Chicos and Gringos of Béisbol Venezolana

This article was written by Rob Ruck

This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal

A boy on a pony, his glove hitched to his belt, emerges from the fields along Venezuela’s Oeste 1      highway and pauses while a cane truck lumbers by. A bus sweeps past, enveloping him in dust, but brakes for the slow-moving truck. The boy, with a whoop, gallops after the crawling caravan. Waving wildly, he shouts “Peloteros! Peloteros de Magallanes!” A ballplayer in the back of the bus looks up from his dominos game and salutes the youth who is soon left behind.

If baseball has a frontier, Venezuela is its southernmost boundary. And there each winter, from the Maracaibo oil basin to the Andean highlands, Venezuelans play and watch the game with a zeal that goes beyond mere passion.

“The fans make Venezuelan ball what it is,” Magallanes manager Tommy Sandt explains. “They’re incredibly in love with the game.”

“They’re closer to it than fans in the States,” interjects pitcher Jack Lazorko. “Nobody’s blasé here. Every game means something. They know their baseball, too, and they’ll let you know if you’re dogging it. That makes playing here pretty intense.”

Muttering “coño,” Dimas Gutierrez slaps a domino down and pokes a teammate in the shoulder. Salsa interspersed with Spanish sounds from the chicos in the back of the bus. In front of them, Pirate farmhand Chris Green peers out the window from behind smoked glasses, slowly nodding to sounds on a headset only he can hear. Three U.S. teammates hunker over a makeshift table, playing spades with the manager’s son. And in the front of the bus, skipper Tommy Sandt slouches across two seats, reading Fatal Vision while his coaches peruse The Sporting News and racing forms.

Few pay the driver any mind as he makes blind passes on mountain curves. Nor do they notice the flowery tops of cane swirling in the wind or the girls with bags of manderinds and the jugo de caña stands by the roadside. They’ve made this trip too many times. But the young horseman notices them, as do the boys playing ball with sticks of cane for bats on the outskirts of town and the motorcycle cops who swing in front of the bus as it makes its entrance to the stadium. Almost everyone in Venezuela takes notice of béisbol.

It’s Monday night in Caracas and the capital’s team, Los Leones, is destined for the cellar, but the joint is rocking. Fans wait in line for tickets three hours before game time while thousands already inside impatiently await batting practice.

Few ballparks anywhere match the majesty of El Estadio Universitario, which nestles in the valley of Caracas with the coastal mountains towering over the outfield fences. Lazorko, Magallanes’ starter that night, leans against the backstop and comments, “This is the first stadium in Latin America I’ve seen with a clock.”

The recently-installed timepiece is only part of the westernization of Caracas. Signs for Jordache Jeans, Fuji Films and Pepsodent line the stadium walls. The action in the stands, however, is anything but western. Mestizo women hawk empanadas criollas, fried platanos and canyo de quesa, thin rolls stuffed with baked ham and cheese. An army of vendors sells Polar Cerveza. And during the game bettors wager on each pitch, even on bullpen warmups.

On the field Magallanes takes infield practice while pitchers run wind sprints and half a dozen baseballs crisscross in the air. The fans spill onto the field and a few lucky chicos shag fly balls. A chorus of senoritas in back of the dugout shouts at Benny Distefano in a mix of English and Spanish, and a few blow kisses at this Brooklyn kid.

Forming a circle, a half-dozen players flip the ball at each other with their glove hand. A player who catches the ball in his mitt or fails to field a throw is out, The pelota whizzes from player to player, often after a detour around a back or under a leg. The only gringo to participate is Mike Anderson, a veteran knuckleball pitcher.

Lazorko, bathed in sweat, sits on the bench through the top of the first, a towel around his neck. Then he goes out to pitch. The first Caracas batter reached base on an error, but Lazorko ends the inning by striking out Tony Armas, the Boston Red Sox slugger who led the majors in home runs in 1984.

An international paladin, Lazorko has taken his “Have Arm-Will Pitch” style from Alaska to Cape Cod and into five Caribbean-basin countries. He’s in Venezuela hoping to spark greater interest in his free-agent status after having been cut from a Puerto Rican squad. The only hits against him through the first five innings are balls that don’t get out of the infield.

