier, I think I got it in two months. What’s hard for me is English. It’s not even close to Portuguese.” For those of you keeping score at home, you can add “trilingual” to Rienzo’s list of accomplishments.
A week ago, on May 30th, Rienzo pitched five scoreless innings en route to picking up his first win in a Chihuahuas uniform. He takes the mound again tonight, boasting a 3.03 ERA, good for second-best on the entire El Paso pitching staff this season.
Andre Rienzo became the second Brazilian ever to make it to The Show, represented his home country’s national team on the world stage, and also happens to speak three languages. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that he could add “pitching for the San Diego Padres” to his ever-growing résumé in the near future, too.
Author: Travis Arnold / El Paso Chihuahuas