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NATIONALS: Venezuela, The Plate Home To These Guys
WASHINGTON – Every day is baseball day in Venezuela, but summer Sundays were particularly special to a young Jesus Flores.
That’s when Flores would sit down with his father, Miguel, watching the lone Major League Baseball game televised in his Caribbean coastal hometown of Carupano. He’d ask his father questions about fundamentals, about hitting, about fielding, about the players, always eager to learn more.
“Because I was a third baseman, I used to watch Robin Ventura, Scott Rolen and those guys,” Flores said. “I love it. I’ve always been a baseball fan.”
In many ways, Flores isn’t alone. Alongside Wilson Ramos, Sandy Leon and Carlos Maldonado, the 27-year-old is one of four Venezuelan catchers who have played a game for the Washington Nationals this season.
Ramos is on the 60-day disabled list because of a torn ACL in his right knee and is out for the rest of the season, while Maldonado was recently optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. A fifth catcher, Jhonatan Solano, is from neighboring Colombia but was signed following a tryout in Venezuela.
Of the 277 Venezuelan-born players to reach the major leagues, 169 have been position players, and 41 (nearly a quarter) have been catchers. Fourteen Venezuelan catchers have played in at least one game this season, two haven’t played because of injury and nine are currently in the minor leagues. An additional five are ranked by Baseball America as amongst the top 30 prospects in their respective organizations.
“I have no idea the reason why,” Flores said, “but I know there are a lot of Venezuelan catchers right now in the big leagues like [Yorvit] Torrealba, Ramon Hernandez, Henry Blanco, Miguel Montero, Jose Lobaton.
“For me, it’s like – we kind of care. We kind of care about our job, what we do and personally, I mean … all that stuff probably will help you just to compete with American guys in the States.”
HIGH PRICE FOR SUCCESS
A natural gas and petroleum-rich country known for president Hugo Chavez’s socialist policies, Venezuela is home to over 27 million people – about 30 percent of whom, according to the United Nations, live on less than $2 a day.
It’s also, by several measures, one of the most dangerous. Political corruption is rampant, due mostly in part to the oil industry, while drug trafficking poses a significant problem and the homicide rate is amongst the world’s highest.
“In our country, we are so poor,” said Luis Sojo, an infielder who spent 13 seasons in the major leagues, most notably with the New York Yankees. “We come out and have nothing, and if we have the opportunity to sign, as a father, they say, ‘Well, this is our chance to do something in life.’”
Alex Carrasquel was the first Venezuelan to play in the major leagues, beginning an eight-year career with the Washington Senators in 1939. But it wasn’t until future shortstops Luis Aparicio and Dave Concepción starred in the 1960, ‘70s and ‘80s that scouts began looking in Venezuela for talent.
Andrés Galarraga and Ozzie Guillén were among those who followed in the late-1980s. Over 100 Venezuelan players are now considered active in either the major leagues or in the higher levels of the minor leagues, including Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera, Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus, Toronto shortstop Omar Vizquel and Seattle pitcher Felix Hernandez. More than 200 other players are still working their way through the system.
Baseball is by far the country’s most popular sport, woven into the fabric of the community. Venezuelan League games, held from October through December, are filled with music and dancing and other pageantry, and even the most casual fans can name every player on all eight of the league’s teams and often recite their statistics as well.
“It’s tough to articulate because it’s a different world – and it’s incredible,” said Ron Rizzi, a special assistant for the Nationals who serves as the team’s lead professional Venezuelan scout.
The difficulty of being a celebrity in a country where the wealth distribution can be so vast was demonstrated again in November, when Ramos was kidnapped at gunpoint from his family home in Valencia while he was playing in Venezuelan League games.
After two days, Ramos was rescued from his captors – four men in their mid-20s who demanded an unspecified ransom – and returned to play for the Tigres de Aragua after a week off. His family stayed in Venezuela but has since moved to a home with better security.
Several players have had relatives kidnapped – the mothers of pitchers Victor Zambrano and Ugueth Urbina were taken for ransom, as well as Torrealba’s son – and Blanco, now with Arizona, was helpless as his brother was kidnapped and killed in 2008.
“Most of them here are trying to live here now because it’s a little bit dangerous for them to live there,” Rizzi said. “People who have money – people know who they are, and it could be dangerous for them.”
A FERTILE TERRITORY
Major league teams covet teenage Latin American players because they have more time to develop their talent, and most players will sign as teenagers before spending several years navigating the minor leagues.
Ramos, Flores and Leon all signed with their first major league teams at 17. Maldonado was 16 when he signed with the Seattle Mariners in 1995, the beneficiary of having been on the team that represented Venezuela in the Senior League World Series in Kissimmee, Fla. a month earlier.
“One of the scouts from my hometown, Maricaibo, called this guy here, and then they saw me play when I came over here,” Maldonado said. “When I came back to Venezuela, they already talked to the scout and it made it easier for me to sign.”
Major League Baseball’s amateur draft solely governs players from the United States, its overseas territories and Canada. That leaves a virtual free-for-all for players from other parts of the globe, with finances the only real constraints on scouting international talent.
