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.
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.
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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.”
Baseball and oil do mix
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.
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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