Baseball in Venezuela: A Point of Mutual Interest
Sheldon, Siena, Washington Report on the Hemisphere
In early October, the Western Hemisphere focused its attention on the Venezuelan elections and the controversial return of President Hugo Chavez to the country's presidency. During the World Series in late October, however, the focus shifted to Major League Baseball (MLB), with Venezuela premiering nine players on the two competing teams. The Venezuelans had even more to celebrate when two Venezuelan natives, Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval, were named the San Francisco Giants' Most Valuable Players. As Scutaro accepted his award in the pouring rain, there were glimpses of a Venezuelan flag waving behind him in recognition of his heritage. Various media outlets heralded the success of the Venezuelans; the Caracas sports daily, Meridiano, ran the headline "Venezuela Grows Giant," and as the World Series began, one Venezuelan TV announcer proclaimed it the "show of the Venezuelans."
The MLB has experienced a dramatic demographic shift over the past 20 years as its teams have recruited more players from Latin America. Although baseball originated in the United States, it is now a pastime of other countries in the hemisphere as well, including the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Venezuela. This year's World Series, featuring nine Venezuelans, nine Dominicans, and one Puerto Rican, illustrates the enduring popularity of baseball in the region. In 1994, only 19 Venezuelans appeared in the MLB, but by the 2010 season, the league boasted 90 Venezuelan History of Baseball in Venezuela
To a majority of Latin American countries, soccer is their national sport. Venezuela, however, has increasingly identified baseball as its sport of choice. U.S. workers employed in Venezuela's oil industry first introduced baseball to the South American nation in the early 20th century. Baseball became further entrenched when Venezuelan students studying in the United States brought the sport back with them when they returned. The Venezuelan professional baseball league was formed in 1945. With six professional teams and up to 18 million passionate fans, the league remains highly popular today.
More than 260 Venezuelans have played in the MLB, amassing a long list of notable achievements. The year 2012 has been a particularly successful season for Venezuelan ballplayers. This past season, 66 Venezuelans were on the rosters of MLB teams, second only to the Dominican Republic for most foreign -born players. Other achievements of Venezuelans in the MLB this year include: Johan Santana of the New York Mets throwing the teams' first ever no-hitter, and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers winning the regular season Triple Crown and finishing the season with the best batting average, the most home runs, and the most runs batted in. Cabrera was the first Triple Crown winner since 1967, making him the first Venezuelan to win the honor as well as the first Latin American to do so.
Much of Venezuela's success in baseball is a result of the organized web of training systems for young baseball hopefuls. Children in Venezuela start training as young as three years old. An estimated 130 thousand youths play in junior leagues, with many of them coming from poor parts of the country. These locally run baseball leagues are usually described as a community effort since the coaches are paid meager wages and the parents are required to pay a monthly fee for their young stars to participate.
Baseball is regarded as a way to keep children out of crime and lift families out of poverty. Many young hopefuls dream of playing with U.S. Major League teams. Temistocles Liendo, a professional Venezuelan baseball player, participates in an initiative called "Vamos a Jugá," (in English meaning, "Let's Play") a program that consists of retired baseball players who teach baseball to children in Venezuela. As Temistocles Liendo remarked:
The situation in Venezuela is quite complicated for teenagers. I think they see other people who make money in such easy ways, and many of those kids are getting into bad habits. …