The Atlanta Braves and Baseball in Venezuela – a Country in Turmoil

Apr 25, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals second baseman Omar Infante (14) walks to the dugout after a ground out in the ninth inning of the game against the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Angels won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Venezuela has been a hot-bed of baseball for years – the best baseball country on their continent.  All of that could be in danger though, as their country’s unrest is boiling over.

It’s been a building problem in Venezuela for several years now, but has come to a head since the death of Hugo Chavez.  Shortages of basic supplies – electricity, milk, flour, other foods – led the government to devalue its currency.  Since then inflation has spiraled, a recession took hold, and protests – often violent – have been building.

With several major league players hailing from Venezuela – including current members of the Atlanta Braves – this situation has to eat at them on a daily basis with friends and family effected.

If I were a ball player looking for a Winter League right now, Venezuela would not be my choice… particularly in or around Caracas

The situation there is bad and is still getting worse.  Two weeks ago, a major US company issued a advisory message to all employees:  no business travel to Caracas, Venezuela for any reason and severely restricted for the rest of the country “due to a significant increase in protest activity and the potential for significant unrest.”

There are reports of crime and corruption everywhere.  In a Washington Post article from Thursday, they report on a man jailed for three months (so far) simply because he and at least 2 dozen others were selected from a line of people trying to buy food.  Many see it as scapegoating a few for the sins of the government.

They also report:

In a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates, and where carjackings, muggings and kidnappings often go unpunished, the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained at least 9,400 people this year for allegedly breaking laws against hoarding, reselling goods or attempting to stand in line outside normal store hours, according to the Venezuelan human rights organization Movimiento Vinotinto. Many were taken into custody by the Venezuelan troops assigned to police the checkout aisles and the long lines snaking from supermarkets.

Fox News Latino makes it clear that Americans are not safe either:  a Utah man was jailed on what appears to be trumped-up weapons charges on June 30th.  He’s a Mormon missionary with a Venezuela wife.

According to Wikipedia:

In a July 22, 2016 decree, President Maduro used his executive power to declare a state of economic emergency. The decree could force citizens to work in agricultural fields and farms for 60-day (or longer) periods to supply food to the country.  Colombian border crossings have been temporarily opened to allow Venezuelans to purchase food and basic household and health items in Colombia in mid-2016.

It’s clearly a bad situation that’s not getting any better – and one that could certainly spill over and impact other aspects of life.

Jun 24, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Florida Marlins former player Andres Galarraga smiles before throwing out the ceremonial pitch before a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 24, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Florida Marlins former player Andres Galarraga smiles before throwing out the ceremonial pitch before a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Venezuelan Baseball Legacy

It doesn’t take long to recognize just how many players from Venezuela have been American major league stars.  You can start with the Venezuelan team that competed in the most recent World Baseball Classic (2013):

…and that’s barely half their roster.

I could certainly add several more names with Braves’ connections:  Andres Galarraga, Williams Perez, Luis Avilan, Gregor Blanco, and Eddie Perez (now a US citizen) to name a few.

Baseball-reference.com lists 355 position players and 154 pitchers from the country – since 1939!  Clearly, baseball is a big part of their heritage.

Other Sports

So far, the overt impact to sports has been barely noticeable.  Venezuelan athletes participated in the Rio Olympics without an obvious hitch.

At least that’s what the world might have thought without digging any deeper.

Note this in a Sports Illustrated discussion of the country’s Rio basketball squad:

Prior to coming to Rio I’d known that Venezuela’s been mired in political turmoil since the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, but not until talking to people at the Olympics did I realize how bad it’s gotten. The drop in oil prices, coupled with an ineffective and oppressive socialist government, has left the country increasingly helpless. Infrastructure is crumbling. While the rest the world has wondered whether Rio can host, Venezuela is struggling to eat.

Some athletes noted that sport is something of a respite to themselves and the population at large from their day-to-day struggles to find food.

Impact to Baseball?

Adonis Garcia is Cuban, but he and others regularly play in the Venzuelan Winter League (Perez has often managed there as well), which normally starts play in November.  One has to wonder if that’s in danger this year.

Then there’s the stars of tomorrow to consider.

There are three other names you might also be familiar with:  Kevin Maitan, Abrahan Gutierrez, and Livan Soto.  All three are among the top 16-year-olds signed by Atlanta this Summer as part of the J2 International market.

There were others, too:  Antonio Sucre, Franger Carollo, and Adrian Adrianza.  All signed by Atlanta from Venezuela.

The reports at the time made nary a mention of the deteriorating conditions, but getting these kids couldn’t have been easy – nor couldn’t have come soon enough.

Aug 15, 2016; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Miami Marlins third baseman Martin Prado fields a ball hit by Cincinnati Reds second baseman Tony Renda (not pictured) during the eighth inning at Great American Ball Park. The Marlins won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

A Risky Business

Imagine visiting a country where a growing segment of the population has trouble finding food – and then finding a means to pay for it once found.  Now imagine people with money – or at least those perceived to have money – walking around in the midst of increasingly desperate people.

Now you have a sense of what life might be like for both professional baseball players and American scouts as they try to seek out that next generation of talent.

If I were a ball player looking for a Winter League right now, Venezuela would not be my choice… particularly in or around Caracas.  There’s simply too much risk of kidnapping, robbery, or worse.  Even the thought of hiring private security would certainly make it difficult – if not impossible – to concentrate on the reason for being there in the first place.

For scouts, ease of travel is important as they go from one training facility to another.  It was already a sometimes tricky and sketchy business.  Now it’s simply dangerous.

For Gordon Blakeley, Kylie McDaniel and their staff, it is certainly possible now that some kids may not be able to get with trainers now due to the unrest.  It is also possible that some trainers and their camps might simply be inaccessible to the Braves scouts… or any other team’s scouts for that matter.

All of this raises the notion that some kids might be missed and deprived of an opportunity to escape the country with their families and pursue a baseball life.  Thus, some victims of this crisis are obvious; others not so much.

Because of excess spending internationally in this signing period, the Atlanta Braves will be barred from spending more than $300,000 on any Latin player (technically, non-North American) for the next pair of signing periods (July 2017-June 2019).  This will likely reduce the Braves’ presence in Venezuela and elsewhere… but it does not eliminate that on-going work that needs to remain strong for future considerations.

Those relationships with trainers and other contacts need to be maintained to properly scout young prospects.  Yet if youngsters themselves are pressed into family service for survival or are having general nutrition issues from the food shortages, then this will certainly impact their ability to be “found” as future prospects… and their ability to escape the turmoil of their homeland.

Lights at end of the Tunnel?

There is no end game in the Venezuelan crisis at this point.  Most countries in the area cannot simply swoop in and help.  The United Status is distracted with a Presidential election, and neither the United Nations nor the International Monetary Fund seem motivated to intervene at any level at this point… except to predict 1700% inflation for 2017.

Whether a US government would be inclined to assist is thus a decision that will have to wait until the new year, but might run into opposition no matter who wins the White House.  President Maduro reached out to America in 2015 after years of animosity from his predecessor, but there’s no word on whether that relationship has thawed at all.

Venezuelans may thus have to work through this on their own strength – but in the meantime, the sport of baseball and the hope for a professional career for some might be part of the collateral damage of a country on the brink.

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