In cruelly polarized Venezuela, mired in a disastrous economy and swept by criminal violence, baseball culture has been a haven of joyful civility, togetherness and tolerance. Now even that bridge over the sectarian abyss seems to be collapsing.
Only weeks ago, the Seattle Mariners announced that they were moving their summer league baseball academy to the Dominican Republic. Venezuela’s four remaining academies — those of the Philadelphia Phillies, the Detroit Tigers, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Chicago Cubs — are expected to follow suit early next year. For Venezuelan baseball fans, this is a national disaster.
A baseball game in Venezuela is not a relaxing outing at the park. It is a raucous ritual where all social classes and political persuasions mix in one of the few neutral grounds left in the country. Fernando Pérez, a former player with the Tampa Bay Rays who holds a degree in American studies from Columbia University in New York, wrote an essay for Poetry magazine about his experience in the Venezuelan league:
“I write from Caracas, the murder capital of the world, where I’ve been employed by the Leones” — the city’s home club — “to score runs and prevent balls from falling in the outfield. At the ankles of the Ávila Mount, amongst a patch of dusky high-rises, the downtown grounds of el Estadio Universitario” — Caracas’s largest ballpark — “packed beyond capacity are ripe for a full-bodied poem. A mere pitching change is an occasion ‘para rumbiar”’ — to celebrate. “The game isn’t paced necessarily by innings or score. It’s marked by the pulsating bass drums of the samba band that trail bright, scantily clad, head-dressed goddesses strutting about the mezzanine.”
The Venezuelan Summer League, an all-rookie circuit, was established in 1997 by several American major league teams seeking to develop the local talent pool. By 2002, 21 academies were functioning and producing impressive results: In 1994, only 19 Venezuelans played with a major-league baseball team. In 2010, 90 Venezuelans regularly appeared in big-league games. Today, 120 years after the first game was staged in a Caracas railway yard, Venezuelans take pride in their 102 countrymen who were in spring training camps preparing for the new season.
Hugo Chávez, long before he became the comandante, worked as hard as any poor Venezuelan boy to escape poverty by becoming a big-league pitcher. Though he often enlivened his hourslong harangues with baseball jargon, his Bolivarian revolution contemplated — for a short while — a plan to abolish professional baseball, as Fidel Castro (another failed baseball player) did in Cuba in 1960. The deafening uproar from militant chavista grass-roots groups put an end to that idea.
In 2008, 10 years into the Chávez era and against a backdrop of insecurity and bewildering currency controls, the Houston Astros, who came to the country in 1989, shut down their facilities and moved to the Dominican Republic. The remaining organizations gradually began to cut back on the academies. The growing costs of security to prevent armed robberies were among the many concerns teams had. But these defections deprive underprivileged and talented Venezuelan youngsters of opportunities. Though the odds against making the big leagues are high, the chance of reward is great. (The average major league salary is $3.2 million; the league minimum is $480,000.)
The public safety situation has deteriorated precipitously; Venezuela had the second-highest homicide rate in the world last year. Many high-earning Venezuelan stars, such as the Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, who was abducted in 2011 and narrowly escaped death during an air rescue operation, have moved to the United States.
In February, with mounting tensions between Caracas and Washington, the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, ordered most American diplomats to be expelled. United States citizens traveling to Venezuela will now need visas, raising concerns among local fans that this might keep United States players away from our winter league, a top-notch training ground for professionals for more than 70 years.
Without “los importados” (the imported ones), as American professional ball players are affectionately called, our winter league would lose a great deal of its luster.
The story of baseball in Venezuela has nothing to do with the many United States military interventions in the region. In the early 1890s, sons of the Venezuelan elite, returning from studies abroad, introduced the game in what then was a poor country ravaged by tropical fevers, endless civil wars and ruthless tyrants. Cuban political émigrés then living in Caracas also played an important role in the development of Venezuelan baseball.
Nemesio Guilló, a well-to-do Cuban sent by his parents to Alabama in 1858 to study at Springhill College, is credited with bringing the first bat and baseball to Cuba in 1864, while the American Civil War raged and Cubans were still subjects of the Spanish king. Spanish colonial authorities soon outlawed the game, deeming it subversive, but independent young Cubans favored baseball over bullfights — and the Spanish monarchy.
Similarly, Venezuelans of all social classes found in baseball a compelling example of modernity, egalitarianism and freedom. As is true in many Caribbean countries, baseball is as much a part of Venezuelan popular culture as it is an all-American sport.
One can only wonder what the hemispheric political landscape would now be if, instead of becoming a delirious autocrat who squandered his country’s vast oil wealth, Hugo Chávez had fulfilled his teenage big-league dream.
Ibsen Martínez is a Venezuelan playwright and novelist. His latest novel is Simpatía por King Kong.