What Remains of the Venezuelan League?

MLB has cut ties with Venezuelan baseball for financial and political reasons. (via The Photographer)

Once upon a time, there was a league in which Luis Aparicio was the Tiburones de La Guaira shortstop, Cesar Tovar the Leones del Caracas right fielder, Vic Davalillo the Leones del Caracas left-handed pitcher or center fielder, Bob Gibson the Indios de Oriente pitcher, Dave Parker the Navegantes del Magallanes right fielder, David Concepción the Tigres de Aragua shortstop, Bill Melton the Águilas del Zulia third baseman, Dwight Evans the Cardenales de Lara right fielder, Pete Rose the Leones del Caracas second baseman, Bo Belinsky the Pampero left-handed pitcher, Rod Carew the Tigres de Aragua second baseman, Jim Rice the Navegantes del Magallanes left fielder, Jim Catfish Hunter the Leones del Caracas right-hander, and Rollie Fingers the Tiburones de La Guaira right-hander.

Every day on the schedule there were closely contested games. The tickets, beverages, and food were all within the reach of almost any wallet, no matter how light. The players could throw the-last-out-of-the-inning ball or the foul balls to the fans in the stand. The season started in early October, and during the week the games started a little after seven. The teams received financial support from private sponsors so they could keep the field and the stands in the best condition.

In these last stages of the extended nightmare that we are enduring in Venezuela, sanctions have taken their toll on baseball. In this case, we are talking about the measures taken by the U.S. government through Major League Baseball, forbidding any of its players, coaches or managers to participate in the Venezuelan winter league’s season.

MLB has decided to cut any relationship with the Venezuelan league (LVBP) due to the financial relationship between LVBP and the Venezuelan political regime. The measure affects even the minor leagues of organized baseball. So LVBP will have to survive with players from other leagues like the Mexican (summer), independents, Dominicans out of organized baseball who aren’t playing in their winter league, Italian, Spanish or Brazilian players available, players from Panamá, Colombia and Nicaragua. Even Venezuelan players from the Liga Bolivariana and from Liga Independiente de Béisbol de Venezuela. Very few or no U.S. or Canadian players are on the rosters.

The schedule was cut by a third (21 games fewer per team), which turns the season into a tournament of nine weeks during which randomness weighs more than regularity. If, in the past, the Venezuelan winter league’s seasons were filled with competence, suspense, and expectations for the higher-category players who reported to their teams through the final weeks of the season, now the competitiveness suffers due to the lack of players who can play with any sustained excellence.

It could get even worse because some of the players could be signed by an organized baseball franchise, immediately ending their Venezuelan league careers. The whole month of October was carved from the schedule, which means it’s not really an LVBP season; it’s like a simulation to try to keep alive one of the greatest traditions of Venezuela, maybe an excuse to activate nostalgic feelings of what the league used to be.

The MLB veto on the Venezuelan league touches even the coaches, managers, and technical personnel linked to organized U.S. baseball. For example, former big leaguer Tony Armas Sr. had to refuse to be the Leones del Caracas manager because he is an MLB pensioner and it could mean that his pension would stop. He even can’t work as part of the technical staff of the team. The Venezuelan winter league has become another example of how most of the institutions of this country, such as the education system and the health system, have deteriorated until turning into grotesque imitations of what they once were.

Some players have serious defensive struggles with routine plays, maybe because of physical issues, maybe because they aren’t playing their natural position. We see this almost every game. The managers are handcuffed because of the limited rosters. Furthermore, some managers don’t know the league or the players, and since their immediate assistants (bench coaches) have the same handicaps, the teams keep making the same mistakes in a lot of games. This means some players who are generally known to be good hitters are sitting on the bench simply because the inexperienced manager doesn’t know any better.

Going to the ballpark is not an option for many people anymore. Public transportation is almost not available, and the few vehicles still working are extremely expensive. The league has tried to help by setting 6 p.m. as the new starting time for weekday games, earlier during weekends. The other reason for playing earlier is the rampant insecurity in the streets, which forces people to go home much earlier than they used to. The cost of the tickets is about the cost of a single meal, so many fans cannot even think about going to the stadium because they first have to try to eat. They can’t think about buying beverages and food at the stadium, which is as expensive as the tickets, or even more.

The baseballs used in this 2019-20 season come from remaining stock from last season. Although some people linked to LVBP say they were able to restore the stock of baseballs from Rawlings, which produces the balls, it’s suspected that could be not true since with the exception of food and medicine, all U.S. enterprises are warned not to do business with any people or enterprises related to the Venezuelan political regime. What has been said is the remaining stock is apparently enough for the whole season, but the LVBP needs to find a provider to guarantee the continuity of the season in case it runs out of baseballs.

So the players are not allowed to throw any baseballs into the stands, the umpires keep playing with the same baseball for 10 or 20 deliveries, and batting practice balls are being used in the games. Sometimes foul balls are thrown back to the field.

Beyond this, many baseball fans don’t listen to the games or watch them on TV because the lack of competitiveness is so stark compared to even five seasons ago. Watching the LVBP has become a sad experience after years of really good baseball.

