Venezuelan Baseball’s Two Strikes


Original published Nov. 25 2012 in the Toronto Star

Morgan Campbell

Business Reporter

MARACAY, VENEZUELA—Angel Guillen turns 16 in January, but his fresh face and braces make him look younger. He’s 6-foot-2 and long-limbed, thin as a praying mantis.

On the pitcher’s mound, however, he wields his right arm like a whip, unspooling fastballs that zip past hapless batters. His fastball can reach 86 m.p.h. but he hopes to hit 90 by July 2, the first day 16-year-olds in Latin America can sign contracts with Major League Baseball clubs. The lucky few become instant millionaires.

While he warms up for today’s 50-pitch practice session his teammates from the AQ Sports Agency’s baseball academy run through the first of three daily workouts.

Guillen starts training at 7 a.m. each day at the AQ Sports Agency baseball academy. The last of three workouts ends just before dusk. Academy founder Alexis Quiroz moved practice up 30 minutes because players were mugged walking home after dark.

Guillen Angel

Guillen dreams of the big leagues but this morning he doesn’t feel like a pro. He hasn’t pitched in a week and his first few deliveries sail high of the strike zone.

Guillen’s coaches — and pro scouts — are focused on the slender pitcher’s power, poise and potential to improve. He’s a 140-pound kid who with training might ripen into a 200-pound man. For fingers he has tendrils — lengthy and slender and lacing pitches with a backspin that makes a baseball feel like a bowling ball against your bat.

The session progresses and Guillen finds his rhythm.

His fastball sizzles as it slices the air and already pops when it hits the catcher’s mitt.

La bola tiene vida,” says head coach Rafael Jimenez, admiring the “life” of Guillen’s pitches. “Mucha vida.”

Guillen and his young teammates dream of becoming part of Venezuela’s unprecedented baseball boom. The country of 27 million is rapidly becoming baseball’s most important source of foreign talent. This year, players from Venezuela won most valuable player awards in the American League, the National League Championship Series and the World Series. Their success is part of the country’s identity, rivalling oil as its favourite export.

But while Venezuelan talent has never been more abundant or sought-after, getting players to the major leagues has never been harder.

Venezuela is home to the region’s highest homicide and inflation rates and to anti-American President Hugo Chavez. The confluence of politics, crime and economic uncertainty weighs on Venezuelans at all levels of the game.Worried about safety, many Venezuelan stars spend off-seasons in the U.S. And even as big-league teams recruit more Venezuelan talent, they shutter their operations here. All 30 clubs have facilities in the Dominican Republic, but Venezuela has never had more than 14.

Today, there are just four.

“More and more teams have left Venezuela because of safety concerns,” says Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos. “. . . Look how much the Venezuelan Summer League has shrunk. That’s strictly from a safety standpoint. It’s not a reflection on the players.”

The talent is tough to ignore. In 2010, the Blue Jays set a Venezuelan record by giving 16-year-old pitcher Adonis Cardona a signing bonus of $2.8 million.

“You’re going to fish where the fish are at, and they know the fish are here,” says Jimmy Meayke (pronounced “Mikey”) a consultant who co-ordinates Major League Baseball’s activities in Venezuela. “The Dominican Republic is the biggest source of (baseball’s foreign) talent right now, but it can change.”

But even Venezuelan baseball’s biggest boosters aren’t sure when that will happen. The decision to end practice early for Guillen and his teammates is but a hint of the risks.

“We have talent like the Dominican,” says Felix Luzon Jr., operations director at Caracas-based 9 Stars Sports Management. “The reason major league teams don’t come here is the security. It’s a different struggle.”

* * *

Maracay is a baseball-crazed city of 1.75 million where private baseball academies dot the landscape like oil derricks.

David Torres, uncle of American League MVP Miguel Cabrera, operates a baseball school here. Quiroz, a lawyer and sports agent, opened his academy two years ago. Retired Detroit Tigers star Carlos Guillen, no relation to Angel, recently established an academy, his big name and bankroll raising the stakes. There are still more academies in Maracay, as well as in neighbouring Tumero and, a half-hour west, the state of in Carabobo.

The Dominican Republic produces more major leaguers than any country outside the U.S. But a record 105 Venezuelans appeared in the majors this year, up from 55 a decade ago and just 12 in 1992.

