The New Brazilian Flamethrower

This is Kate Preusser’s first piece as part of her month-long residency.

In Molloy, Samuel Beckett tells us: “There is a little of everything, apparently, in nature, and freaks are common.”

Thyago Vieira is a freak. I mean this in the nicest, but also the meanest, way. The Mariners prospect and Brazilian native has been turning heads across the league after blazing through the California League and the AFL this past year, victimizing hitters with his triple-digit fastball and newfound slider and just generally looking like a Brazilian golem looming atop the mound with his cold stare and imposing stature. And that’s before he throws 104 at you. Vieira is officially listed at 6-foot-2, but his height is often given offhand by manager Scott Servais or GM Jerry Dipoto as 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4. The average Brazilian male, meanwhile, is 5-foot-7. There is a little of everything in nature but, as the fifth-most populous nation in the world, a lot of everything in Brazil.

Perhaps part of the height inflation is Vieira’s frame. He’s listed at 220 pounds but looks bigger than that in person, with a Bunyan-esque lower half fueled by daily workouts and a newfound love of American food like the Cheesecake Factory. Having grown up with a single mother who often gave up her own meals so Thyago and his brother could eat, his love of Instagramming his food with heart and praise hands and cake emojis comes into clearer focus.

I first became interested in Vieira last year, when he moved into a closer role with the Bakersfield Blaze, the Mariners’ Low-A team. His picture showed a kid with a big, easy smile and thick black-framed glasses, a la Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn. Unfortunately, his command had also emulated Charlie Sheen’s character, leading Vieira to have been stuck in the Mariners’ system since he was drafted in 2011, never making it past A-ball. Brazilian prospects, maybe more so than any other group, are raw, lacking the kind of resources teams pour into talent powerhouses like Venezuela or the Dominican Republic.

When Jerry Dipoto took over as GM, he admitted that the team had considered moving on from the wild-throwing Vieira, but new pitching coach Ethan Katz saw the big Brazilian with the big arm and decided to make a project out of him. Vieira credits Katz with a career turnaround that saw him develop better control and a wicked slider to complement his big fastball, leading to an eye-popping 28.5-point difference between his strikeout and walk rate (K-BB%) in the AFL. “I always say, God puts the best people in your way at the best moment,” says Vieira, whose nickname for himself is “The Blessed One.” To him, it represents his deep and abiding faith in God; from an outsider’s perspective, it encapsulates the series of events that have had to go exactly right to get Vieira to this position.

Teams have exhibited varying degrees of interest in Brazil over the past decade, with Tampa Bay leading the charge, even planning to build a baseball academy that never came to fruition. Problems with the way the Brazilian baseball federation has been run, with the faintest whiff of corruption charges, have held back any large-scale development in the country, although there is an academy in Ibiuni, built in 1999 by a Japanese yogurt company. This is where literally anyone who plays baseball in Brazil will end up at some point, under the watchful eye of scouts.

The Mariners recruited hard in Brazil under Jack Zduriencik, signing Felipe Burin and Pedro Okuda in 2009, Vieira in 2010, Luiz Gohara in 2012 (to whom they gave the largest ever signing bonus received by a Brazilian player: $880,000), and Daniel Missaki in 2013. Burin and Okuda washed out of the system, along with fellow prospect Jean Tome, signed the year before Jack Z took over. The Japanese-born Missaki was traded away in the Adam Lind deal in 2015, and highly regarded pitching prospect Gohara was traded this past off-season, leaving Vieira the lone Brazilian remaining in the Mariners organization.

And it is lonely. Vieira wishes he had other teammates who spoke his language or knew his culture, although he is friendly with his Latino teammates, thanks to his ability to speak Spanish. “It’s difficult when you don’t have coaches or players from your same country,” he says, “but life is full of challenges and obstacles and that’s why I have God in charge of my life.” The Mariners don’t have anyone who speaks Portuguese on staff, but Vieira has worked hard over his time in the organization to learn English so he can understand his coach’s instructions. This year, he clicked with Katz and had his most successful year ever in the organization, earning a trip to the prestigious Arizona Fall League. In the AFL, Vieira made fast friends with a new teammate from Double-A, Guillermo Heredia, a Cuban defector who had been out of baseball for a year and could relate to Vieira’s feelings of being the odd man out. (He also speaks English conversationally and responded to my questions for this article in English, “with some help from Google translate.”)

After a successful stint in the AFL, Vieira was added to the 40-man and invited to spring training, where he’s finally been able to find some countrymen: the Royals’ Paulo Orlando and the Padres’ Andre Rienzo, who represent two-thirds of all Brazilians who have ever played at the MLB level. The other, Yan Gomes, is also at spring training in Arizona, but he is absent from the group’s playful Instagrams. Gomes is an established major leaguer (although Orlando is the only one of the group with a World Series ring), but the difference runs deeper than that. Gomes moved away from Brazil at age 12, so while technically the first Brazilian-born player in MLB, his route to the majors was closer to that of a US-born player, playing high school and then college ball for Tennessee.