It’s incredible having to see day after day, game after game, how a manager keeps insisting on playing a catcher who is unable to throw out most base-stealers. Everybody takes off and arrives safely at the next base. In one game, a catcher surrendered eight stolen bases. In the same game, the pitchers walked six batters, the team committed five errors, but the pitching and the defense of the other team was even worse, so the team with that catcher ended up winning. In another game, the runner at second base didn’t tag to go to third on a long fly ball caught by the centerfielder. That’s seldom seen even in the little leagues. Another center fielder wasn’t able to throw out a runner at home after catching a popup just behind second base.

That’s why the radio broadcaster was recalling that Navegantes del Magallanes once had a fantastic trio of outfielders in Billy Hatcher in left field, Joe Orsulak in center and Benny Distefano in right field. Even the best speedster thought twice before taking an additional base on any of those guys, maybe the best arms for an outfield trio in Magallanes team history. That was the way it was, the kind of players who used to come to play in this league, their kind of performances, their kind of hustling.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The situation is so depressing that a lot of Venezuelan players, who could be performing in LVBP because they are out of organized baseball, prefer to play in other countries’ winter leagues such as Colombia, Panama or Nicaragua. Or they are staying home abroad waiting for next year, maybe because of the economic reality. So the teams have to go looking for other players in other leagues where the quality could be like a lottery, a big uncertainty where you could get a really good surprise or be impacted by the bad fundamentals performances repeated game after game.

People in the street don’t talk about the Venezuelan baseball league with the same regularity or passion as they did some years ago. They miss those great ballplayers who used to come to play in LVBP, not only the big leaguers, not only the foreign players, but the native ones, even the minor league prospects who used to play from the beginning of the season or just a few days after opening day. The few who keep watching games on TV or even listening to them on the radio regret having to deal with such poorly executed baseball.

It’s inevitable for them to remember the way it used to be: Gibson’s shutouts, his intimidating presence on the mound, his hustling and hard-nosed trying when things were not going well. Aparicio’s fantastic plays all around the middle of the infield, his unthinkable foot coordination, his magnificent positioning, his mastery in taking slow grounders by running forward and taking the ball even barehanded. Evans’ elegant catches in right field, the strength of his throws to the bases and home plate, his proficiency in the clutch, how he managed to get that base hit or double to put his team ahead.

The lack of interest can be noticed even in the groundskeepers. One day, the start of a game was delayed because the batter’s boxes around home plate were painted smaller than they should be. So the leadoff hitter of the visiting team went to talk to his manager, and he complained to the chief umpire about it. It took almost half an hour for the groundskeepers to remake the boxes.

How can this be possible? Some commentators said that it had even happened in major league baseball. Really? In more than 50 years following baseball, I don’t remember a situation like that in the majors, LVBP, international tournaments, spring training, amateur baseball, or even the little leagues. This is a very well-known baseball rule, which is hard to forget because the groundskeepers use a metal mold. They just have to mark the dimensions from the mold, and that’s it.

How many more times there will be a season like this? The optimistic expect this will be the only time this happens, but that implies the end of the political regime, and that needs much more than simple optimism. But perhaps it is healthier being a dreamer, expecting to leave behind all of the depressing and unhappy images of the totalitarian reality. Better than staying anchored to this dark reality that consumes all of us little by little, every day, like a frog being boiled over a slow fire.

Resources and References

  • Mariana Moreno. MLB no dará permiso a jugadores para la LVBP por temor a sanciones. Agosto 22, 2019. elnacional.com
  • Fernando Martínez .Antonio Armas no se reportará a Leones del Caracas de la LVBP por recibir pensión de la MLB. Octubre 10 2019. 12up.com.
  • César Sequera Ramos. LVBP ya tiene calendario para la temporada 2019-2020. Octubre 16, 2019. Enlaraya.com
  • César Sequera Ramos. LVBP tiene pelotas “aseguradas” para la temporada 2019-2020. Septiembre 12, 2019. Sportsvenezuela.com

Alfonso L. Tusa is a chemical technician and writer from Venezuela. His work has been featured in El Nacional, Norma Editorial and the Society for American Baseball Research, where he has contributed to several books and published several entries for the SABR Bio Project. He has written several novellas and books and contributed to others, including Voces de Beisbol y Ecología and Pensando en tí Venezuela. Una biografía de Dámaso Blanco. Follow him on Twitter @natural30.
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4 years ago

Thank you Alfonso.

After what happened to Luis Valbuena and José Castillo, I have to think that individual MLB teams and players would have prohibited their players from playing in Venezuela regardless of any prohibition from MLB itself. The situation is a total tragedy.

4 years ago

Alfonso, I just read an article on the WSJ(posted 18 hours ago) that said: “Venezuela’s baseball league has received a license from the U.S. Treasury that potentially paves the way for players affiliated with Major League Baseball to participate despite U.S.-imposed economic sanctions against the South American country.“ Thoughts?

Zachary Kellicuttmember
4 years ago

Nice article! Not to nitpick, but it has happened in the MLB before. Though this probably came from the crew putting the mold in the wrong place, rather than not having a mold at all.