Average signing bonuses for Venezuelan teens rose from $100,000 in 2009 to $292,000 in 2010.

“Things have changed a lot,” says infielder Ray Olmedo, a Maracay native who has played for the Chicago White Sox, Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds. “I signed for two baseballs and a broken bat.”

A promising 14-year-old in North America probably plays with a club team and refines his game with a private coach. But at 14, top Venezuelan players are essentially professionals.

Kids in Quiroz’s program work 40-hour weeks, drilling on-field skills every morning, strength training most afternoons and enduring sprint sessions in the early evening. Academic tutoring is available, but the teens take a two-year “sabbatical” from school, leaving their families to live in rented houses near the ballpark.

“It’s a sacrifice,” Angel Guillen says. “But sacrifices are how you learn.”

Venezuela has the most comprehensive system of youth leagues in Latin America. The three main organizations — Criollitos, Federacion and U.S.-based Little League Baseball — coach more than 4 million kids year-round.

This enriched education pays off when teens sign contracts and merge the individual brilliance the academies emphasize with the subtle skills and team strategies pro baseball demands.

“When you integrate these things you get results, and The result is that these kids advance in a very short time,” says coach Jiménez, a former New York Mets scout. “(Major league teams) don’t have to work much. They don’t have to teach much. That’s why you see so many Venezuelans in the big leagues.”

This summer, the Jays again signed one of the top teens in Latin America, paying $1.45 million to Venezuelan infielder Franklin Barreto.

“These guys haven’t even thrown a ball in the minor leagues and they’re already millionaires,” says Omar Vizquel, the former Blue Jay who retired in October as the longest-serving Venezuelan in major league history.

“There’s more competition but there are also more tools. It’s because of the money. There’s a lot of money to invest and a lot more money for people to develop players.”

But the financial foundation of Venezuela’s academies is starting to look shaky.

If a player signs a pro contract his academy typically receives a 30-per-cent commission, but the five-figure deals most players receive rarely cover a trainer’s costs — academy owners pay for food, housing and coaches’ salaries. If a player graduates without signing, the trainer collects nothing.

Quiroz racks up reward points at the Sports Authority buying equipment. He has spent $30,000 manicuring the municipal diamond where his players practice. Running his academy costs $100,000 a year. He still hasn’t recovered the $300,000 invested so far.

A big contract for Guillen could put the AQ academy in the black, but a recent rule change by Major League Baseball threatens that possibility.

Teams like the Blue Jays now face a steep tax if they spend more than $2.9 million on Latin American prospects each year. The move isn’t stopping seven-figure deals, but it means the growing number of trainers now compete for a finite pool of money.

“It’s not easy to sign $300,000 in ballplayers each year,” says Quiroz, who maintains a law practice and an electronics business. “I (train players) because I love it. It’s not a project for me to make money.”

Felix Luzon Sr., president of 9 Stars, draws a parallel to the industry that constitutes 97 per cent of Venezuela’s exports.

“The petroleum industry, just like baseball, has a high risk centred on exploration,” he says. “But if you don’t have the product in your hand you can’t sell it. It’s the same with baseball, but baseball can be more difficult because petroleum isn’t a human being. If these kids lose their way, you’ve lost what you’ve already invested in exploration and development.”

Last year, 9 Stars coaches auditioned more than 800 players. They accepted only two.

angel_guillen_throwing5.jpeg.size.xxlarge.letterbox

To reach one of Maracay’s baseball landmarks you head north into the barrios abutting the mountains that separate the city from the sea. You navigate narrow, crooked, hilly streets and roll into La Pedrera.

Once there, Quiroz stops his Toyota SUV across from the duplex where Miguel Cabrera grew up. Behind the homes stands El Polideportivo David Torres, the city-owned stadium where the Detroit Tigers superstar learned to play.

You follow Quiroz inside the park. To your left looms a verdant mountain peak. In front of you, disrepair.

Between the patchy outfield grass, the trash scattered near the foul line and the rutted, all-dirt infield, this hardly looks like a training ground for future pros. Yet Torres still runs an academy here.

Walking across the outfield Quiroz says what you’re thinking.

“It shouldn’t be like this — so uncared-for.”

Then, something else.

