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The political name-calling game between President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Bush hit a low a few weeks ago when the populist Latin American figure characterized W. as “el diablo” and complained that the UN General Assembly podium still reeked of sulfur.

And in discussing U.S./ Venezuelan diplomacy, an argument can be made that baseball is a big elephant in the room. Venezuelan players seldom get asked about their country’s leader; mainly, I suppose, out of the notion that baseball is not an arena for discussing politics.

chavezbaseball.jpgYes, Ozzie Guillen once said he “liked” the guy, quipping about how he could then get in trouble with his family back home; but talk about Chavez and Baseball has never reached political levels.

Not yet anyway.

The Times of London is reporting – speculating, rather – that “Politics May Pitch Baseball into a Crisis.”

With a headline like that, you’re bound to get attention.

Only problem is, the background for the story is spotty at best.

George Bush and Hugo Chávez share something even deeper than their mutual loathing. Baseball is as much a religion in Venezuela as it is in the United States and the two leaders are both fanatics.

However, baseball fans in both countries fear that President Chávez may deprive the American game of one of its prime assets — the flow of rich talent from Venezuela.At stake are millions of dollars invested by some of the biggest American teams in training academies in Venezuela and the thwarted ambitions of youngsters.

Venezuelans go to the polls next month with Mr Chávez, who models himself on Fidel Castro, another baseball obsessive, in pole position to win another six-year term.

One of the greatest concerns among the middle class, who increasingly steer their sons towards baseball academies rather than academic college, is that Mr Chávez will close the domestic professional league and restrict the rights of sportsmen to play in America. Ron Rizzi, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has served the game for 39 years and has been coming to Venezuela to watch players for the past decade. He said: “Chávez is so anti-US that he may inhibit players’ ability to get there. If he wins the election they might have to come out on a boat.”

Fact: Venezuelans will vote next month. Fact: MLB Franchises have set up shop in Venezuela to train prospects. Fact: Ron Rizzi was a pitcher for Columbia University and had a 1.00 ERA before tearing his rotator cuff. Fact: Graham Dunbar writes for the Times of London.

But he’s no diplomat. And dropping a bomb like “One of the greatest concerns among the middle class… is that Mr Chávez will close the domestic professional league and restrict the rights of sportsmen to play in America” without nary a trace of attribution or proper sourcing is borderline irresponsible.

Rizzi’s speculation on what Venezuelan baseball players may have to resort to – something akin to what Cuban players go through – if Chavez wins re-election doesn’t help and is rather ignorant.

There’s more:

Venezuelan baseball has had a breakthrough year. In October 2005, Ozzie Guillén became the first of his countrymen to manage a World Series winner, leading the Chicago White Sox to the title.

Yet there is pessimism, typified by Alfredo Villasmil, a reporter with Últimas Noticias, the country’s bestselling newspaper. “Baseball is our religion. We don’t care about politics. We want to live in peace and be left alone to work.”

Well, assuming Mr. Villasmil is a Chavez critic and dissident of his policies (Venezuela is still a Democracy, you know), why would his reporting be featured in a website of the Venezuelan government?

Why would Chavez close the professional league, where many American baseball players go every winter and which provides employment for hundreds if not thousands of Venezuelans?

Not only that, the winner from the Venezuelan league gets to participate in the Serie del Caribe, which, you guessed it, is the Caribbean World Series, with teams from Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

So what have we learned? Fact: politics surround baseball. Fact: the Orioles played in Cuba. Fact: Chavez looks funny with his baseball jumper.

4 Responses to “Political Game? or Political Ploy?”

  1. Sarah Green says:

    Alejandro, this is a good find and a good post, but I am a little confused by the Times story. So, I’ll be the first to admit I know practically nothing about baseball outside of the US. But let’s say for a second that Chavez *did* close the domestic professional league. Would he do that to prevent players from leaving for the US? Would there still be baseball in Venezuela? And in that case, wouldn’t that be cutting off his nose to spite his face? How does Cuba do it? I suppose I could go look this up for myself, but I am very lazy.

  2. Well, that’s precisely what’s so bizarre about the story. I can’t think of any particular reason why Chavez would close up baseball in Venezuela. I mean, from an anti-imperialist stance, Chavez could argue that “Our Venezuelan talent must stay within our country” and so on, but in that case, he would *need* a good league to have the players compete in. Unless he simply wants them to play pick-up games in his palace or something.

    What Chavez may be able to do is restrict the activity of foreign academies (MLB Teams) and their ability to send players directly to their farm systems in the U.S. But again, if Chavez were to forbid MLB teams from signing players from their academies AND cancel the domestic league, where would they go? I guess this is where the speculation about closing baseball comes into play, but I honestly think that’s just far-fetched.

    The Cuba allusion is simply that players aren’t allowed to travel abroad to earn salaries that are not sanctioned or sponsored by the Cuban government. There is a Cuban baseball league and players compete in international events representing their country, but they have to defect in order to play (work legally) in the U.S. You’ll find that a good number of Cuban players have citizenship from some other country in Latin America. This is what one of the sources in the Times story is hinting at; that Venezuelans will have to get on a boat and smuggle themselves into the U.S.

    Now, unlike what Mr. Rizzi is quoted as saying in the article, Chavez isn’t necessarily anti-U.S. He’s anti-Bush, but he did manage to provide cheap oil for poor families in New York City and offered it to people in Alaska (who promptly refused it).

    But before we get off topic; I think the point of this article is simply to cook-up a reality where Chavez becomes the Fidel of the 21st century and that’s somehow inherently bad for baseball fans. Talk about apples and oranges. Fidel WASN’T bad for baseball. He freaking allowed the Orioles to play in Cuba AND he allowed the Cuban national team to play in the WBC. That he doesn’t allow players to work abroad is another issue.

    I’m not an expert in Latin American baseball; but the article in the Times is more hearsay than fact.

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