Before teams can scout players, they often work with intermediaries known as buscónes – a Spanish term that has taken on the connotation of a swindler or a hustler. These individuals, some of whom have no baseball experience, will serve as agents for the players, arranging workouts and negotiating contracts that typically see them taking a cut of nearly 40 percent.
That was how Flores, who signed with the New York Mets in March 2002, got his start. He was discovered by scouts as a catcher after making the transition from third base just months before; Leon and Solano were former shortstops who moved behind the plate shortly before signing as well.
“I used to hate it,” said Flores, who was essentially told by scouts he didn’t have a future in baseball if he stayed at third base. “Before I thought I was gonna be a catcher, the way that they get hit, that they had to do so much work, I never thought I was going to play that position. … That’s when I start learning about the catching process. Now I love it.”
Detroit, Seattle and Texas are amongst the most active teams scouting Venezuela, according to Rizzi, who was hired by the Nationals before last season in an effort to increase the team’s presence in Latin America. General manager Mike Rizzo also has extensive experience in Venezuela, owing back to his days as a scout for Boston in the mid-1980s.
“I think it’s scouted more heavily than it was 10 years ago, but it’s not scouted as heavily as the Dominican Republic, I feel,” Rizzo said. “There’s probably dozens of reasons for that, but we pay pretty close attention to that. We’d like to scout it very hard.”
When Rizzo was promoted from assistant general manager in 2010, he immediately hired Johnny DiPuglia, who scouted Latin America for the Red Sox, as the Nationals’ director of international scouting. The Nationals have established a permanent overseas complex in Boca Chica, a suburb of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, where it houses, instructs and educates between 45 and 50 players annually.
“We built an academy,” Rizzo said. “We brought a new coaching staff and equipment into the facilities. We made a conscious effort with nutrition and strength training in Latin America, and in three years, we’ve come leaps and bounds in our scouting in Latin America.”
LOST IN TRANSLATION?
Drew Storen grew up in Indiana and played two years at Stanford University before the Nationals drafted him in 2009. His first assignment was to low-A Hagerstown, where he would work with Leon – and, for the first time, a catcher whose first language was not English.
“I think that by the time guys have gotten there, they’ve opened up, but for me, it took a second because I had never really been around it coming from college,” Storen said. “I think it was an adjustment for the both of us, but it’s never been anything that’s been a big issue.”
Storen admitted there have been times when he and Ramos have mixed up signals and needed to discuss strategy during a game. It’s a task he still finds can be tricky.
“The fingers don’t speak a language,” Nationals pitcher Edwin Jackson said. “Once you get past the language and get into the game, fingers are fingers. One, two, three.”
When Maldonado first began playing in the Mariners’ system, he was terrified of going out to talk to the pitcher because he didn’t know what to say.
He would compensate by speaking with a translator before the game – perhaps a teammate, but more likely a coach – and going over a game plan with the starting pitcher.
That didn’t always work.
“It’s the in-betweens, the mechanical – ‘Stay back,’ or ‘Stay through it,’” Maldonado said. “You have to learn those things, even from your coaches or your pitching coach.
“You want to talk to or listen to your coaches, what he say when the pitcher’s throwing a bullpen, and then those are things you’ve got to keep in mind when he’s pitching. ‘Hey, remember this? That’s what he’s talking about in the bullpen. Just do the same thing.’ Stuff like that.”
Flores believed he had a grasp on English, which he picked up on his own through the minor leagues, but finally hired a full-time tutor two years ago to help him improve. He has, in the past, served the translator for Nationals relief pitcher Henry Rodriguez.
The cost of hiring an official translator is something many minor league teams cannot afford, but the Nationals have attempted to assist their Latin American prospects in learning English by instructing them in the language at the Boca Chica facility.
Freddy Garcia, a Venezuelan pitcher who has been in the major leagues since 1999 and is currently a starter for the New York Yankees, never had a translator or an English tutor.
“Like, for me, if I’m a pitcher and pitch good, that speak for you,” said Garcia, a two-time all-star. “You don’t need any translating. You play good, and that’s what you need.”
A GROWING TREND
Players and scouts, Venezuelans and non-Venezuelans, all disagree on why so many catchers from the South American country have been able to make it to the majors.
Rizzi, Garcia and Nationals manager Davey Johnson suggested that the continued success of catchers in the big leagues has an effect on young players wanting to then become catchers themselves. Garcia noted that after Aparicio and Concepción became the first Venezuelan stars, everybody wanted to be a shortstop.
Johnson, a second baseman, was a teammate of Aparicio’s in Baltimore from 1965-67, and the two played in Venezuela one offseason to get to know each other better.
“I learned what he expected from me, but just like he would teach me, he would teach second basemen [and] shortstops the right way to play,” Johnson said. “[Young players] look up to them and learn from them. … They want to be as good as the guys coming back from the big leagues, so they model. They’ve got good teachers.”
And while they may continue to learn the game from their fathers at a young age, just as Flores did, the spread of baseball means they may not face difficult odds of making it – or be limited to watching their idols solely on Sunday afternoons.
“I think we all here are doing our best, giving our best, just to help make things easy for them, too,” Flores said. “I think right now, [young Venezuelans] have more advantages.”
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