“We should leave. This isn’t the safest neighbourhood.”

In Venezuela, this fine-tuned sensitivity to the possibility of violent crime is far from paranoia. It is common sense.

Last year, Venezuela recorded 67 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Venezuela Violence Observatory. By comparison, the rate in drug-war-ravaged Mexico was 32 per 100,000.

In 1999, Venezuela recorded 4,550 murders. Last year — 19,336.

“It’s really hard,” says 16-year-old Adel Rodriguez, who trains with Quiroz. “You want to go to the mall and it’s not safe. You have to hide anything valuable. You never know when you’ll become a victim.”

And in a country where kidnappings for ransom aren’t unusual, major-league players’ wealth can make them targets. Last November, Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was abducted in his hometown of Valencia and held hostage for two days before being rescued by government commandos.

“Valencia’s a really pretty, really beautiful city,” says native son and former Jays pitcher Henderson Alvarez. “But because of the crime it’s not really safe. In all of Venezuela, they’ve killed a lot of innocent people.”

In Caracas and Maracay — about 100 kilometres west of the capital — you won’t see gun battles in the street. But the effects of Venezuela’s violent crime are obvious. Like the electrified wire guarding nearly every home in middle-class neighbourhoods. Or the way people from those areas discuss their own kidnappings — casually, the way you’d describe having a cavity filled.

Or the layered definition of the term “secure taxi,” which signifies the driver won’t rip you off, but might signal that along with honesty he possesses a pistol or a black belt in karate. It could also mean your honest chofer drives a rusty Ford Conquistador because he has twice been carjacked for nicer rides. Since he switched to a clunker, robbers haven’t bothered him.

Violence also forces Venezuelan baseball stars into difficult choices about their off-seasons. Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros standout José Altuve will return home to play with Valencia’s winter league team, but la delincuencia keeps others in the U.S.

“Every year I spend a little less time in my country because of that,” says Elvis Andrus, a Maracay native and star for the Texas Rangers. “It’s sad. The quality of life goes down a little bit every year.”

Ichiro Suzuki, Elvis Andrus

Crime isn’t the only thing driving down the quality of life.

The inflation rate was reported at 19 per cent in August — a vast improvement over previous years. Combine that with government-imposed cost controls and Venezuela’s consumer marketplace becomes a puzzling patchwork of surprisingly high and comically low prices. A combo at McDonald’s costs the equivalent of $16, but state-run service stations sell gasoline for two Canadian cents a litre.

So, if you’re in Caracas with 25 bolivares ($5.80) in your pocket, you’ll struggle to buy lunch but you can fuel your car for a month.

Luzon Jr. says his academy’s biggest expenses are scouting players and feeding them. If food prices keep rising he may raise 9 Star’s his company’s cut of signing bonuses to 35 per cent. Players with seven-figure deals could absorb that, but most sign for significantly less and would feel squeezed.

“When you sign a player for $20,000 he can’t even buy a car to drive to work,” Quiroz says.

The government price controls mean producers of goods such as like cornmeal or coffee tire can suffer losses, prompting them to switch to more profitable products. This leads to shortages of staple goods, even in comfortable neighbourhoods.

It’s one more quirk in an economy full of twists.

In early October, the Caracas newspaper El Nacional reported that Venezuela, second only Saudi Arabia in crude oil reserves, imported 26,000 barrels of gasoline daily in July. Experts blame the state-run petroleum corporation for not maintaining refining infrastructure.

Ask people — from cab drivers to sports agents to expatriate professionals — about the Venezuelan economy’s paradoxes and they often offer a shrug and a one-word answer.

Chavez.

After winning election in 1998 on a populist platform, Chavez rebranded his administration as a socialist revolution, an ideological shift that has spurred increasing state control of private business. In addition to nationalizing the steel and gold-mining industries, the Chavez government expropriated drilling operations in the rich Orinoco Belt. In 2010, it took over a fleet of rigs belonging to a U.S. firm.

While Chavez’s oil revenue-funded social programs gained him support among the country’s poor, business takeovers have earned him enemies among Venezuela’s middle and upper classes. His friendships with states such as Cuba and Iran have made U.S. officials suspicious.

