Venezuelan little leaguers keep huge dreams alive

AP, CARACAS

Sat, Aug 17, 2019 - Page 16

More than 100 boys train daily on a baseball field next to the biggest slum in Caracas in the hopes of achieving the ultimate goal: a professional baseball career in the US and an escape from Venezuela’s hardship.

Chances are small and getting remoter. MLB teams have shut down their academies in Venezuela and no longer send scouts. Sometimes, a player faints on the field because he has not had enough to eat, local trainers have said.

A junior team from Maracaibo is participating this week in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Two Venezuelan pro players, Rougned Odor of the Texas Rangers and Ender Inciarte of the Atlanta Braves, donated funds for the trip.

Still, there is a precedent for youthful ambitions: Venezuela was an incubator of stars such as Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez, and the flair is still there.

Another team arrived two hours before their first game at a tournament in Mexico and ended up winning the whole contest.

“My dream came true,” said Diego Gutierrez, a 10-year-old on the Cacique Mara team that won the junior Latin America title this month.

The 14 players barely made it to the tournament because they did not have money for plane tickets.

Daniel Gutierrez, Diego’s father and head of the junior team, took the boys and some family members on a 10-hour bus journey to Caracas last month in the hopes of securing financial support.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez got involved with little time to spare, buying tickets after learning about the team’s plight.

“I saw it on Instagram and sent them a text and asked: ‘How can I help you guys to make the dream come true for the kids?’” Rodriguez said.

Another Venezuelan major leaguer, Jhoulys Chacin of the Milwaukee Brewers, also donated money for the trip, as did the Venezuelan Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture, and the Panamanian airline Copa.

The boys run hard, lift weights, bat and pitch in the heat on a baseball field in the Petare slum in Caracas, but strains are evident.

“It’s sad to see that the number of boys attending has dropped a lot,” trainer Nelson Castro said.

Another coach, Pedro Quero, said that players used to eat well, but it is different now.

“We’re seeing a lot of food that doesn’t help with the boys’ nutrition,” Quero said. “The kids aren’t growing well.”

Poor nutrition has forced academies with limited resources to try to provide better food to make up for diet deficiencies, he said.

Juan Jose Escobar, a Caracas resident, watched as his three-year-old son run around cones during a speed and stamina exercise.

He said that another son, 18-year-old Anthony, signed with the Minnesota Twins two years ago, just before Venezuela’s crisis got much worse.

The older son’s good fortune “was a blessing, because, the way things are in the country, you can’t even give your child a good education,” Escobar said.