With turmoil at home, Venezuela Little Leaguers get big lift
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (AP) The players from Venezuela look as happy as any other team, dancing to ”Shake Your Groove Thing” with the tournament mascot before a win over Mexico and raising the roof to ”Taking Care of Business” before a loss to Canada.
They go through all the baseball routines – greeting a slugger after a home run, blessing themselves before at-bats and cheering their pitcher. When Omar ”Spark Plug” Romero cracked a game-ending hit to beat the Dominican Republic 3-2 on Monday night, teammates mobbed him on the field, just as any other team would.
But they might not be at the Little League World Series were it not for the support of a couple of major league players from their home country.
”In a way, this helps them appreciate this in a different way,” Carolinne Valbuena, the mother of third baseman Jhann Bozo, said through an interpreter.
Venezuela has been caught in internal strife, pitting socialist President Nicolas Maduro against an opposition-led congress increasingly stripped of power. Underlying the civil unrest is a country living in poverty and beset by runaway inflation.
In addition, Maduro’s government has been at odds with the Trump administration. The U.S. president said this month he would not rule out a ”military option” in Venezuela.
Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor first learned to play baseball in Maracaibo, the town that’s home to the Venezuelan squad.
”I know everybody on that team, in that league,” Odor told The Associated Press in Texas this weekend. ”And that’s why I tried to help those kids.”
The first step for the players was obtaining a visa to the U.S., and they had to go to Caracas, the nation’s capital, to get them. Odor paid for their flights.
Simply flying to Caracas, though, wasn’t enough to get the players to the Little League World Series. Visas to the U.S. run about $170.
San Diego Padres pitcher Jhoulys Chacin is also from Maracaibo. He found out from a friend about the players’ financial plight and paid for all their visas.
Chacin’s Little League team lost to the Maracaibo team that went on to win the Little League World Series in 2000.
”I know how big a deal it is for the young guys … so they deserve to go,” Chacin said Sunday in San Diego. ”I’m glad I could help them come here to play in the Little League World Series. That was one of my dreams when I was young.”
Still, there is a part of the Little League World Series experience that’s missing for most of the Venezuelan players. Only three parents of players on the team were able to make the trip.
And those three might not have made it if not for a donor from Venezuela who now lives in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, about a 30-minute drive to Williamsport. The man let them stay at his house, Valbuena said.
Javier Zerpa, who now lives in Maryland, was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and he and his 12-year-old son have gone to each of the last nine Little League World Series. Zerpa and his son have become friends with the Venezuelan team. Although most of the parents are not there, Zerpa said, the kids are still happy to be on the field.
Canada coach Ryan Hefflick said the excitement of the Venezuelan team was evident as soon as it stepped on the field.
”They’re a great bunch of kids,” Hefflick said. ”One of the boys on that team, I think his nickname is `Spark Plug.’ They’ve got a lot of energy.”
Associated Press sports writers Stephen Hawkins in Dallas and Bernie Wilson in San Diego contributed to this report.
Matt Martell is a journalism student at Penn State. Penn State is partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2017 Little League World Series.