Major league stars are sharply aware of how bitterly politics have split their homeland, and they’re cognizant of the risk implicit in choosing sides. Favouring Chavez means promoting socialism — an unlikely position for a pro athlete in the U.S. But supporting the opposition means alienating the people in power at home.

So Venezuelan major leaguers tend to espouse a carefully calibrated neutrality.

“We’ll see how the country keeps evolving,” says Andrus. “As Venezuelans, we all need to respect the president.”

When Chavez developed a cancerous tumour in 2011, he Chavez had it removed in Cuba. Venezuela also sends cash and petroleum to Cuba in exchange for doctors, with more than 30,000 currently working here. The trend has prompted sarcastic suggestions that the countries are merging into a socialist superstate known either as “VeneCuba” or “CubaZuela.”

Chavez hasn’t expressed plans to ban pro sports the way Fidel Castro did in 1961. When Venezuelan Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs in a World Series game, Chavez even sent him a Twitter message asking for a fourth.

Few think Chavez plans to nationalize pro baseball, but they aren’t sure he won’t meddle. Either way, his hostility to the U.S. makes major league teams feel unwelcome.

“Clubs don’t feel secure making an investment here. A lot depends on what happens on the seventh,” says consultant Meayke, referring to the Oct. 7 election in which Chavez confronted centrist governor Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Chavez won by 1.5 million votes, securing six more years in power.

* * *

Crime has also helped drive major league organizations out of Venezuela, even as signing bonuses flow in. For most teams, it’s simpler to circumvent violence.

“It’s unfortunate there have been so many teams that have left, but they’re always going to come here,” says Jorge Velandia, assistant field co-ordinator for the Philadelphia Phillies, one of four teams still in Venezuela. “They’ll sign players and send them to the Dominican Republic or United States.”

But critics say that strategy limits access to the networks vital to getting prospects seen and signed. While Venezuelan trainers deal chiefly with regional scouts, the general managers who make important personnel decisions are much more likely to visit the Dominican Republic and foster relationships with trainers there.

For Valencia-based trainer José Blasini, the question isn’t why Venezuela produces so many major leaguers, it is how much more talent would emerge if the country were more stable.

“I hope teams come back to Venezuela like they were before,” says Blasini, who trained a teenage Sandoval. “Right now we can’t compete with the Dominicans because all the organizations are there.”

That’s the dilemma Meayke hopes to remedy.

“My biggest mission is trying to sell my country to these clubs, telling them they can operate here safely,” he says. “But we can’t tell the clubs how to operate. We can facilitate . . . but they have the final call.”

On Maracay’s main streets you see new, bright-red buses, sent from China, which buys 640,000 barrels of discounted Venezuelan crude oil daily. On Caracas’ western edge, construction crews working under Venezuelan and Russian flags erect massive highrise housing developments.

In exchange for the natural resource they extract every summer, do big-league clubs have a similar duty to restore Venezuela’s crumbling baseball infrastructure? Are they obligated to operate academies that would create local jobs?

Maybe, except for stories like this: In mid-September, the president of the Venezuelan professional baseball league, José Grasso Vecchio, was outside an ice cream shop in a posh Caracas neighbourhood when he was robbed at gunpoint

Until crime calms down not even Meayke blames organizations for staying away.

“Clubs don’t feel secure making an investment here,” he repeats. “We’d recommend not to make an investment in this country under this situation.”

But next summer, major league teams will again invest millions in the country’s top teenage players.

* * *

Daylight dwindling and their final workout finished, Guillen and a few friends wander out of a sprawling city park and on to Avenida David Concepcion, named for the Cincinnati Reds star of the 1970s and ’80s.

Across the wide avenue lies Carlos Guillen’s academy. Eleven of its players have turned pro the last two summers. Twenty prospects are set to graduate next year. Quiroz’s 2013 class is a third that size, but just as dedicated.

Angel Guillen has his eyes on July 2 — and a potential seven-figure bonus.

As they walk, the teens are aware that last month a gunman held up some players strolling home from this same park. Approaching an intersection, their pace quickens. They round the corner and vanish into the heart of Maracay.

Practice starts tomorrow at dawn.

Copyright 2012 Toronto Star

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  1. […] visited him while reporting a feature on Venezuela’s role in the global baseball-industrial complex, getting to know kids who hoped to become part of the next wave of criollos to become pro […]



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