American baseball players thriving in Venezuela

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 29, 2013 at 11:03 pm •  Published: December 29, 2013
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — It's about six weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training in the U.S., but in Venezuela, the nation's fiercely competitive professional league is in full swing, and it's drawn the biggest contingent of American players in decades.

In the land of Hugo Chavez, a place in many ways hostile to Americans owing to its reputation for rampant crime, a crumbling economy and an anti-capitalist government, hitters and hurlers from across the U.S. are thriving as they try to impress big league scouts who flock here for the winter season.

It's not just about working on mechanics. Many come for the paycheck. While Venezuela's eight professional teams no longer can compete with major league salaries as they did during the oil-fueled economic boom of the 1960s, when Pete Rose wore a Caracas Leones jersey right after his rookie of the year season, they still pay from $10,000 to $20,000 a month, which can be two to three times what most players make in the U.S. minor leagues.

"Diapers aren't cheap," said C.J. Retherford, a 28-year-old Arizona native who made $3,000 a month last season for the RedHawks of the sister cities of Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. He now plays third base for the Tiburones, or Sharks, from the city of La Guaira outside Caracas — one of the nine "imports" the league allows each team to hire.

For players accustomed to the small crowds of minor league stadiums back home, the frequently sold out Estadio Universitario in Caracas can be daunting. Abundant servings of rum and whiskey and a nerve-rattling cacophony of drums pump up the 25,000 screaming fans who hang on every pitch.

"It's Friday night football every game, all the game," said Jamie Romak, a 28-year-old outfielder for La Guaira who played for the St. Louis Cardinal's AAA team in Memphis, Tennessee. "You can have an eight run lead, blink your eyes twice and suddenly it's a one-run game."

Not everyone loves the experience. In addition to the challenges of playing abroad, from unfamiliar food to a foreign language, Venezuela presents its own set of daily problems.

Foremost is security. Bodyguards lurk near the dugout, keeping a close eye on Venezuelan big leaguers whose million-dollar contracts make them prime kidnapping targets. Nobody wants to become the next Wilson Ramos, the Washington Nationals catcher who was abducted in 2011 at gunpoint outside his family's home in Valencia. He was rescued two days later after a nationwide manhunt.

The American players for La Guaira and rival Leones live a few blocks away from the ballpark at a five-star hotel, rarely venturing farther than the attached shopping mall. What they see of Venezuela is mostly what passes the bus window on long road trips between games. Their families? Only on Skype.

"You have to be smart," said Tony DeFrancesco, a coach for the Houston Astros' AAA team who is making his managerial debut in Venezuela with La Guaira. "I enjoy running, cycling and mountain climbing, but I just can't do it by myself here."

While the Americans are insulated from the worst of Venezuela's economic woes, in the almost three months since the season started they've seen prices jump and store shelves go bare of basic goods as inflation soared above 50 percent and the nation's currency plunged to a tenth of its official value in a flourishing black market.



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