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.
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Brought here by US oil workers in the 1920s, baseball is entrenched in the local culture. Tee-ball is for toddling 2-year-olds, while 4- and 5-year-olds are already swinging at fast pitches. The love of the game extends to the highest circles. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year portrayed President Hugo Chávez telling a Chevron official that he would love to attend a Houston Astros game in Texas but that it was politically impossible.Skip to next paragraph
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And despite US baseball teams recently pulling out, the US government still considers baseball as a valuable tool for reaching ordinary Venezuelans. The US Embassy in Caracas runs a program called “Beisbol y Amistad” (Baseball and Friendship) in which former MLB players run weekend training clinics for young players, while parents attend seminars on health and drug prevention.
“We don’t make this a political program,” says Charge d’Affairs John Caufield. “We stress friendship, culture, and drug prevention.” At the clinics, Mr. Caufield says, he shares his own experiences and anxieties from raising an adolescent. “I talk as a parent.... It’s a universal message.”
Past attempts to turn that shared love of baseball into a little "baseball diplomacy" have failed spectacularly in the past. A former US ambassador was once greeted by rock-throwing protesters as he tried to deliver baseball equipment – leaving little chance that the US and Venezuelan governments will ever find love over the diamond and improve the environment for MLB teams to operate here.
In any case, President Chávez has not only stayed away from the US-sponsored baseball clinics but has also not been seen at a local game in years. Some speculate that Mr. Chávez, who usually faces the nation under tightly controlled circumstances, doesn’t want to risk being booed on TV. The local leagues have worked hard to keep politics out of the stadiums and quickly tamped down on political expressions a few years ago when some fans chanted against power and water rationing.
The Rockies’ Fernandez, like most of the scouts approached, would not comment on politics. He was also reticent to detail the challenges of operating here but conceded that crime is the “number one” issue. That can translate into parental concern over whether a MLB club can provide and protect new recruits.
“If I’m visiting a house to sign a 16-year-old kid and telling the family to trust our organization," he says, "I’m saying I’m going to take care of your kid.”
The key to winning
For the Colorado Rockies, which currently has the third-best record in the MLB and is expected to contend for the World Series Championship, that also means these nervous Venezuelan kids are going to take care of winning games.
Back at the scouting showcase in San Joaquin, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the red, white, and blue MLB logo, these young men vying for the league’s attention seem unfazed by crime, politics, and even the idea of moving to a new country. Instead of the wide-eyed wonder you might expect from a kid being watched by some of baseball’s biggest names, 15-year-old Carlos Tocci is remarkably cool when discussing his prospects.
“They’re all the same,” says the lean 6-foot outfielder, referring to the teams watching him. “Whoever gives me the best offer, that’s where I’m going.”
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