Some sports fans still regard baseball as America's pastime. Extending the definition of "America" to include Latin America only bolsters the claim, given baseball's popularity throughout much of the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.
Those trying to understand baseball's reach need look no farther than the Walnut Creek Crawdads, who along with their affiliates the Phenix City (Alabama) Crawdads reflect baseball's international appeal through their umbrella nonprofit organization, More Than a Game.
In August 2014 and again in June, a contingent of More Than a Game coaches and players ventured to Medellín, Colombia and its surrounding areas to both teach and learn baseball, and more.
"For me, I've always loved traveling and learning about baseball," said MTAG founder and Walnut Creek Crawdads coach Marshall Murray. "We started a visa program to get (the Colombian players) to start playing games and get them to college. We want to give them an opportunity to better their lives through sport."
As a kind of student-athlete exchange, three Medellín players now have made their way from Colombia to join their MTAG mentors. Two of them -- Jose Mercado and Mateo Rodriguez -- traveled to Alabama to play with the Phenix City Crawdads. But a third, 19-year-old Abelardo Paz Agudelo, has come to Walnut Creek.
"(Coming here to play baseball is) incredible, an opportunity afforded to very few people," Paz said through the interpretation of Crawdads pitcher Nick Cordero. "I'm very blessed and happy to be here. I'm really enjoying it."
The learning experience actually works both ways for Paz and his hosts. As a member of the Crawdads -- a summer team for collegians that plays in the California Collegiate League -- he plays alongside teammates representing some major universities.
He also gets exposed to potential recruiters. Conversely, Paz helps teach the game at the clinics held by the Crawdads for younger players.
"To share that (time) with an international baseball player really enhances the experiences they get," Murray said of both the collegians and younger players.
Through its coaches and mentors, MTAG looks to enhance the lives of student-athletes both on the baseball diamond and beyond. Overall, MTAG is rooted in the value of "giving back," or perhaps "paying forward."
"I went to De La Salle High School where it's ingrained in you to serve the community," said Murray, a 2000 graduate and former middle infielder who continued his career at Marshall University in West Virginia and formed the Crawdads in 2010.
During his years as a Thundering Herd student-athlete, Murray befriended Josh McConnell of Phenix City.
The two remained in contact after graduation, thus the Walnut Creek-Phenix City connection. Through McConnell, Murray met Tim Fanning, who coached McConnell in high school.
Today, MTAG's Web site (http://morethanagame.us/) lists Murray as founder and CEO, Fanning as president and McConnell as Phenix City Crawdads general manager.
As for Walnut Creek and surrounding communities, MTAG organizes not only the Crawdads, but also the Walnut Creek Woodpeckers for high school players and the Walnut Creek Bulldawgs elementary and middle schoolers.
Besides games, MTAG brings the age groups together through its clinics.
"There's guys from Stanford and Arizona," Murray said. "We get host families and give our communities some really good baseball. It's also a pretty cool experience, for example, for a high school freshman to mingle with a college player."
MTAG also sees sports as a way to unite people not only locally but worldwide. Before heading to Colombia, MTAG coaches and students-athletes took trips to Panama (with a baseball history that includes Hall of Famer Rod Carew) and the African country of Cameroon, where baseball has a scant following. MTAG has another Medellín trip planned for next month.
Currently, Paz and his Crawdads teammate look to learn from one another. "It's my dream, as it is for all of us, to play professionally," he said.
"But already it has taken me very, very far. Baseball has given me the chance to go to other countries and learn new languages."
Generally speaking, though, Medellín, the Colombia's interior, lacks the baseball following found in the coastal cities of Cartagena and Barranquilla (birthplace of Edgar Renteria, World Series MVP for the Giants in 2010).
"Baseball is not a big sport (in Medellín); after (players) turn 18, they stop playing baseball," Murray said. "Our hope is that Abelardo goes back down to Colombia to inspire the next generation."
More Than a Game For more about MTAG, its programs and its activities, go to morethanagame.us/ For team info, go to http://walnutcreekcrawdads.com/