Showcase : : Story
Saturday, January 08, 2011

Panamanians experience the World

Jeff Dahn        

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Perfect Game World Showcase has long had an international flavor, drawing players from Canada, Latin America, Japan and some European nations.

This year’s World Showcase at Terry Park continues that trend with an eight-player contingent of young free agents from Panama taking part in their first Perfect Game event.

The eight players from four different schools in Ancon Panama City, were brought together by Emilio Sempris, who serves as both a coach and an agent.

Sempris said the eight rank among the top 15 prospects in Panama. He wanted to bring them here so they could see how they measure-up against some of the top talent in the United States (and Puerto Rico) and possibly receive free agent contracts and signing bonuses.

Panamanian players become eligible for free agency at age 16 ½ and cannot participate in the MLB Amateur Draft.

“I told the guys we’re going to Perfect Game … and meet the finest players there,” Sempris said. “You’ll be better able to then better test your capacities and learn how baseball is played in America.”

They will also put themselves in better position to get noticed by Major League scouts.

Panama has produced 46 Major League players since 1955, including current All-Stars Mariano Rivera and Carlos Lee, and former standouts like Hall of Famer Rod Carew and All-Stars Ben Oglivie and Manny Sanguillen. Although those players were discovered and made it to the Majors, Sempris feels Panama is under-scouted.

“We don’t have as many scouts as we’d like in Panama,” Sempris said. “Probably, out of the 30 (MLB) teams, we have only between 17 and 20 scouts for all the teams. During the year, we see that some talents are not well-assessed by scouts.

“So we started this program in April of last year hoping we had a chance to better showcase the Panamanian prospects.”

It was through that miraculous 21st century tool called a “Google Search” that Sempris found Perfect Game’s website, a discovery that led to the Panamanians receiving invitations to the World Showcase.

“That basically would probably change the life of these eight kids,” he said. “They are legal to sign as free agents as of July 2 of this year and what better scenario than Perfect Game to help us in showcasing some of the finest talent that we have in the country.”

Sempris took one player to the 2010 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., last October for his initial introduction to a Perfect Game event. He left impressed.

“I only took one player because I didn’t know what to expect,” he said, “but then I arrived in Jupiter and it was like Mardi Gras. It was a baseball carnival. And I was like, ‘OK, this is it. These are the right people to showcase the Panamanian players.’”

Sempris brought four pitchers and four position players here this weekend. The pithers, all right-handers, are Julio Arosemena, Harold Arauz, Ramiro Cortez and Carlos Bermudez. The position players are outfielders Iosif Bernal, Braulio De Leon and Amael Gonzalez, and catcher Pablo Urena.

Panamanian first baseman Julio Zuleta played in the Majors one season for the Chicago Cubs and seven more seasons for four teams in Japan’s Pacific League. He now lives in Fort Myers, and Sempris set up a meeting between Zuleta and his players.

“They are going to meet him for the first time ever so they are really looking forward to meet with a former Panamanian Major Leaguer that made it as a professional athlete. For most of them, it’s their first time in the U.S. so for me, most importantly, is that they learn the American way,” said Sempris, who lived in the United States in the late 1990s while attending the University of Maine on a Fulbright Scholarship.

“Unfortunately, most people from our country (get their impression of the U.S.) from what they see on TV. So we believe the U.S. is “Baywatch” or “MTV” and I’m like, ‘Guys, that’s not the U.S. The U.S. that I know is different with real nice people, friendly people.’”

Panama is baseball-crazy but culturally its residents especially love amateur baseball. They are fans of their state teams much like fans in the United States love their state’s college football teams.

“If you look at the Dominican Republic, the kids grow up thinking they want to play for the Major Leagues,” Sempris said. “In Panama, the kids grow up believing they want to represent their providences. They value very much the state jersey.”

Since Sempris serves as the players’ agent, if any of them eventually receive contract offers, he will help negotiate the signing bonus for the player and his parents. If they are not offered professional contracts, he will work to get them student visas so they can enroll in college in the United States.

In the meantime, he will continue to get them as much exposure as possible through Perfect Game events, most likely the World Showcase and the WWBA World Championship. He knows his players will have to continue to improve.

“You keep telling the guys they need to work hard and the competition is huge in the U.S.,” Sempris said. “But you don’t believe it until you see it, and they see it and they said, ‘Woe, this is huge,’ and I said ‘Wait until you see Jupiter.’”

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