Venezuela: Tropic of Baseball

According to the misbelief that baseball was introduced by the U.S. military interventions, Chavismo has provoked the decline of a sport that offered opportunities for Venezuelan youngsters.

Many people in the Caribbean Basin, in Europe and in the south of our continent assume that baseball arrived in our countries as a result of the countless American military interventions in the region, at the beginning of the 20th century. However, it is a fact that the United States Marine Corps did not bring the game to us.

The man who first took a baseball bat and a ball to Cuba was Nemesio Guilló. It happened back in 1864! The civil war was ongoing and Cubans were still subjects of the Spanish Crown.

Nemesio was one of three “mommy’s boys” to be sent off by his affluent parents to study at a university (Springville College) in Mobile, Alabama, in 1858. By 1868, Nemesio had already built a team – the Havana Baseball Club – that had defeated the crew of an American merchant schooner during a friendly game.

However, the team did not have time to celebrate the feat: it was forced into secrecy because the Ten Years’ War (Cuba’s fight for independence) broke out that same year and the Spanish authorities forbade the game.

Pro-independence Cuban youngsters preferred baseball to bullfighting because they had to pay homage to the authorities of the Spanish Crown during the latter. Apart from how enjoyable and exciting “the ball” can be, it is easy to understand why pro-independence Cubans attributed a symbolic value linked to modernity and ideas about freedom and egalitarianism to baseball as opposed to bullfighting and the decline of the monarchy.

As a Venezuelan, I grew up with the misbelief that baseball arrived in our country with the first American oil tankers. We now know, thanks to diligent researchers such as Caraquenian historian Javier González, that descendants of well-off families also imported the game in the last decade of the 19th century, following Nemesio’s steps. Our first baseball match was played in the switchyard of a railway station east of Caracas in 1895, long before we, Venezuelans, watched the first bullfight.

In Venezuela, as in the rest of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the forefathers belonged to the so-called elites. However, the sovereign state soon took control of the game by looking at how the young rich men played it, which was the only way to learn the composition laws of a game whose rules “always seem an exception when seen from afar.”

In his book “The Pride of Havana,” Roberto González Echevarría, who is a distinguished professor of comparative literature at Yale University and a baseball historian on the island, offers this thesis: “American culture is one of the fundamental components of Cuban culture, even when historically there have been concerted and painful attempts to fight it off or deny it. […] Baseball is the clearest indication of this, but not the only one. It is a process in which the antagonist is absorbed instead of repelled.” This is about Cuba, but it is the same for Venezuela.

Baseball has provided a familiar language across the region with some idioms whose imagery often refers to moral dilemmas. This can be seen in game strategies, in all those surprise shots full of malice that are so typical of baseball, such as the ones we found in segregated American black leagues. This malice was quickly absorbed by Cuban and Dominican players who went to the United States and played in those leagues.

The names and surnames of any professional American baseball lineup give an impression of the place that this “tale about borders,” as González Echevarría would call it, takes up in the American cultural history and ours, its neighbors. A tale that has lasted over a century and a half.

In 2008, American expert Milton Jamail wrote the following: “Whatever the reasons, the talent pool for baseball in the United States clearly is shrinking, thus making it necessary to look elsewhere for players.” He added: “Statistics provided by the baseball industry show that almost 35 percent of players in professional baseball at all levels, from rookie to big league, were born outside of the United States (figures include Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico). Baseball clearly is no longer just a U.S. sport.”

My friend Milton is right: Nowadays, baseball is an international sport played professionally in places such as Australia, Japan, Canada, South Korea, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Colombia, Argentina, Holland, Italy and even Catalonia! Its most demanding professional level is found in the United States, where Latin Americans stand out.

It was all thanks to Nemesio Guilló, the Cuban man who brought the first horsehide ball with a cork inside from Alabama and thus gave rise to the special kind of baseball that we, Latin Americans, play in the Caribbean basin.

The first Venezuelan player who arrived in Major League Baseball was pitcher Alfonso “Patón” Carrasquel. He made his debut with the Washington Senators in 1939. Since then, more than 320 Venezuelans have followed his steps in a slow and sustained way. In 1997, in consideration of local talent, several MLB teams established an exclusive and demanding youth league that revolved around a successful system of baseball academies.

By 2002, 21 academies were working in the country with impressive results. In 1994, only 19 Venezuelans played in the majors. In 2010, 90 creole players appeared regularly in major league matches. Nowadays, Venezuelans are filled with pride when they see that 102 of their countrymen have been invited to spring training, which leads up to the regular season beginning this week.

In 2008, ten years after Chávez’s rise to power, the Houston Astros, precursors of the rookie league, hounded by insecurity and foreign exchange controls, shut down their facilities and moved to the Dominican Republic. The remaining organizations then started a gradual retirement. Today, there are four academies left, which have announced their closure for next year. These defections will deprive hundreds of talented youngsters without means of genuine opportunities. Although the risk of failure is very high, so is the reward: the average annual wage in the major league is $3.2 million (some 2.1 million euros).

Considering the increase of violence last year (25,000 homicides), many of the best-paid creole players in major leagues have opted to live in the United States in the midst of tensions between Caracas and Washington.

Before becoming a military officer, Hugo Chávez, just like many other youngsters without means, tried to escape from poverty by becoming a pitcher (a left-handed one, as expected) in the major leagues. Even if he used to spice up his endless pep talks with baseball jargon, one day he decided to abolish professional baseball and gave the same non-capitalist reasons as Fidel Castro gave in Cuba in 1960. Venezuelan supporters, above all the chavistas, complained that it was outrageous and killed the project.

I wonder how different the current Latin American political spectrum would be if, instead of becoming a delirious autocrat who squandered all the wealth of his country, his teenage dream of becoming the biggest major league left-handed pitcher in Venezuela’s baseball history had come true.

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