Baseball Crazy Country in Chaos

PC: Ezequiel Minaya

Baseball, the most popular sport in the country, has been played in Venezuela for over 100 years. In the 2014-2015 season the total attendance at the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League (VPBL) was 2.6 million, averaging more than 10,000/game. VPBL is relatively new compared to the teams within it. Established in 1945, their oldest club, the Valencia’s Navegantes del Magallanes, will celebrate its 100th birthday next year.

The Venezuelan men’s national team has remained successful through the years. In World cup medal standings the nation is third after Cuba and the U.S. Venezuela’s glory days were in the 1940s when the national team won the World Cup three times. Along with their gold medals Venezuela has earned two silver and four bronze medals.

In the 2006 inaugural World Baseball Classic, Venezuela finished 7th. In 2009 they took 3rd. Despite the team’s drop to 10th place in the 2013 Classic they have qualified for the 2017 event. Today’s men’s national team is ranked 7th in the WBSC rankings and 6th in the Pan American Baseball Confederation’s rankings.

Like the men, the women’s national team has done well in international competition. The team is currently ranked 5th in the WBSC world rankings. Venezuela took 4th place in the 2010 World Cup in Caracas. In the 2016 competition earlier this month they earned bronze.

The first-ever medal in international women’s baseball competition didn’t escape notice in Venezuela. Team members were given a hero’s welcome on their return. The welcoming party included an official reception and a presidential endorsement.

President Nicolas Madura said on national television, “The Women’s Professional Baseball League must be born immediately and must be born at the highest level and with the maximum media support in order for our young ladies to get enthused…to become stars and become world champions with all the love and identity [of Venezuela].” President Madura mandated Ministry of Youth and Sport, Pedro Infante, establish the new league. National team manager Carlos Torres has already been named President.

President Madura’s statement isn´t a big surprise. Since the days of President Hugo Chavez Venezuela’s politicians have used baseball to try to unite the people with their causes. Chavez frequently mixed baseball and politics during his marathon public speeches. He was a big baseball fan and dreamed of becoming a professional pitcher. Instead he joined the army before moving on to politics in the early 1980s. President Chavez died in 2013 leaving his protégé President Madura a ruined state-run system.

Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world, and yet the country is suffering the worst economic crisis in its history. The economic situation has led to chaos. Food riots have become a daily occurrence and it is reported that people are eating zoo animals because of food supply shortages. Experts are warning that the crisis is likely to get worse. It makes it hard to believe that the collapsed country would create a professional baseball league in the near future.

It is obvious that the economic turmoil has put a damper on baseball in Venezuela. From 2014 to 2015 tickets in the VPBL went up an unbelievable 300 percent. But the fact remains that thousands of baseball fans were willing to pay the new higher ticket prices. Proof that baseball is still thriving in Venezuela amid the crisis.

The 2016-2017 season starts October 6th so, in a few weeks we will find out how the Valencia’s Navegantes del Magallanes fans are reacting to ticket prices of 30.060 bolivars to 179.000 bolivars (from $4.80 to $28.60). The prices are reasonable for professional sports but expensive when compared to the local minimum wage. In Venezuela $34-$90/month is the salary range in a good job.

The VPBL is one of four leagues in the Caribbean winterball – the others are the Dominic Republic League, the Mexican League and the Puerto Rico League. The teams in the VPBL play 65 games between October and January. The winner represents Venezuela in the Caribbean series in February.

Because of the situation of unrest in Venezuela MLB teams are concerned about sending top prospects to the country. Even so, the VPBL continues to be one of the strongest Winter Leagues. Last year’s champions, The Tigres De Aragua, have 11 players from the MLB system on their 35-man roster for the season.

MLB clubs are fleeing Venezuela

In the footsteps of their crisis comes violent crime. According the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, Venezuela has the second-highest homicide rate in the world after Honduras.

Because of the unstable political situation, worsening economic crisis and security concerns the MLB has reduced their operations in Venezuela. In the late 1990s there were at highest 23 MLB baseball academies. By 2007 they were 11 and, by the end of 2015 only four remained (the Cubs, Phillies, Rays and Tigers) after the Mariners pulled up stakes and moved their 30 teenage prospects to a newly built academy in the Dominican Republic. Venezuela’s chronic food shortage was one of the reasons the Mariners shut the academy down. They literally couldn’t find enough raw materials to prepare three meals a day for the players.

Photo: Ezequiel Minaya

The Cubs are the latest to leave Venezuela. They departed before Spring Training 2016 leaving only three clubs with plans to field teams in the Venezuelan Summer League (VSL). At that point, the MiLB folded the league after 19 seasons.

Even though the VSL was shut down for this summer, and the MLB clubs are pulling out their academies, most clubs will continue to have scouts in Venezuela. The Venezuelan players that get signed will be sent to Dominican academies. In practice that means signing players able to become successful in the MLB will become less likely. Players will have to consider living away from home while finding scouts willing to go into the country to do their job decrease. The local expert pool will decrease over time putting Venezuela’s baseball future at a comparative disadvantage on the global stage.

The release of the academy system, and the increasing difficulty of traveling to, and scouting in, Venezuela are not just closing the doors for Venezuelan baseball talent, it also means that the country will lose huge sums of US Dollar. At the same time the MLB is reducing their presence in Venezuela, each of the 30 clubs of the league has an academy in the Dominican Republic. Rob Ruck, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the writer of The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic, told National Public Radio “Baseball brings approximately half a billion dollars to the island.”

According to Ruck the league estimates that teams spend $125 million/year on the academies and they are paying an additional $200 million in signing bonuses to Dominican prospects. Added to that an estimated $400 million paid to Dominican major leaguers. Some of those millions go to the home country because many players spend the off-season on the island.

Contrary to Dominicans many Venezuelan big leaguers don´t want to spent their holidays (and money) at home because of safety concerns. Miquel Montero (Cubs), Felix Hernandez (Mariners), Miguel Cabrera (Tigers) and Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies) have all chosen to seek permanent residency in the U.S.

The MLB has already started to look elsewhere for talent. The league has high hopes that normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba will ease the flow of players from the island. For Europe, there is hope that Venezuela’s unrest, combined with recent European success stories, will encourage the MLB to start investing more in the local academy system. If that happens, Europe could see players who make Max Kepler’s standout rookie season with the Twins this summer seem routine. Kepler’s rise through the MLB Academy in Germany is a prime example of what is possible with the right support. An increased MLB presence would be a win for the continent.

Venezuela’s MLB Legacy

Venezuela has produced hundreds of Major Leaguers. 355 players have been born in the country since 1939. Only the Dominican Republic, with 668, has produced a larger number of big league players born outside US boarders. On this season’s opening day rosters 63 Venezuelans were suited up to take the field. In 2015, 98 Venezuelans played at least one big league game and, in the minor leagues, 973 Venezuela natives appeared in at least one game.

One of only seven Hall of Famers not born in the United States, comes from Venezuela. Shortstop Luis Aparicio was elected to the Hall in 1984. During his career (1953-1973) he played for the White Sox, Orioles and Red Sox. Aparacio was the first Venezuelan inducted to the HOF but is not likely to be the last. Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers), Felix Hernández (Seattle Mariners), Johan Santana (New York Mets) and Omar Vizquel (Toronto Blue Jays) are all on the path to Cooperstown.

While the MLB walks away from a country in crisis they are also walking away from opportunity they have spent the past 25 years developing just at the time when the fruits they’ve grown have ripened to picking perfection. It is a no-win situation for all involved and a strong reminder of the larger picture sports can provide a nation.