Brazil is undeniably a soccer country. The image of a yellow-and-green-clad Brazilian weaving and darting down a pitch is as prominent in the country's global image as the Carnival festival or Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer statue.
Home to Pele, Ronaldo and five World Cup championships, Brazil is in many ways the international soccer standard-bearer.
But if Andre Rienzo and the rest of Team Brazil can continue its surprising World Baseball Classic run, beisebol (as it's written in Portuguese) just may steal a bit of attention this spring in the world's most futbol-crazy nation.
When utilityman Yan Gomes debuted for Toronto on May 17 last year, he became the first Brazilian-born player to appear in a Major League game. But if Brazil is to produce a player with a higher profile, Rienzo will likely be the man. The 24-year-old is Chicago's ninth-ranked prospect by MLB.com, after putting together a season in which he posted a 2.53 ERA in 103 1/3 innings across three levels, going from Class A Advanced Winston-Salem all the way to Triple-A Charlotte. The right-hander finished 7-3 with 113 strikeouts and 42 walks.
It was Rienzo's best season as a pro, the culmination of a climb from the Rookie-level Appalachian League, where he began his American career in 2009. Unlike Gomes, who moved to the United States as a child, went to high school in Florida and then the University of Tennessee to become a Blue Jays Draft pick, Rienzo had to draw attention while coming up through the system in Sao Paulo in his home country.
It was no easy task. Brazil has an organized baseball structure, called the Brazilian Baseball and Softball Confederation (CBBS), but it is young -- having been founded in 1990 -- and it does not offer the kind of well-trodden path to the pros that, say, neighboring Venezuela boasts.
"There's no professional game [in Brazil]. You play like two days a week, for fun, never for money," Rienzo said. "It's difficult because there's no help. Each player has to pay the gas for his car, his food -- the teams don't pay. It's tough. You pay to play the game. In Sao Paulo there's maybe one team per city. Sometimes guys play for a team where they're living two hours away from the field."
Rienzo said that he wound up a ballplayer in a soccer-crazed nation simply because his brothers played it before him.
He said that at any of his games there could be one scout, someone unaffiliated with a Major League team but who could contact a club's Latin American scout if talent emerged. In November 2006, Chicago, which had signed Paulo Orlando -- an outfielder for Brazil in the World Baseball Classic and another Sao Paulo native -- the year before, inked Rienzo, then 18, and pitcher Murilo Gouvea out of Sao Paulo. Gouvea is now in the Houston system.
"There was one guy in Brazil, and he didn't sign you, just see you and tell the White Sox, 'Hey, I have some players here that are interesting to watch.' People don't know about it too much," he said.
The transition from a less baseball-savvy environment has been difficult at times, as last year Rienzo was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance. He admitted to MiLB.com to taking the substance, Stanozolol, saying, "Yes, I took some supplements in Brazil. I never took anything I didn't think I couldn't take. I learned you never take anything without knowing everything that's in it. Now I need to be more responsible. I'll only take something from [America] and not from Brazil."
After the suspension, he resumed his breakout year last season and now finds himself as the ace of perhaps the World Baseball Classic's biggest underdogs.
After Orlando, Rienzo and Gouvea, others have slowly followed out of the CBBS. Four Brazilians signed by Major League teams, all but one under the age of 20, played in the Venezuelan Summer League last season and another, Baltimore's then-17-year-old Rafael Moreno, appeared in the Dominican Summer League.
About half of Brazil's roster, though, is comprised of Japanese-Brazilians, the majority of whom play in the Japan Amateur Baseball Association, a kind of Minor Leagues for Japanese baseball. Brazil, with about 1.5 million Japanese-Brazilians, is home to the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan itself.
With Brazil grouped in Pool A in Fukuoka, Japan, they may figure as a kind of second home team.
"Brazilian baseball is bigger in Japan than in Brazil," Rienzo said from Fukuoka, laughing. "The people love you. In Brazil, nobody knows you; here they know who you are. It's big, it's huge."
It is this eclectic mix that surprisingly forced itself into World Baseball Classic pool play out of qualifying. Rienzo started the team's first qualifying game against a Panama squad that was both hosting the qualifying round and headlined by Carlos Ruiz, Miguel Tejada and Carlos Lee. He held that lineup to two runs -- one earned -- over 3 2/3 innings and the Brazilians went on to win, 3-2.
They followed that up by handling an Edgar Renteria-led Colombia team, 7-1. And then, in the do-or-die group qualifying final, a rematch with Panama, they eeked out a 1-0 victory in the tournament's most dramatic game yet.
With global heavyweights Cuba and Japan in their pool, the Brazilians will need some more of that magic in Fukuoka.
"You go to Panama and they have huge names, Colombia too. But people started believing [in us] there. They see we have great players. Nobody expected that.
"Nobody believed in Brazil [against Panama]. But you just do your job. It's nothing big, just team ball. That's one of the reasons for why Brazil is here, do the simple things, every game. Respect the game, every single day. Nobody talks about losing here, it's just, 'Win, win, win.' Maybe we have a chance, maybe not, but Brazil will play hard."
Growing up at a time when the World Baseball Classic didn't exist, in a country where baseball barely even registers as an afterthought, Rienzo couldn't possibly have thought he'd ever be in this position. But now that he is, he said his team is looking to shock the baseball world, and just maybe open up some eyes back in South America.
"In Brazil [people play baseball] just to pass the time. For me, the most important thing is representing my country. I grew up in Brazil. I know I play in the USA now, but I'm from Brazil. I made it possible to be here, and I hope to help the team -- I want so bad to help the team."