Mixed feelings for Chavez at Venezuela game

JUPITER, Fla. — Venezuela’s national baseball team took the field for batting practice late Tuesday afternoon to warm up for its exhibition game against the Miami Marlins.

While the players roamed the Roger Dean Stadium ground, word spread that Venezuela president Hugo Chavez had died.

The Venezuelan flag was lowered to half staff.

Then a few minutes later, the flag was raised. It remained that way the rest of the night.

Even at a baseball game far from the country he ruled, Chavez had a polarizing effect.

He was a socialist who led a revolution in his homeland, reigning as president for more than 14 years. He was a close friend of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and was very anti-American.

Clearly, showing respect to Chavez was not a priority to the game’s decision makers.

“There are things we can’t control,” said former Marlins pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who started for Venezuela. “For the respect of Venezuela, they have to do something before the first game against the Dominican Republic.”

That would be Thursday night in Puerto Rico, during the first round of the World Baseball Classic.

Venezuelan team officials did request a moment of silence and lowered flags in honor of Chavez before Tuesday night’s game. A Marlins spokesman said all parties involved – the Marlins, Major League Baseball and Roger Dean Stadium – were not prepared to do so.

The game went on, in front of an announced crowd of 2,719 fans who mostly supported the Venezuelans.

Miguel Cabrera was the star of the game in defeat, with a home run, two doubles and four RBI in a 6-5 loss to Miami.

Afterward, Cabrera’s thoughts were with Chavez and the president’s family.

“It’s sad what’s happening to our country,” Cabrera said. “We send our condolences to his family. This is something you don’t wish on anybody.

“I don’t know how his family is right now. He’s no longer with us — it’s very sad. This is something I cannot comment a lot on because I feel a lot of pain and I’m not in Venezuela.”

Not all the Venezuelan players cared to discuss the dead president. Former Marlins right-hander Anibal Sanchez and San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval both answered other postgame questions, but each shook his head no when asked to comment on the day’s biggest news.

Perhaps that was because, according to a team spokesman, the country’s minister of sports messaged the team: “Please tell the guys to concentrate on sports and leave the political stuff out.”

Or maybe the players’ refusal to comment was because Chavez’s effect on the team was similar to that he had on the country and the world.

Zambrano enthusiastically talked about throwing two scoreless innings, then sounded more somber when asked about Chavez.

“I’m very sad. I ask that the Venezuela people stay calm,” he said. “We have to understand that the president had a family. He’s a human being and it’s sad. We send condolences to the Chavez family. We know it’s a difficult moment. This caught us by surprise.

“It’s really sad that people are taking this like a joke. It’s time for the country to unite and understand that we are in a difficult situation.”

Venezuela manager Luis Sojo said Chavez used to call him before and after World Baseball Classic games in 2006 and 2009.

“He was a baseball man,” Sojo said.

Perhaps, but he was much more than that — evidenced by no moment of silence or flags at half mast.

Charlie McCarthy can be reached at mac1763@bellsouth.net or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas