Baseball talent flows like oil in Venezuela
Those who have gone off to the major leagues feel the local tug, too. Cabrera, Sandoval and others have come back in the offseason to play at home, even though their better-paying U.S. teams often discourage it because of the chance of injury.
In 2010, Sandoval didn’t want to miss the seventh and decisive game in a key series for his local team, the Navegantes, and he flew in at the last minute, rushing by helicopter from Caracas to the city of Valencia. He got a hit, but his team still lost 7-2 to the rival Leones.
Venezuelan games are festive affairs where entire families cheer in team jerseys and hats, and where beer and whisky flow freely in the stands.
The sport is so ingrained in Venezuelan society that it has slipped into the language of daily conversation. People say “pitch here” if they want a buddy to kick in some money, or “you’ve got a three-two count” to indicate a person is on the verge of either success or failure.
The fanaticism extends to the country’s leagues for children and teenagers, which have thousands of teams with an estimated 130,000 kids from ages 3 to 19. One of the main leagues is called “Criollitos,” meaning little Venezuelans.
Dilia Barrios sits in the stands at Maracay, watching her 4-year-old grandson practice. She says the network of youth programs is a “creation of coaches, of mothers, fathers, grandparents and other relatives of the boys, who for the love of baseball cooperate with money and dedicate a lot of time, without receiving anything, in order to make this something great.”
Many towns have locally run baseball schools, with coaches typically working for little money and parents paying a monthly fee.
The big jump of Venezuelans playing in the U.S. started in the 1990s. The Houston Astros set up a training camp in Venezuela to work with young players, and about a dozen major league teams followed with their own academies.
“From those first academies came players like (pitcher Johan) Santana and many others,” said Luis Sojo, a former New York Yankee who manages Venezuela’s team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Still, four big league academies remain, with ties to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Colorado Rockies and the Detroit Tigers. Venezuela, meanwhile, has its own strengthened baseball schools and academies.
Venezuelan achievements in the major leagues this season go beyond the World Series. In addition to Cabrera’s Triple Crown, Felix Hernandez pitched a perfect game for the Seattle Mariners and Santana pitched a no-hitter for the New York Mets. As the Giants triumphed in the National League, hot-hitting Scutaro became the third Venezuelan to be honored as the most valuable player in a major league championship series.
As the World Series began, one Venezuelan TV announcer proclaimed it “the show of the Venezuelans.”
“I hope this is the first of many times that we’re going to see so many Venezuelans in the World Series,” said Carlos Vivas, a fan of Sandoval’s local team. “There are many great players still waiting for an opportunity.”