Insider dishes on Venezuela baseball
This week, I interviewed an American who played recently in the Venezuelan Winter League. He wished to remain anonymous, given the sensitivity of player safety in the country right now.
Here is a portion of the exchange.
1. Did you have any trepidation about going to play in Venezuela?
Before I officially signed my contract, I looked into what playing in Venezuela actually meant. Once I began reading and hearing about what (the city) was like, I definitely had some worries. I read and heard about the murder rate, the kidnappings, etc. It certainly worried me. I was assured, though, that we would have team security with us at all times and that we would be staying at a nice hotel in a good part of the city. Ultimately, I decided to go on with it. The money was great, and I wanted a chance to pitch in the league against better competition. Most salary ranges for American players in Venezuela go from $10,000 all the way up to $18,000 or $20,000.
2. How has your experience there been alike or different from what you thought it would be?
My experience has been nothing short of great. I was certainly timid when I got there but quickly got accustomed.
The baseball, first of all, is really good — especially in the second half and into the playoffs. That’s when many of the well-known big leaguers start to play. The fans are the most passionate I’ve ever been around. From pitch one to the end of the game, it is loud. Drums, noisemakers, you name it. The pride the people have in their teams is amazing.
We draw well everywhere we go. We play in front of anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 people every night. Honestly, I feel like a rock star a lot of the time. After every game, we have barricades set up to our bus. People line the barricades sometimes 10 to 12 deep just to get pictures and autographs.
Beer and hard alcohol are flowing at the games. It is much cheaper to get that stuff at the games (in comparison to the US) and that may play into the loudness and raucousness during the games. That led to fights in the stands at times. In a 10-week span, I probably saw five or six fights. There were also several times when people came down on the field to rush a player. It’s just a part of the culture. There is absolutely no denying their love for the game, though.
3. What sorts of safeguards are in place for you every day, at the ballpark and away from it?
Right from the get-go, we are met at the airport by team security and two drivers. They meet us as soon as we get out, right at the front. The drive from the airport to town is where a lot of bad stuff can happen. The roads and traffic can be brutal at times. This is where the express kidnappings occur sometimes. We stay at a very nice hotel. We each get our own room, which is a suite, basically. There are two security personnel who stay at the same hotel and are at our disposal whenever we need them.
We are taken to the field every day in a team van with security on board. At the games, our security is with us as well — in the dugout, on the field, in the locker room. During the games, our security steps out in front of our dugout every half inning, and stays there until the game is ready to resume. They are all connected with earpieces and such. There is also a security guard down with the guys in the bullpen. Field security is also good. There are armed guards with saber-type swords and automatic weapons who walk the track occasionally with K-9 dogs. They don’t (mess) around.
The van after the game is escorted by two or three men on motorcycles that carry automatic weapons. They basically clear traffic for our van. At times when cars do not move, they pull their weapons. This was shocking at first, but I got used to it. And that doesn’t happen that often. Once we are back to the hotel, it’s back to the room.
4. What tips have you heard from Venezuelan players or other locals about ways to stay safe?
The tips we have heard from our team security is to not leave the hotel or mall complex. Do not walk or go anywhere outside of the hotel and mall. We stick out like sore thumbs. Basically, we are in our own little bubble.
That doesn’t mean that guys don’t go out, because many do. That may change now, though. Certain guys will still go out to clubs and bars, with and without other Latin players. Most of the time, they go out with no incident whatsoever. There have been times when guys have danced with the wrong girl and things have gotten ugly, which is why they tell us to stay put. Nothing is worth your life. Not any amount of money.
They tell us not to dress too nice, not any kind of nice jewelry or anything like that. Basically, just try and blend in the best we can.
But let me say this: The entire time, I have felt 110 percent safe. I have never felt in danger of my life or anything close to it. I feel safe at the hotel, at the field, and on the road. Everywhere we have travelled I have felt safe. Is the city dangerous? Of course it is. But a lot of the crime happens far from us.
5. What was your first reaction when you heard about Ramos’ kidnapping?
My first reaction was shock, but it really shouldn’t have been. Baseball players, and especially well-known Latin big-leaguers, are targets whether they think so or not. Most of the people there love them. They get so much attention. But they also have the nicest clothing and nice watches.
I know many well-known Latin players with teams all over the league that carry weapons to the field. They show up to the field with whatever gun they have, take the clip out, and hand it to the (clubhouse attendant). After the game, they get it back when they have to leave the field.
They have to. They can’t take any chances — especially now with the Wilson Ramos kidnapping. This could destroy the reputation of the league. Why would any well-known Venezuelan big leaguer come back and play when their life is at stake? The league needs them. They need the star power to draw the fans.
Let me say that the incident with Wilson Ramos hasn’t changed my opinion of the people, the team, the league, or the country. The people are fantastic, very accommodating. The LVBP is a great league. The baseball is awesome, and the fans are the most passionate in the world. If I had to come back again, I would not think twice about it. Hopefully, this situation is resolved soon and with a positive ending.