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Why six MLB clubs stay in Venezuela despite rising crime and bitter politics

Major League Baseball teams are shuttering their academies in Venezuela due to rising crime and political tension, but the country remains the No. 2 source of foreign players in the MLB.

By Jasmina KelemenCorrespondent / May 6, 2011

Children play a baseball game at a neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 1, 2011.

Jorge Silva/Reuters

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San Joaquin, Venezuela

A tall, lanky infielder drops the ball three times before he finally gains control of the grounder. Pitches sail past the catcher’s mitt. Balls roll agonizingly deep into the outfield.

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The casual observer could forgive the players, none older than 16, for their fumbles. But not the dozens of scouts representing every Major League Baseball (MLB) team silently scrutinizing the action, jotting down notes, and timing the execution of each play.

“I’m looking for the ones that aren’t nervous,” says Rolando Fernandez, the senior director of international scouting for the Colorado Rockies.

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That every MLB team attended this recent showcase in rural Venezuela was proof that interest in local players remains intense despite most clubs shuttering full-time operations here due to rising crime and tense politics, opting to instead conduct their Latin American scouting operations from the Dominican Republic. Only six teams still have academies in Venezuela, down from 21 in 2002.

The fact remains: Venezuelans can play ball. A record 62 Venezuelans suited up for the start of the 2011 MLB season, up from 58 last year, with only the Dominican Republic sending more players to the US.

The division-leading Colorado Rockies have seven Venezuelans on their lineup, the most of any team in the league, and 35 more in the minors. Mr. Fernandez’s eye for picking out young Latino talent is widely credited for turning the Rockies into one of the best teams in baseball, boasting such pitching stars as Jhoulys Chacin, who was signed as a teenager in Venezuela, and the Dominican Ubaldo Jimenez, who pitched the first no-hitter in Colorado Rockies history last year.

“You have to have a presence here,” says Fernandez. “You have to be good here, if you want your organization to be good.”

That's no easy task. According to the scouts at the recent showcase in San Joaquin, robbers and criminals target teams' facilities, staff, and players, who are often believed to have gotten large signing bonuses. Additionally, the threat of expropriations and onerous foreign exchange controls make teams wary of doing business in Venezuela.

Finding young recruits

To maintain a foothold, most of the teams have local scouts on the ground who start approaching the boys as young as 14 about the possibility of signing with them. The best players at this spring’s showcase in San Joaquin stand to earn as much as a million dollars in signing bonuses this summer when they become eligible to play for MLB farm teams.

For most of the boys, that will mean leaving their families at age 16 and moving to the Dominican Republic, where all 30 MLB teams have training academies.

“You could have the same thing in Venezuela but you don’t,” says Fernandez. “[The Dominican Republic] welcomes everything we do, the process is easier in everything we do.”

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