Street-wise and liberal with his observations during previous games, Lazorko is silent for the first time all week. Each inning he observes the same ritual. Walking off the mound with his face down, he sits at the end of the dugout bench. The attendant hands him a cup of water and drapes a towel over his pitching arm. Lazorko sets his cap atop his glove, sips the water and spits some of it out – inning after inning.

He runs out to the mound in the sixth as the first big fight of the night erupts in the stands. The scuffle starts a Venezuelan wave: Fans swarm toward the action, then scurry away when the fisticuffs get too close. No seventh-inning stretch is needed, for such tiffs cause more than enough standing. Finally, the fans surrounding the combatants start chanting “Que se besen (Let them kiss)” till the fighters sheepishly stop punching and start hugging.

Caracas gets its first legitimate hit that inning, but rightfielder Steve Lyons almost throws the batter out at first. “Who does that cat think he is, Roberto Clemente?” someone cracks in the Magallanes dugout. A first-round Red Sox draft pick out of Oregon State, Lyons was a standout in the International League in 1984 but failed to stick in the Puerto Rican winter league. “Rather than sit around and brood, I figured I’d come down here for another shot,” he explained. Tall and rangy, Lyons had been making the most of his second chance. (After his winter in Venezuela, Lyons spent the 1985 season with the Boston Red Sox, batting .264 in 133 games.)

Lazorko strikes out Armas again to end the threat and deviates from his routing long enough to slap five with third baseman Dimas Gutierrez for a slick play. Earlier Lazorko had watched Dimas batting and laughed. “The kid’s already got a major league wriggle,” he comments. Young Latin players often emulate the veterans, he noted. “You’ll see them rolling up their sleeves like Cesar Cedeno or high leg kicking like Marichal.” Dimas looks like a young José Cruz.

As both Lazorko and his Caracas counterpart mow the opposition down, the crowd shouts “Uno-Dos-Tres! Uno-Dos-Tres!” The fans are split fairly evenly in their loyalties, for although Magallanes is from Valencia, a few hours away, it once played in Caracas and has a national following. The most popular team in the country, it is often considered the Brooklyn Dodgers of Venezuela, according to Branch Rickey III, the Pirates’ minor league director.

Before the bottom of the ninth, with the game still scoreless, Lyons turns to Distefano and says, “I’m betting on a lion’s roar right here.” He gets it as the stadium loudspeakers unleash a ferocious growl, Los Leones’ cheer. “Strictly awesome,” Lyons says to himself as he trots out to right. But Lazorko retires Caracas without incident and heads for the showers, his labors over for the evening. He had thrown under 100 pitches and completed his thirty-third consecutive inning without his team getting him a run, but his performance had not hurt his prospects of making it back to the majors.

Lyons bunts for a single in the top of the tenth, diving headfirst into the bag, but goes no further. The Magallanes relievista comes in the bottom of the inning and throws out two pitches. Andres Galarraga lines the second one into the left field stands. As the lion’s roar reverberates and hundreds of chicos storm the field, the Caracas fans stand on their seats and chant his name. They are still there an hour later, dancing and shouting to a salsa band, as the Magallanes bus pulls out.

On the ride back, the team dines on barbecued chicken and yucca, wrapped in corn leaves and tied with a rubberband. The card game resumes with Pirates Distefano and Joe Orsulak versus Houston farmhand Nelson Rood and Tommy Sandt, Jr., who wears a T-shirt with a photo of his dad hitting his last major league homer stenciled on it.\

Distefano and Orsulak have played and roomed together since Colombian winter ball several years ago.

Benny, who could join Orsulak on the Pirates within a few seasons, had been struggling through a series of injuries and at the plate. Perusing his hand, he keeps repeating to himself: “Benny, you’re the greatest,” a reference to a letter from Branch Rickey III telling him to keep his head up through his slump. His teammates rag him about it at every occasion.

 While Benny had been sinking, Orsulak was among the league leaders. “Slack is a base-hit man and a great defensive player,” Distefano argues. “He might look like he’s casual,” manager Sandt adds, “but watch him play – dominos, cards, baseball, anything – he wants to win. He’s gotten more out of winter ball than anybody. He’s always working out.”

