No matter how they felt about his politics, Venezuelan baseball players acknowledge Hugo Chavez's loyalty to baseball, the No. 1 sport in their country.
While the Venezuelan middle class evaporated during the former president's 14-year "socialist revolution," the country's baseball system enjoyed unprecedented productivity. Last year, the rosters of the two World Series teams featured nine Venezuelans, and 66 made opening day rosters in 2012. Chavez goaded U.S. President Barack Obama by suggesting the World Series ought to be played in Caracas.
In the wake of his death on Tuesday from cancer at age 58, the members of the Venezuelan team have committed to play the World Baseball Classic as a salve during their country's time of grief, if not in Chavez's memory as individuals. Venezuela is to start the round-robin portion of the tournament on Thursday with a game against the host Dominican Republic.
"It was very sad news and everybody was shocked," said the team's manager, Luis Sojo, a former infielder for the Toronto Blue Jays. "We all knew he was sick, but nobody understood how serious his condition was, for the last couple of months. He had a lot of relationships with the players because he was a baseball guy. He loved baseball."
Sojo, also Venezuela's manager in 2009, never met Chavez the president in person, but heard from Chavez the baseball fan on the telephone frequently during that tournament. Like many fans, Chavez was not above second-guessing the manager.
"He used to call me in the morning before the game, and then he would also call me after the game," Sojo said. "He was a very funny guy, on the telephone; that's the way I would describe him. He asked me one time why I did not use Frankie [pitcher Francisco Rodriguez] in the third inning and I say, 'Mr. President, he is our closer.'" Closers are generally used in the ninth and final inning, which Chavez would have known as a baseball fan, but he evidently believed the urgency of the particular game situation required Sojo to act radically.
Chavez of course won't be remembered for his good humour. He was despised by the international oil-and-gas community for nationalizing fertile oil fields, and feared inside and outside Venezuela. Upward of 200,000 people emigrated from Venezuela to escape Chavez's regime, and many successful major-league players such as Andres Galarraga have settled in Florida after their playing careers.
The usually garrulous Galarraga, the hugely popular first baseman with the Montreal Expos, is serving as a coach for the Venezuelan team. His trademark smile tucked away, he chose his words carefully and with evident reluctance during a short conversation on Wednesday. While he lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., his extended family continues to reside in Venezuela.
"Everybody has a different mentality [about Chavez]," Galarraga said. "What happened, has happened. We are trying to keep the distraction away from the guys, so they can do the job in the WBC to give the people of Venezuela a better [frame of mind]."
Some ballplayers have feared kidnapping as reprisal for speaking out, or simply for being identified as sources of easy money during the country's economic upheaval. On March 3, Detroit Tigers reliever Brayan Villareal authorized his agent to reveal that armed robbers broke into the family home outside of Caracas and threatened to kidnap them at a later time if they went to police. Wilson Ramos, a catcher for Washington, was kidnapped last November, later rescued. Three years ago, San Diego shortstop Alexi Amarista's father was murdered during a robbery. In 2005, Maura Villareal, the mother of pitcher Ugueth Urbina, was held by kidnappers for more than five months before being rescued.
When Magglio Ordonez came up to bat in Toronto during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, angry fans jeered him derogatorily as a "Chavista," their voices punctuated by furious flag waving. While most of his baseball brethren shied away from politics purposefully, some for fear of actions that might be taken against their families back home, Ordonez had filmed a commercial to support a term-limit extension for Chavez.
After Ordonez was booed in the 2009 WBC, both in Toronto and in Miami, Chavez chastised the action. "Everyone has a right to think about politics," he said, at the time. "This is shameful. [Those fans] have no shame." And, Ordonez said, when the ex-pats booed him, they booed the entire team.
On Wednesday, with Chavez gone and none of the current players closely identified with his regime, a good chunk of the crowd of 2,647 sat behind the Venezuelan dugout on the first base side of Tradition Field, singing and dancing on a breezy, mild day. When the team left the field following a 14-10 victory over the New York Mets, they stood to cheer. Among the supporters in the crowd, Carlos Bracho and Ronaldo Amaro, visiting Florida on vacation, remembered the Ordonez incident.
"He told everybody that he was with Chavez, but not all people agreed with him," Bracho said. "There is a big division in our country."
Americans and Canadians may be indifferent to the WBC, but the Latin countries embrace the event. It caps their winter league seasons, while the opening of the major-league season is still three weeks away.
Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers slugger, told reporters that the team has committed to win the tournament. Rodriguez, the pitcher, said 30 million people will be watching the tournament in Venezuela.
"It's a big responsibility," Rodriguez said. "It's a different feeling, playing for your country."
No matter whether players disagreed with his socialist beliefs, now is the time to turn the page, Sojo said.
"He was a human being," Sojo said. "We pray for him, we pray for his family and in the meantime, we came here to play baseball."
So many ex-pats have settled in South Florida to flee Chavez that Sojo predicted they will out-number – certainly, out-shout – American fans, should Venezuela face the United States in the final round in Miami.