Sat, Sep 02, 2017 - Page 16 News List

Venezuelans in no mood to ‘play ball’


Fans watch a game between the Leones de Caracas and the Navegantes del Magallanes in Caracas on Oct. 27, 2015.

Photo: AP

For years, Venezuela’s baseball stadiums served as a sporting sanctuary where fans of all classes and political backgrounds set aside their differences to watch some of the nation’s top major league players and forget about their mounting hardships.

However, as the nation’s crisis deepens, some are beginning to wonder whether it is time to at least temporarily hang up the national pastime.

It is not going to happen.

Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami put an end to weeks of speculation by announcing on Tuesday that the government had taken nearly US$10 million from the nation’s fast-depleting foreign currency reserves to subsidize the winter league and help teams import foreign players.

“The baseball season is guaranteed,” said El Aissami, who added that he was acting on direct orders from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to provide the league with the same level of funding it received last year.

In the past, such last-minute announcements were a cause of relief among the many hardcore fans, but after months of paralyzing protests, few seem in the mood to celebrate.

Former New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Alfredo Pedrigue, who coached the Lions last season, in June called for the season to be scrapped out of respect for Venezuelans who “gave their life for liberty.”

Several other Venezuelan major leaguers, including Detroit Tigers all-star Miguel Cabrera, have broken their traditional silence about wading into politics back home and criticized the situation in well-publicized videos.

Venezuela’s once competitive baseball league has been in decline for years.

Attendance has fallen as triple-digit inflation has raised the price of tickets and beer, and some fans stay home for fear of getting assaulted returning home late.

While many Venezuelan players in the US return home for a few games each season, major league teams have shut down all their academies in the country and no longer send as many young prospects to face the pressure of batting and pitching in front of a roaring crowd.

One of the big questions surrounding this year’s league is whether teams will be able to fill their quota of recruiting up to eight foreign players, which in the past was never an issue.

The best argument for playing ball might have nothing do with the sport at all: preserving jobs.

Reflecting the high levels of political violence and economic turmoil, Venezuela in June lost the right to host next year’s Caribbean Series tournament.

Tiburones (Sharks) vice president Jose Herrera said teams are making a superhuman effort to make sure the season, which is set to begin next month, is not disrupted.

He compared the potential loss of baseball to the closure of all the nation’s cinemas or hair salons — something the nation can scarcely afford amid a recession that has seen the economy shrink by more than 35 percent since 2014.

“It’s not easy, there will be lots of sacrifices, but we want to fulfill our duty of keeping alive an economic activity on which 5,000 Venezuelan families depend,” Herrera said.

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