A boy plays in an informal baseball game in Caracas. Boys as young as 5 are… (Jorge Silva, Reuters )
Reporting from Guacara, Venezuela — As Eugenio Suarez took some practice swings in the batting cage at the Detroit Tigers' baseball academy, the anti-U.S. bluster of President Hugo Chavez couldn't have been further from his mind. He was too intent on his coach's instructions to keep his hands tight, take a short stride and turn his hips quickly through his swing.
"I'm just trying to make my dream come true, to make it to the big leagues," said Suarez, a 19-year-old shortstop, who hit one solid line drive after another, the balls crashing against the home run fence 350 feet from the plate. "Politics goes over my head. I feel enough pressure from the people evaluating me, the pressure to play well," he said.
Venezuela, according to Major League Baseball statistics released Thursday on 2011's Opening Day, is gradually increasing its presence on big league rosters. There were 62 Venezuelan players this year, up from 58 last year, despite political tension with the United States.
The growth continues even though many MLB teams are leaving Venezuela, in part because of anti-U.S. rhetoric, officials said.
Security has also deteriorated to the point that the Tigers enforce a 7 p.m. curfew for all 35 players who train in this hot valley town about 120 miles west of Caracas, the capital. "The players are natural targets for all kinds of thieves and thugs who prey on them," said Oscar Garcia, the academy's business manager.
Only six teams, including the Tigers, still maintain year-round baseball academies in Venezuela, down from nine in 2007 and 21 in 2002. The St. Louis Cardinals, which closed down its facility last year, was the most recent to leave.
By contrast, all 30 major league teams have academies in the Dominican Republic, where the government "rolls out the red carpet to big league baseball," one team official here said. For example, the Dominican Republic does not levy duty on imported bats, gloves and other equipment as Venezuela does.
"Teams have left Venezuela because of issues with the government and security that have made it more difficult to do business there," said a major league official who declined to be named because of political sensitivities. "Absent those problems, there would be a lot more teams here using academies."
Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh history professor and author of three books on baseball, said the success of Venezuelan players despite the nation's rocky relations with the U.S. is "nothing short of phenomenal."
"You have two currents coming up against each other. One is the historic passion and level of achievement of Venezuelan players, and the other is the fear and anxiety that the current political and social situation strikes in major league officials," Ruck said.
But even though there are fewer academies in Venezuela, deals are still being made to find talent.
Two years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers formed a joint venture with the Venezuelan professional team, La Guaira Tiburones (Sharks), to develop players together. The Dodgers' farm system director, DeJon Watson, said the arrangement has helped the Dodgers sign several Venezuelans currently under minor league contract.
The doggedness of some Venezuelan scouts was shown with Suarez's signing two years ago. Tigers scout Alejandro Rodriguez found him playing in a youth league in the remote mining town of Ciudad Piar, which has never produced a Major League player.
Although Suarez was somewhat slight of build at
145 pounds on his 6-foot frame, scout Rodriguez was attracted by his fire on the field and offered him a $12,000 bonus to sign a minor league contract. That's far less than the $89,000 average that Venezuelan prospects received that year, but Suarez jumped at it.
Now he is described by his Tigers coaches as the best all-round player at the academy, further ahead in mental and physical development than players who got $1 million bonuses.
Last month Suarez left to play in the Tigers' rookie league team in Florida, the bottom rung in the minor leagues, but his first big break. Shortly before leaving, he said he was undaunted by statistics that show only one of 25 minor leaguers ever graduates to the Big Leagues.
"I never think about that, only that yes, I'll be the first player from Ciudad Piar to make it."
Kraul is a special correspondent.