Sat, Jan 26, 2008 - Page 19 News List

New league may bring high-altitude baseball to Bolivia

AP , LA PAZ

Bolivian President Evo Morales loves to preach the joys of soccer played in the Andes' lung-busting heights.

But an invitation from some of his regional political allies may prompt the devoted sports fan to bring a new pastime to the Bolivian highlands: baseball.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega suggested last week that the members of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, a left-leaning regional trade group, form their own international baseball league.

Initially, the league would include Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua -- all baseball-playing nations that have sent players to the US major leagues -- and Bolivia, which has not a single professional team. Invitations would also be extended to the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Colombia and Panama, Chavez said.

A bemused Bolivian Vice Minister of Sports Milton Melgar first learned of the proposal on Wednesday from a reporter, and said Bolivians would be up for learning a new game.

"Sports bring countries together," Melgar told reporters. "It will be another opportunity to participate in international competitions -- although we're not on the level of Cuba or Venezuela."

Indeed, Bolivia's western highlands would bring the sport to an entirely new playing field. The capital, La Paz, at 3,600m above sea level, is one of several Bolivian cities towering over the altitude of Denver, whose Colorado Rockies last year hosted World Series games at 1,600m.

Baseball fans have long argued over how much the game is distorted by altitude, where balls fly faster and farther and pitches lose their curves. Bolivia's high plains would provide an extreme laboratory. The thin Andean air raises the specter of 200m home runs, no breaking balls, and visiting lowland players bent over wheezing after a sprint to first base.

The Rockies struggled for years to counter the effects of altitude before hitting on a solution: The team stores their baseballs in a humidor, and the extra moisture seems to deaden the balls' flight while improving pitchers' grip. In Bolivia, they just may have to play with the baseballs soaking wet.

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