American baseball players thriving in Venezuela

It’s about six weeks before pitchers and catchers report to

spring training in the U.S., but in Venezuela, the nation’s

fiercely competitive professional league is in full swing, and it’s

drawn the biggest contingent of American players in decades.

In the land of Hugo Chavez, a place in many ways hostile to

Americans owing to its reputation for rampant crime, a crumbling

economy and an anti-capitalist government, hitters and hurlers from

across the U.S. are thriving as they try to impress big league

scouts who flock here for the winter season.

It’s not just about working on mechanics. Many come for the

paycheck. While Venezuela’s eight professional teams no longer can

compete with major league salaries as they did during the

oil-fueled economic boom of the 1960s, when Pete Rose wore a

Caracas Leones jersey right after his rookie of the year season,

they still pay from $10,000 to $20,000 a month, which can be two to

three times what most players make in the U.S. minor leagues.

”Diapers aren’t cheap,” said C.J. Retherford, a 28-year-old

Arizona native who made $3,000 a month last season for the RedHawks

of the sister cities of Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead,

Minnesota. He now plays third base for the Tiburones, or Sharks,

from the city of La Guaira outside Caracas – one of the nine

”imports” the league allows each team to hire.

For players accustomed to the small crowds of minor league

stadiums back home, the frequently sold out Estadio Universitario

in Caracas can be daunting. Abundant servings of rum and whiskey

and a nerve-rattling cacophony of drums pump up the 25,000

screaming fans who hang on every pitch.

”It’s Friday night football every game, all the game,” said

Jamie Romak, a 28-year-old outfielder for La Guaira who played for

the St. Louis Cardinal’s AAA team in Memphis, Tennessee. ”You can

have an eight run lead, blink your eyes twice and suddenly it’s a

one-run game.”

Not everyone loves the experience. In addition to the challenges

of playing abroad, from unfamiliar food to a foreign language,

Venezuela presents its own set of daily problems.

Foremost is security. Bodyguards lurk near the dugout, keeping a

close eye on Venezuelan big leaguers whose million-dollar contracts

make them prime kidnapping targets. Nobody wants to become the next

Wilson Ramos, the Washington Nationals catcher who was abducted in

2011 at gunpoint outside his family’s home in Valencia. He was

rescued two days later after a nationwide manhunt.

The American players for La Guaira and rival Leones live a few

blocks away from the ballpark at a five-star hotel, rarely

venturing farther than the attached shopping mall. What they see of

Venezuela is mostly what passes the bus window on long road trips

between games. Their families? Only on Skype.

”You have to be smart,” said Tony DeFrancesco, a coach for the

Houston Astros’ AAA team who is making his managerial debut in

Venezuela with La Guaira. ”I enjoy running, cycling and mountain

climbing, but I just can’t do it by myself here.”

While the Americans are insulated from the worst of Venezuela’s

economic woes, in the almost three months since the season started

they’ve seen prices jump and store shelves go bare of basic goods

as inflation soared above 50 percent and the nation’s currency

plunged to a tenth of its official value in a flourishing black

market.

Players cut from the roster sometime have to wait a week to find

a flight out because Venezuelans trying to skirt rigid currency

controls have bought up all the tickets. Then there was the home

run derby at the All Star game, which abruptly ended after one

batter due to a nationwide power outage.

Venezuela’s politics are also a potential distraction. This

year’s season kicked off days after Chavez’s successor, President

Nicolas Maduro, expelled the top U.S. diplomat in the country, and

anti-American graffiti dominates a wall next to the Caracas

stadium’s parking lot: ”Not a dollar more for the

capitalists.”

”You can’t let the political situation affect your game. When

you’re on the field you have to tune it all out,” said Omar

Vizquel, one of Venezuela’s best contributions to the big leagues.

The former Cleveland Indians shortstop helped manage the Leones

this season to prepare for his debut as an infield coach with the

Detroit Tigers.

But for those who roll with the punches, Venezuela is a showcase

for second chances and the pursuit of dreams.

Take Retherford. Last May, he was given a 50-game suspension

after testing positive for an amphetamine, which he says he used to

get going after long bus journeys. The Los Angeles Dodgers cut all

ties with its former minor league all-star, and he ended up with

the RedHawks, a team not affiliated with major league baseball,

earning barely enough to support his family.

In Venezuela he’s proven he still has some magic, batting .322

with 11 home runs and 44 RBI. More than 5,000 followers on Twitter

attest to his popularity among Venezuelan fans, who call him ”El

Conejo,” the Rabbit, as much for his protruding teeth as for the

luck provided by his hot bat.

Fawning female fans approach him for autographs when he leaves

his Caracas hotel, but he says the star treatment was more intense

in the smaller city of Barquisimeto, where he played last season

for the Cardinals.

”I’d go to the mall and it was picture, picture, picture,”

says Retherford, brandishing a new tattoo with a rabbit hiding

behind baby blocks spelling his 1-year-old son’s name.

While he’s aware the door to a big league career is becoming

smaller as he gets older, he hopes his strong performance in

Venezuela will attract the attention of teams in Japan or South

Korea, where pay is better.

For now, both he and Romak insist they’re enjoying their time in

Venezuela. Compared to the bitter experience of AAA ball, where

veterans bemoaning their demotion from the majors make life hell

for up-and-coming prospects, the adrenalin and team spirit here is

contagious, says Romak.

”It brings out the little kid in you,” Romak said. ”I’ve

never played in the big leagues, but I don’t think the environment

is nearly as fun.”

Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this

report.