Ralph Rago: "Envoy" To Youth Baseball  
by Rick Cabral, Editor

Cordova High School Coach Guy Anderson likes to tease his assistant Ralph Rago for being several weeks his junior. Since both men are in their late seventies, it's a running joke around the Cordova campus. A more proper appellation might be "The Envoy," since Rago was among the initial 

wave of coaches from the United States to spread the gospel of baseball in Europe as part of Major League Baseball's (MLB)"Envoy Program." (See Sidebar Below)  

Today, the program—part of MLB International—supplies equipment, apparel insurance and instruction by way of American high school and college coaches to players and prospective coaches in four regions of the world. 

Ralp Rago, who just completed his 51st year coaching baseball, was a perfect candidate. 

Rago began his coaching career at Merced High in 1959 and two years later moved up to Davis High, where he taught football, JV basketball and baseball for seven years. He coached baseball there until 1988. His best player was Ron Bryant, LHP, drafted in the 22nd Round by San Francisco in 1965. 

Around that time, he began helping Phil Swimley, head baseball coach at UC Davis (UCD), with the college team during the fall. Although UCD did not award scholarships then, they routinely had more than 100 college students try out for the team in the fall. In 1991, Swimley invited Rago to join his staff, along with former MLB player Rich Chiles of Winters. Despite not having scholarships to offer, Swimley assigned Rago the recruiting duties and he continued assisting the Aggies program until 2002. 

In 1993, at a coach's convention, Jerry Weinstein of Sacramento City College and another coach asked Rago if he would be interested in coaching in Europe. Ralph didn't miss a beat, saying he was up for the challenge. That summer he was sent to England. 

At the time, the British Baseball Federation had developed an amateur program comparable in organization to soccer with A and B pool teams. In addition, they had the National and Junior level club teams. That first summer, Rago coached the British Junior Amateur team in a tournament held in Spain. The following year he returned and helped out both the Brit's National and Junior teams. In 1995, Major League Baseball assigned him full time to develop baseball in Great Britain. As Director of "player development," Rago formed Pitch, Hit and Run competitions in the elementary schools, while running the amateur program and coaching both National and Junior clubs. 

Rago's team won the "B" pool championship in 1996. His team moved up to "A" pool the following year. Players from this team were still playing as of last year (in World Baseball Council tournament). 

While in England, Rago saw his share of cricket matches. "I saw a couple of bowlers I would have liked to convert to pitchers," he laughs. He also coached cricket players on how to throw baseball-style (i.e. overhand), which helped them make the long throw from the outfield. 

During his time in Britain, Rago birdogged one 15-year-old player who played third base and pitched, Ralph remembers. After the game he asked if the youth planned to attend university. He did, and in time, Gavin Marshall came to the U.S. to live with the Ragos and play summer ball in Davis. Eventually, he enrolled at and pitched for the Delta College team, which earned him an athletic scholarship to University of the Pacific. Marshall pitched two years professionally, and then returned to England, where he is now a fireman. 

Pat Doyle of the MLB Envoy Program says when a US coach heads overseas he instantly becomes "the resident expert, the Lone Ranger." It's up to the Envoy to first find out what the local baseball organization needs and then find the resources. "It's nice when someone (from the US) comes in and moves that forward. Ralph did a tremendous job in that," Doyle says.

Another assignment took Rago to Germany, where he coached Little Leaguers comprised of Army base children. Rago has seen much of Europe as part of his duties in the Envoy Program, something he couldn't have dreamed as a child growing up in Los Banos.

Rago grew up playing neighborhood ball in the streets on the west side of that Central Valley town. More than once, he and his friends broke a few windows. The town sheriff, who owned property on the edge of town, allowed them to make a ballfield, erect backstops, and care for the baseball diamond. "Kids came from all over town to play on that field," Rago remembers. 

In his teens, he played American Legion ball in the morning and sometimes got invited to play on the town ball team later that day. The team was composed mostly of former World War II veterans. "I got to learn the game from them. We always had to hire a pitcher, because we didn't have very good pitching."  

He enrolled at Fresno State and played under Coach Pete Biden. Shortly after he graduated, Rago watched Biden's team make it to the 1959 College World Series, which included a fiery player named Augie Garrido, who today coaches the Texas Longhorns and is now the winningest coach in college baseball history. 

Last winter, Anderson, who is the winningest high school baseball coach in the country, invited Ralph Rago to join the Cordova family. Although the team was few in numbers, Anderson and Rago imparted their combined century of baseball knowledge to the Lancer players, who are pretty lucky to be playing under the Dean of high school baseball coaches and the Envoy.  

Growing the Game Internationally
Via MLB's 'Envoy Program'  

The game of baseball has been flowering overseas for decades, however, the Envoy Program run by Major League Baseball International division is cultivating it worldwide.  

Lefty O'Doul is credited with popularizing the game in Japan with teams of All-Stars that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. 

Later, during World War II, the game bourgeoned in Europe, as soldiers and seamen played exhibitions before large crowds. The United States Baseball Federation, a precursor to USA Baseball, took teams of former pros overseas in barnstorming contests. Says Pat Doyle of MLB's Envoy Program, "Lots of games were played with thousands of people watching." 

In the mid-'80s Major League Baseball formed its International Division and by the 1990s had created the "Envoy Program" to help spread the game of baseball internationally. Under the Envoy Program, MLB International provides equipment, apparel, insurance and instruction to clubs and baseball federations throughout the world. They also select and send American high school and college coaches, who donate their time instructing young players and prospective coaches in hope of furthering the sport in the town and region they are assigned. The goal is to "get people to understand there is a game called baseball," says Doyle, the program's Global Coordinator for International Coaching for Europe, Middle East & Africa. 

Envoys are dispatched to 40+ countries among four regions which include: Australia, China, Japan and Europe, Middle East & Africa. Doyle estimates that Envoys spend seventy percent of their time coaching youths and prospective coaches. The remainder is more grass roots oriented, providing people an opportunity "to learn the game and grow the game."  

Each country has a baseball federation, and several like Italy host a baseball academy. In 2007, an academy was started in China, giving MLB a foothold in the world's largest potential baseball market. An academy is targeted for Latin America, where many of today's MLB players get their start.


(Photo at right: In response to the increasing popularity of baseball in China, Major League Baseball  International opened a baseball development center in Wuxi, China on September 23, 2009. It is the first full-time MLB training facility in China and provides professional baseball training for middle school and high school-aged students within an academic school environment)

Selection of coaches for the Envoy Program is a multi-faceted process. Typically, candidates come from the high school or college programs, but they sometimes include ex-major leaguers. Word of mouth is generally how a coach comes to the attention of the program's directors.  

Doyle notes that the Envoy Program is seeking coaches with unique assets, including knowledge, experience and most importantly, flexibility. "We're seeking very dedicated people who understand they're going to grow the game in a different culture; who are anxious to be involved and be a diplomat for baseball."  

Although the pay is meager, all expenses are paid. Envoy coaches are given a stipend or honorarium of approximately $350 per week, and MLB pays for the coach's travel expenses. Food and housing are paid by the host federation. "There shouldn't be any money out of the Envoy's pocket," says Doyle.  

In many ways, the biggest challenge for a coach who has spent his years developing a "winning program" is to modify that goal when he enters the Envoy Program. "They need to go into the host country and ask what people need in their programs, then work with that," Doyle explains. 

Ultimately, the MLB program is looking for coaches who have a passion for teaching youths in the 13-15 year old or younger age range so that these students in turn will "learn the game and grow the interest, passion and motivation, for them to take over their program, and (eventually) become coaches (in their home country)," Doyle says. 

In the United States, young ball players who aspire to be major leaguers have the opportunity to watch the game on a daily basis. "(Here), it's a no brainer. In Europe, it's not quite the same," Doyle says. 

He adds that the Envoy Program is still seeking its Yao Ming, in reference to the NBA basketball star who developed skills in his home country of China and then blossomed as an impact player in the NBA. But MLB may be getting close. Since 2005, 40 players have been signed out of the Italian Academy to pro contracts.  

More recently Berlin-born Max Kepler-Rozycki garnered media coverage after being signed by the Minnesota Twins to a $775,000 bonus, the largest amount ever given to a position prospect outside of the U.S. and Latin America. The 6-foot-3, 193-pound outfielder moved to Florida with his mother to finish high school and begin his quest for a career in the major leagues. 

Currently, 40 percent of major league players are foreign born, and the trend is clearly escalating. 

Major League Baseball is hoping the Envoy Program will develop the International market, and perhaps pave the way for future expansion of the game. Already, MLB games are being played in Japan, Mexico and Puerto Rico, with hopes of opening in Great Britain and other countries where baseball is beginning to flourish, thanks to MLB's Envoy Program. 

Sidebar by Editor Rick Cabral


 Uploaded 07/12/10