Venezuelan fans welcome new baseball season amid national crisis

Concerns about costs, facilities, and public safety may discourage some Venezuelan fans from going to baseball games, but last year stadium attendance rose 5 percent. Both fans and players alike are keeping a passion for the game alive amid hyperinflation and an uncertain future.

Fernando Llano/AP
Leones de Caracas starting pitcher Luis Diaz throws to Tiburones de la Guaira's Junior Sosa during the season's opening baseball game in Caracas, Venezuela on Oct. 12. Amid a national crisis it is becoming increasingly difficult for fans to attend games, but they continue to show up.

For 10 years, ever since they bonded over baseball at work, Franlet Bencomo and Elbert Albarran haven't missed an opening day game together.

This year, however, they left their kids behind and ate a big breakfast before heading out to watch their beloved Caracas Lions because a hot dog inside the stadium costs more than 10 percent of the roughly $30 each makes a month at their minimum-wage jobs.

"Now we have to eat beforehand, watch the game, and go straight home" said Mr. Bencomo, in line for tickets six hours before the start of Friday's season opener. "There's no other way."

Throughout Venezuela, as winter league play gets under way, fans are having to make similar sacrifices to feed their passion for "pelota," – the word for ball that's used to describe the national pastime.

Hyperinflation has pulverized incomes while putting ticket prices out of reach for many. Others are avoiding the ballpark for fear of getting mugged or because they don't know how they'll get home amid a nationwide transportation crisis. In response, more daytime games are being played.

Venezuela's eight professional teams are struggling. For the second straight year, state-run oil company PDVSA had to step in with a $12 million lifeline to pay for everything from imported baseballs to the salaries of the seven foreign-born players – most of them minor league prospects from the United States – on each team's roster.

During the offseason, vandals picked through stadiums, stripping bathrooms of metal faucets. Groundskeepers have been battling water shortages in several cities. Meanwhile, ticket prices remain a mystery, with some clubs changing them by the week to keep pace with inflation forecast by the International Monetary Fund to soon reach 10 million percent.

In Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, the situation is so dire that the Aguilas team canceled its opener and five other home games this month after an inspector hired by Major League Baseball ruled their diamond didn't meet minimal safety standards. The club said several of its light towers had the copper wiring stolen and the state government, which owns the facility, hasn't come up with the relatively modest sum of $39,000 needed to repair the lighting. Still, the Eagles will be playing on the road.

Venezuela's once highly competitive winter league has been in decline for years.

While many of the 70-plus Venezuelan players on big league rosters return home for a few games each season, most arriving this year, such as Los Angeles Angels pitcher Eduardo Paredes or Detroit infielder Harold Castro, are little known and don't reflect the nation's powerhouse talent. Meanwhile, major league organizations have shut down all their academies in the country.

Venezuela is scheduled to host the Caribbean Series in February in Barquisimeto, one of the cities hardest hit by power outages that have roiled much of the country. Last year's tournament, which brings together the champions of five Caribbean winter leagues, was moved from Barquisimeto to Guadalajara, Mexico, following deadly protests against Venezuela's socialist government.

Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, a former Venezuela league president and prominent opposition leader, said he remembers going to the stadium with his father during the 1960s oil boom and watching future Hall of Famer Earl Weaver manage the Cardinals in Barquisimeto.

"Back then there wasn't such a big difference between salaries in the major leagues and what Venezuelan teams could pay," he said.

In something of a departure from his normally fierce criticism of President Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Aveledo applauds the government's decision to spend part of its dwindling supply of dollars on baseball – even if he acknowledges that there are more pressing needs.

From field crews to ticket scalpers to hot dog vendors, thousands of families depend on baseball to make a living, and Aveledo says the stadiums have long served as a sporting sanctuary where fans of all classes and political backgrounds can set aside their differences and mounting hardships.

"It is one of the few things that unites us," he said. "For the three months the season lasts, there's a different vibe in the country."

Indeed, last year stadium attendance rose 5 percent amid the political and economic crisis, although it remains down by a third from a peak in the 2013-2014 season.

It's not just the fans who have to endure sacrifices.

Former All-Star shortstop Ozzie Guillen said he was tempted to skip returning home to manage the La Guaira Tiburones for the third straight season.

In addition to cross-country bus rides on dangerous roads, players coming from the US have to deal with frequent power blackouts, like the one that postponed Monday's game between the Bravos and Magallanes in Valencia.

"But I'm not here to cry," said Mr. Guillen, who for the first time since growing up in poverty near Caracas said he has been without running water at his home in a well-to-do district of the capital.

Guillen, the first Latino to manage a World Series winner with the 2005 Chicago White Sox, said Venezuelans' passion for the game shows no sign of fading despite the country's problems. 

"I know things are difficult for the fans," said Guillen, whose reputation for speaking freely about politics has sometimes gotten him in trouble. "But the game still brings more happiness and joy than sadness."

This story was reported by The Associated Press

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