Nelson Rood flicks a card down and says, to no one in particular, “You know, being back in the States will be like heaven. Being able to go down to the 7-Eleven and get some dip, yeah.” Chewing tobacco, a commodity in short supply, is almost as prized to Rood as the Spanish-language Bibles he carried on trips to hand out to those who’ll take them. Not blessed with great size, Rood compensates with effort. In the locker room after games, he lifts weights and talks nutrition with the trainer.

Rood may never make it to the bigs, and Mike Anderson probably won’t either. But Anderson, or

“Mongo Congo”, a burly thirtyish knuckler with a Fu Manchu mustache, has already made it in Valencia. After four years out of baseball, Anderson signed with Milwaukee in 1980 to give it one more shot.

“Mike’s a hard-luck pitcher,” Orsulak comments. “He just doesn’t get that much support in the field or at bat, but the people here love him.” Rocked in his last start, Mongo received a nice hand as he left the field. From the bunker-like dugout, he whirled and yelled an expletive at the ump before overturning the batrack and yelling again. Lyons winced. “He’s murder on those bats.”

But this Sunday in Valencia, he was staying in the game, despite falling behind 2-0 in the first inning and filling the bases with Zulia runners. Each gringo who plays winter ball makes his accommodation to the culture or doesn’t last long. Anderson has more than made his peace. One morning four years ago, he wandered over to a field near his Valencia apartment and began catching the local kids. “It was a rocky field and I decided to try to fix it up.” Every morning for a month Anderson picked up trash and carted off rocks, his young compañeros helping. “I just hated to see kids playing on rocks.” Hiring a tractor to level the grounds and investing about $700 in equipment, Anderson built a field, complete with a mound he leveled himself. A league formed as did a baseball camp for boys from age five to 15. Two of his proteges have since had pro tryouts.

But against Zulia, Anderson has malice in his heart. Two earlier games against the Maracaibo team resulted in fights after spikings. Some anticipate a third tonight. Mongo escapes a bases-loaded jam in the fourth when Lyons grabs a blast that almost carries over his head. Walking back to the dugout, Anderson pats his heart in exaggerated relief.

Zulia’s hurler is perfect the first time through the order, but as the sun sets, Magallanes’ bats come alive and tie the score against a background of drums, disco whoops and the Somos Magallanes chant.

A cluster of chiquitas sits behind the dugout, their attention divided between the ballplayers and the game. Venezuela boasts the highest proportion of female fans in Latin America, a fact most players mention with a grin. A coach passes plastic demi-tasse cups of café through the screen to them between innings.

Tommy Sandt glances at the crowd and then gazes at the orange and blue skies. The 1984 Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year, he is a blonde version of Phil Garner, with whom he played in the minors and then with the Oakland A’s. In his eighth year of winter ball, 34-year-old Sandt is a likely candidate for a coaching job in the majors, at least if his players’ opinions matter.

In the seventh, Rood triples in two runs and the fans shake the screens behind the dugouts. A procession carrying a coffin marked “Zulia” with candles atop follows a salsa band snaking through the stands. Anderson gives way to a reliever in the ninth and Zulia puts the go-ahead run on, but Magallanes holds on to win. Sandt leaps in the air with both fists clenched and the fanaticos celebrate as if their team had clinched the pennant.

In the locker room, players sit in various stages of undress, joking and drinking beer, almost oblivious to the shrieks outside. The trainer coats Anderson’s big toe, on which he pushes off each pitch, with merthiolate. Distefano, ever helpful, flicks it repeatedly, then solicitously inquires of Anderson how he feels, Mongo Congo ignores him and lights up a cigar. Lazorko asks, “Who do you think you are, Red Auerbach?”

Caña, a locker room attendant, chases three boys out of the room with a bat. Smiling, Caña then asks a foreign journalist if he’d like a negrito, the strong black café he brews daily. A player warns the writer not to drink too much of it for Caña is rumored to spike it with amphetamines to get the players up for games.

Valencia isn’t the big leagues, but it’s not Keokuk or Macon, either. U.S. minor leaguers make far more money in Venezuela than they do in the states and get a free apartment and a daily stipend. Most pass their days poolside at the Intercontinental or a nearby hot springs and their evenings at the ballpark. In addition, they’re treated like demi-gods and play before enthusiastic, knowledgeable fans.

