09 March 2013

2013 World Baseball Classic: Venezuela

This is the thirteenth in a series to introduce everyone to teams participating in 2013's World Baseball Classic.  As this series progress, you will find all of the articles under this key world: 2013 World Baseball Classic.  Previously, we reviewed Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Italy, Korea, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Spain, and the USA.  Remaining countries to cover are the Dominican Republic, Japan, and Mexico.  Let's hope we cover them before time runs out.

The body of the Venezuela article was written by Jon Shepherd.

IBAF Ranking (out of 74) 8th
2013 Pool Puerto Rico

Dominican Republic

2013 Players of Note Anibal Sanchez, RHP

Jhoulys Chacin, RHP

Miguel Cabrera, 1B/3B

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Elvis Andrus, SS

2009 Record 6 - 2, Semifinals
2006 Record 3 - 3, Second Round

The American sphere of influence, often through the intervention of Cuban nationals, spread the game of baseball through much of Latin America.  Venezuela's history of the game has been largely influenced by this path.  Simply, we can divide the history of the Venezuelan game into four eras: Proto-Baseball (1850s to 1895), Pioneer (1895-1941), Modern (1941-1989), and Post-Modern (1989-present).

1850s to 1895
During this time, borders were somewhat of a fluid thing between British Guiana and Venezuela.  The land in and around the disputed areas held some of the most productive gold mines in the world, but such a vast territory made it difficult for the different governments to effectively hold the area.  This led to many local arrangements being made permitting British interests to actively mine the region.  An influx of British citizens creeped into the regions during these decades.  With them, came the British game of rounders (which the American game of baseball deviated from), which was played with quite regularity in mining camps.  Over the decades though, sentiment towards the British turned worse which likely made the populace more willing to mess around with a ball and bat game that was distinctly identified as British.

The first baseball game to be played in Venezuela was documented on May 23, 1895.  It appears the game culminated from more affluent individuals, like Emilio Cramer (a Cuban who established a cigarette factory in Caracas), who were able to provide the equipment and filled out with factory workers and other blue collar Venezuelans.  Thus was born the El Caracas Base Ball Club, which was the first of many baseball social clubs that would form and play against each other.  This is somewhat similar to how baseball began to thrive in the United States.  Anyway, the game flourished and competition would often take place between the social clubs and when ever American ships would frequent the city.

Eventually, Venezuela's vast oil reserves became recognized by commercial interests in the United States.  This interest led to many Americans to entering the country and, just like the Cubans with their tobacco and sugar factories, brought not only investment money, but also a great desire to maintain their interest in baseball.  This led to a larger population of invested players with disposable income to fund equipment and find suitable places to place.  The interest became great enough that American minor league clubs sometimes visited to play in exhibition series.  In 1928, the Crisfield Crabbers arrived in Caracas to play a series to inaugurate a brand new stadium.  The Crabbers were a very successful Class D minor league team on Maryland's Eastern Shore.  The team that faced the Venezuelan club team included an 18year old named Paul Richards.  You may know him better as the Baltimore Oriole Manager and General Manager during the 50s and 60s.

What also became more important during this time was Venezuela's attempts to unseat Cuba as the dominant baseball force in Latin America.  The country began holding international competitions in the 1930s and 1940s.  Teams and players from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Negro Leagues shuttled to and from the Venezuelan leagues with regularity.  This is also the period of time where the lines between amateur and professional began to blur.  In 1941, the Venezuelan team beat the Cubans in Havana for the crown in the World Amateur Baseball Championship.  The country shut down in celebration for their home team.  This fervor was further awarded with Championship wins in 1944 and 1945.

The Venezuelans by this point had proven themselves as capable of playing at a highly competitive level.  Major League teams took notice by first going after the lighter skinned players and, after Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line, darker skinned players.  Major League teams took advantage of established amateur club systems for youth that fed into professional leagues in Cuba.  The first Venezuelans to break into major league ball include: Alejandro Carrasquel, Chico Carrasquel, Luis Aparicio, and Pompeyo Davalillo.

This pathway came to an end though with the Cuban revolution.  Baseball teams now were directly focused on the countries that fed the Cuban system.  Most looked toward the Dominican Republic, but a small group of clubs took marginal resources to continue to scout in Venezuela.  The Astros were at the heart of this movement.  Paul Richards came over from Baltimore to lead the Houston team.  He had brought with him a young front office man named Pat Gillick, who also quickly became a big proponent of mining Latin America for talent.  The focus was primarily directed at the Dominican Republic, which became the new feeder system.  This created a system where young Dominicans worked hard with trainers to be ready to show their skills off to MLB scouts who were often present at games.  Venezuelan youth did not have this avenue.  They had to progress far enough in their skills for a trip to the Dominican to make sense for them to show off their skills.  If you agree with that assessment, it provides a good reason why the youth baseball infrastructure in the Dominican withered away while it flourished and became more entrenched in Venezuela.

Andres Reiner had a plan.  It was a slow plan, but it was one that a team without great resources would appreciate.  Why wait for Venezuelans to develop and prove themselves in the Dominican or in international amateur play?  If a team waits that long, then they will wind up having to compete with all of the other scouts that frequent these events.  Furthermore, as the Dominican became a more profitable place to find talent, MLB placed restrictions on how long a youth could be kept at an academy before signing in order to prevent teams hoarding prospects and circumventing player threshold rules.  In this scenario, it made sense to go to Venezuela and find the kids who excel at baseball.  A team, without the rule restriction, could then hoard players without concern of other teams swooping in as well as enabling a team to train players for a few months before finally determining if they like the talent or not.

Andres Reiner, through a great deal of hard work, convinced the already open-minded Houston Astro organization to make a more concerted effort in finding MLB talent in Venezuela.  Reiner established an academy and hired full time and part time scouts and trainers, including Cesar Cedeno (Pat Gillick's first signing out of the Dominican Republic).  For almost the entirety of the 1990s, only the Astros had a fully established system to produce viable talent out of Venezuela.  The following is a list of Reiner's successes:
One of the interesting things about the Astros investment in Venezuelan prospects is their apparent misevaluation of how talented their prospects were once they left Reiner's hands.  Of the above, only Richard Hidalgo saw his talent realized by the Astros.  The others were left available in Rule 5 drafts (e.g., Johan Santana), expansion drafts (e.g., Bobby Abreu), trades (though using Guillen and Garcia for Randy Johnson is understandable), or simply released (e.g., Melvin Mora).

Several teams are now fully entrenched in Venezuela.  Strangely, Houston is not one of them with the closing of their academy in 2008 (which led Reiner to go to the Rays to help build up their academy in Brazil).  Talent is certainly present in Venezuela, but some teams are concerned about safety in the country.  There have been many examples of players, scouts, or families of players being robbed at gun point or kidnapped for ransom.  This unfortunate cost of doing business has kept two thirds of baseball to mainly have interest only in Venezuelans who make the international amateur scene or those that are released by other clubs.  However, the amateur youth system, the winter leagues, and several academies are going strong and ensure Venezuelan baseball is alive and vibrant.

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