TRONCONERO, Venezuela -- Dressed for work in shorts and a T-shirt, Jesus "Chalao" Mendez hardly looked imposing. But for young Venezuelan baseball players with major league ambitions, Mendez has more juice than Hugo Chavez and George Bush put together.
Mendez, whose nickname means "crazy," is chief Venezuela scout for the Philadelphia Phillies. Stocky, deep-voiced and gregarious, the 44-year-old Caracas native controls the fate of hundreds of Venezuelan youths chasing the near-impossible dream of making it to the big leagues.
One day last month, Mendez tried out five anxious and wide-eyed 16- and 17-year-olds during a 90-minute workout at the Phillies' baseball academy here in central Venezuela. It is one of nine such camps operated by Major League Baseball franchises in this country.
As he does every week in cities across this baseball-mad nation, he trained his radar gun, stopwatch and practiced eye on the youths as they pitched, ran, hit and fielded. He was searching for the elusive mix of athletic skill, physical tools and youthful promise he calls "projection." (Translation: big-league potential.)
"It's like gold mining, looking for a nugget," Mendez said. Of the 2,000 young Venezuelan players he observed last year, he signed only six to a Phillies minor league contract.
The returns may seem minimal, but prospecting for talent is essential to major league teams in an age when foreign players in general and Venezuelans in particular are a growing presence on U.S. professional baseball rosters.
Venezuelans occupied 50 of the 849 spots on major league rosters and injured lists on opening day last year, up from 20 in 1997. The nation has surpassed Puerto Rico as the second-leading offshore source of baseball talent to the big leagues, and is gaining ground on the Dominican Republic, which had 99 last year.
Six Venezuelans -- Victor Martinez, Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, Francisco Rodriguez, Johan Santana and Miguel Cabrera -- made the All-Star team last summer, up from one in 1997.
The talent pipeline continues to flow despite Venezuela President Chavez's anti-U.S. rhetoric and his having sent several U.S. oil, telephone and electric companies packing in recent years. Other teams have been scared away by a crime wave that has included armed robberies and kidnappings of players and their families.
Those worries have caused the number of teams operating academies to drop to nine from 21 six years ago.
Geopolitics were far from the minds of the five youths who showed up last month, seeking their big chance. They were hoping Mendez would offer them, if not a contract, a coveted spot in the Phillies' academy, a red brick building resembling an Eastern boarding school where 35 youths receive room and board, intensive instruction and invaluable game experience in an inter-academy league.
By impressing the Phillies' staff during an academy stay averaging three weeks, the youths might then be signed to professional contracts, with bonuses that average $13,000, a king's ransom in this poor farming and industrial region.
"If I can just get in, I will get good training and advice," said 16-year-old pitcher Jorge Hernandez, taking a breather after throwing 84-mph fastballs for Mendez. "I have many friends who have signed contracts already, so I know I can do it."
In the bleachers sat several agents known as buscones, or "bird dogs," who sign youths barely into their teens to binding contracts. Also present was Hernandez's mother, Carmen Hidalgo, who knows a nod from Mendez would change her son's life.
But Mendez, outwardly friendly and encouraging, wasn't overly impressed. Hernandez's fastball wasn't fast enough, Mendez said, adding that the player's 5-foot-10 height was a disadvantage.
"Almost all of them, I'll have to let down easy," Mendez said as he watched 17-year-old catcher Francisco Vargas take batting practice with a case of what Mendez called "bar arm," an overly rigid left arm. "I never tell them afterward they can't play. I tell them what they have to work on to get better."
Mendez calls the five together and in an avuncular tone gives them tips before sending four on their way. He advises Hernandez to correct his throwing motion, Vargas to keep his hands looser and higher at the plate, and Israel Pena to be more aggressive fielding fly balls.
"This is a complicated job," Mendez told them, by way of apology. "I'm just reacting to what I see."
Then he took right-handed pitcher Jonathan Quinones, who at 17 is 6-1 and throws an 88-mph fastball. "I see projection," Mendez told him and offered him a two-week stay at the Phillies' academy.
Baseball has been a national passion in Venezuela since the 1920s, when U.S. oil workers introduced it here. Unlike other South American countries, where soccer reigns supreme, baseball is the national pastime here.