Sometimes, however, this dream-life turns into a nightmare. Last December, the U.S. ballplayers staying at the Anauco Hilton in Caracas were awakened at gunpoint. “I woke up with a machine gun in my face and a bunch of guys tossing my room,” Caracas trainer Brian McClanahan recalls. “They were looking for drugs, but I didn’t know that. I thought my time had come.” The predawn raids, which followed soon after the shooting of a U.S. player in a purported drug deal, revealed no drugs, but McClanahan, among others, was ready to bid adios to winter ball.

Not far from the stadium, in Carabobo, Simon Bolivar defeated the last of Spain’s South American armies. The North Americans, who introduced baseball here late last century, represent a second, more felicitous invasion. “But Venezuela never felt like béisbol was imported,” explains Rudolfo Mauriello, sportswriter for El Nacional. “We felt like it was created here. When Richard Nixon visited Caracas, the students threw rocks at him and shouted `Yanqui, go home!’ but these same students came to the stadium and never shouted `Yankee go home!’” Negro Leaguers and major leaguers helped make Venezuela baseball respectable, he argues, and “We remember them for that.”

Venezuela eventually responded in kind, shipping Luis Aparicio, Vic Davalillo, Dave Concepcion, Manny Trillo and Tony Armas north. Almost a dozen play in the majors and more are incubating on Venezuelan sandlots. While peloteros will never rival oil as Venezuela’s chief cash crop, they’ve already won the hearts and minds of their compatriots.

Petroleo es el enimigo de Venezuela,” asserts Dr. José Antonio Prieto in Puerto Colombia, a small coastal town. “Because of oil, we’ve neglected agriculture and failed to diversify.” Similarly, the importing of U.S. ballplayers stunted Venezuelan baseball’s progress, allowing fewer playing opportunities for native athletes. But the drop in oil prices and the severe devaluation of the bolivar have led to a limit of nine U.S. players per team.

“That was the best thing that could have happened,” exclaims Hall-of-Famer Aparicio, who now broadcasts games. “Right now is the best time ever for baseball here and quien sabé, maybe we’ll be as good as the Dominicans in a few years.” Others, like Tommy Sandt, agree but doubt that Venezuela will ever reach the level of ball in the Dominican Republic. “Dominican players are just plain hungrier,” Sandt says. “It’s much more prosperous here.”

At times Venezuela seems a perpetual aerobics class. Traffic is frenzied and fans hardly cease moving from the moment they enter the park. Every five years, the country convulses in an orgy of politicking that sees some 90 percent of the electorate vote. During last year’s campaign the stands were an ongoing pep rally, with rival party stalwarts chanting political slogans along with their cheers and whistles. In between elections, Venezuela turns its passions over to béisbol and music.

Saturday night in Puerto Colombia, the lyrics of “Cazafantasmas” (Ghostbusters) blast along the malecon, the walk along the sea, as a few Izodized adolescents keep time. A hundred meters away, a much later group clusters around two tambores, five-foot long drums made of avocado trees, played by two pairs of tamboreros. A black man in cutoffs wails the verses of this cumaco music and the 80 or so in the chorus shout in refrain. A few feet from the drummers, but inside the circle, a couple dance – rapidly, closely and sensually. Every couple of minutes, someone cuts in and one of the dancers leaves without protest. Each of these cumaco songs, the music of the runaway slaves from the Araugua Valley cotton plantations who peopled the town centuries ago, lasts for ten to 20 minutes. Then a new set of drummers and lead singer get their chance. The revelers give off a scent of intoxicants, perfume and sweat that can be detected from afar. From ten at night till four the next morning, the drumming and singing overpowers the surf crashing against the malecon.

Just as the chorus of shouting, hand-clapping spectators drives the tamboreros and dancers on, the fans power Venezuelan baseball. “I’ve never seen anything like it in the States,” Distefano remarks. “Every pitch seems like it’s a matter of life and death.” “Si, Benny,” Dimas Gutierrez replies. “Remember, amigo, this is béisbol venezolana.”