For Orlando, Rienzo, and Vieira, more luck was necessary. Orlando, a track star who ran for Brazil’s youth Olympic team, began playing baseball because a doctor at his mother’s work recommended the sport as a way to keep her son busy and out of trouble. Rienzo’s story is similar: a frazzled single mother wanted a way to keep her boys active and teach them discipline, which is seen as something strongly embedded in the baseball-playing Japanese community in Brazil.

Vieira started when he was nine years old, when the father of a friend invited him to join a team. “I said yes even though I didn’t know anything about the sport before,” says Vieira. “I said yes mostly for him.” Once he started playing, however, Vieira was surprised to realize he had a talent, specifically for pitching. He played soccer like any other boy, and as a resident of Tatuí — an area of São Paulo county known for its rich musical heritage — he loved to dance. That footwork that now comes in handy when running ladders at spring training. “But baseball called my attention,” he says. Photos depict a young boy holding a pitcher’s glove twice the size of his head, flashing the smile that’s becoming familiar to Mariners fans.

There’s a common theme among Orlando, Rienzo, and Vieira. While Japanese players make up the majority of the Brazilian baseball league, descendants of those who brought baseball with them during a wave of mass immigration in the early part of the 20th century, the Brazilian-born players who have made it to MLB (or close to it, in the case of Vieira) are those who have somewhat backed into the sport, whittling down other loves until only baseball remained. For a son of a single mother, the possibility of a financial windfall in signing with a team — much more likely in baseball than in the hyper-competitive world of soccer — also beckoned.

Then there’s one other difference that belongs only to Vieira. Orlando and Rienzo look like the stereotypical Brazilian, with olive skin; Gomes, meanwhile, is extremely light-skinned. Vieira, on the other hand, has very dark skin, something about which he and Heredia, a Cuban, joked in the AFL. But racism in Brazil against darker-skinned people (also called Afro-Brazilians or negao, pronounced in a way that might make tourists cringe) is a documented problem, with 50% of the country’s inhabitants of black or mixed-race origin making up a disproportionate amount of its lowest earners, and disproportionately more likely to be the targets of police violence. It’s just another hurdle that Vieira, the Blessed One, had to clear in his unconventional path to the majors. That said, being a national hero helps.

Okay, maybe national hero is a bit much, but regional hero is firmly in play. Vieira has a small but passionate fanbase in Brazil, specifically in his hometown of Tatuí, who love him for his performance in the 2012 World Baseball Classic qualifiers, where he closed out a Cinderella win against Team Panama to advance Brazil to the WBC.

It was, and remains, the most memorable moment in Brazilian baseball history. There’s even a YouTube video celebrating it. Set over a backdrop of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”, a scroll of Portuguese text exhorts the viewer never to give up on their dreams, “no matter if you are born in a small town, in a humble neighborhood, of simple origin,” because if a 19-year-old kid like Thyago Vieira can deliver such a moment, anything is possible. The video then cuts to a Portuguese dub of the “you got a dream, you gotta protect it” scene from 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness, then to Vieira recording the final out, then to a series of still pictures of him growing from a child holding a glove to a Mariners prospect in the AZL to the front page of the newspaper on which he appeared after securing the save, in what could be described as the iconic picture of Brazilian baseball so far.

Vieira records the last out for Brazil in their WBC qualifier.

There’s a blown-up version of that front cover on the wall in Vieira’s mother’s house, where she held a party for him with a baseball-shaped cake when he was named to the Mariners’ 40-man roster. When asked about those to whom he looked for inspiration, Vieira lists two people: his mother and God. “I did not grow up looking up to any famous baseball players, because I didn’t know anything about the sport,” he says. Instead, his hero is his mother, who sacrificed for him, supported him, and believed in his ability to succeed. To grow up as a baseball-loving kid who is not part of the Japanese-Brazilian community means growing up thin on heroes who look like you. To grow up as a dark-skinned baseball-loving kid in Brazil means growing up with your mom as your hero.

Vieira is keenly aware that when he makes it to the big leagues — and barring an epic collapse in Double- or Triple-A, he will, possibly even this year — he will carry more with him than just the Brazilian flag stitched into his glove. He knows he will be representing not just himself, but his family, and his faith, and his country — the fifth-largest country in the world. “I will be one more Brazilian within the best baseball organization in the world, and that will help raise and spread baseball even more in Brazil,” he says. “It’s going to be incredible.” It would be overwhelming to some, but Vieira says he’s following the path laid out for him by a higher power, that every challenge in his path so far has strengthened him to be ready for this moment, to act as the next ambassador for baseball in Brazil.

Hailing from a country of 200 million people, Thyago Vieira is one of a kind.

We hoped you liked reading The New Brazilian Flamethrower by Kate Preusser!

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Kate Preusser lives in Seattle, where she manages Lookout Landing and spends too much time thinking and writing about Mariners baseball. Follow her on Twitter @1nceagain2zelda.

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dominic.theofan
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dominic.theofan

Interesting read, Welcome Kate!