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International -- Spotlight on Venezuela
WHERE A CONTRACT TO PLAY BASEBALL...IS A TICKET OUT OF THE BARRIO (int'l edition)
When Andres Reiner approached Houston Astros management about setting up a scouting and training camp in Venezuela 10 years ago, he met with skepticism. The Dominican Republic was the place to go for young Latin ballplayers, not Venezuela. But Reiner kept insisting that Venezuela, which stands out in soccer-crazy South America as an oasis of baseball fanaticism, was a mother lode of talent. He was right, and the Astros have been congratulating themselves ever since. "We've had 15 players make it to the major leagues," says Reiner. "We've been pretty successful."
That success has drawn other big-league teams to Venezuela. Since the Astros set up a training program in 1989, 17 other teams have followed suit, and all the clubs have started scouting there. Venezuela is now second only to the Dominican Republic in producing pro players, including such stars as Andres Galarraga of the Atlanta Braves and Bob Abreu of the Phillies.LIMITED VISAS. Some 500 Venezuelans play for money at home and abroad--a figure likely to increase. "The major leagues are investing more and more every year in this country. They're realizing they can get players out of here," says Reiner, eyeing a crop of teen trainees limbering up on a parched diamond at the Astros Academy in Guacara, 180 kilometers west of Caracas.
Still, Venezuela has a ways to go before it reaches the level of the Dominican Republic. There, teams have invested millions of dollars in spanking new ballparks and dorms, and they check out hundreds of aspirants. But in Venezuela's sun-baked interior, most training camps consist of borrowed fields. The Los Angeles Dodgers use a brewery's facilities; the Astros use a chemical company's. Trainees board with local families until a decision is made about whether to sign them up for the minor leagues. And so far, the atmosphere in Venezuela has not reached the fever pitch of the Dominican Republic, where parents are known to doctor their sons' birth certificates to make them old enough (17) to be signed up.
But cutthroat competition may be coming. As Venezuela's economy nose-dives, more parents are bringing their sons to recruiters instead of letting recruiters seek them out. And last year, in a signal that teams are vying for top talent, the New York Yankees signed up a 17-year-old for a $1.5 million bonus. With the silver lining, some see a dark cloud. "Teams won't go out to these places if bonuses get high," says Baseball Weekly correspondent Milton Jamail.
But so far, Venezuela seems a pretty good bargain. In a country where the minimum monthly wage is $173, sign-up bonuses are as low as $1,500--a fraction of a bonus paid to a U.S. rookie. Another advantage is that players can be picked up as young as 13 or 14 for training, allowing their musculature to be molded especially for baseball. But teams and their farm systems are each limited to 28 visas for all foreign players, ensuring that only the cream of the crop is signed and that for most, major league stadiums remain fields of dreams.
Thanks to baseball, 18-year-old Wilfredo Rodriguez has done something his parents could never manage--move out of the family's slum shanty. With his $25,000 signing bonus from the Houston Astros, the pitcher bought a house in a decent neighborhood for his family in Venezuela. "My father has worked 28 years...and he could never do it," Rodriguez says. The story is typical of aspiring players in Venezuela, where baseball has become a way out of the barrio. Since most of the trainees come from poor families, major- league teams have to provide classes in everything from English and table manners to sex education and money management.
With their sign-up bonuses, rookies go on spending sprees, buying flashy sports cars and other items they never dreamed they could own. Often squandering their paychecks, they have nothing left to live on. Oscar Padron, 23, now an Astros coach after a career-ending injury, puts it this way: "We're from low-income backgrounds, and we want to buy things we never had."
Homesickness is another story. Team psychologists help the foreigners deal with cultural hurdles and resentment from U.S. players. Alas, for many, though, not making it past the minor leagues simply means they can go home.EDITED BY TIM BELKNAPReturn to top