It’s the national pastime – bueno, alongside politics. It has become a big part of Venezuelan culture and embedded itself into the way we speak: we’re not in a tough spot, you’re “en tres y dos”. Venezuelans are never baffled, they have a “cara de poncha’o”. We don’t do great, “la botamos de jonron”.
Hey, even Hugo Chávez used it as a political tool, reminiscing the days he was an aspiring pitcher who got into the Military Academy on his athletic prowess (or at least, that’s what he told us).
So how is it that an American sport has become a part of the Venezuelan fabric in a continent where, apparently, nobody even understands what the game is about?
Baseball made it into Venezuela helped by the already-ongoing cultural and economic exchange with the United States at the turn of the 20th Century. Several wealthy Caracas students went up North to study in American universities. Almost at the same time, the oil boom was starting back home, and places like Maracaibo were enjoying the benefits of it. Among some of those benefits, was that foreign game that needs a bat and a glove that the American oil workers established in Zulia brought along with them.
The very first Venezuelan baseball team, Caracas BBC, was established in 1895. The first official baseball game recorded in Caracas was played that same year.
Baseball started to become a big part of the sporting life of Venezuela during the Juan Vicente Gomez years. In 1917, the Magallanes team was born. But it wasn’t until 1941 when the game became a full national obsession.
That’s when the Venezuelan national team played the Amateur Baseball World Series in Cuba, and came back home with the title. Names such as Daniel “Chino” Canónico, Guillermo Vento, José Antonio Casanova and Atilano “Pollo” Malpica became part of the country’s sports history. They are still remembered as “Los Heroes del 41.” Four years later, four teams, including Cervecería Caracas and Magallanes, founded the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League which is still playing to this day.
The Venezuelan winter league still captures the imaginations of many Venezuelans every year from October to late January. It’s the sport with the largest attendance numbers, with close to 2.6 million tickets sold last season, with 7 of 8 teams boasting increased attendance figures. It’s also the highest rated TV sporting event, and most importantly, it’s the most lucrative professional circuit in the country.
It’s so important that the Venezuelan Government still grants it preferential status and exchange rates for buying hard currency, necessary to sign foreign players and buy equipment. No other private sports league gets this goodie.
Venezuela is also a huge exporter of baseball talent to the United States. Many will say baseball players, oil and beauty queens are our main exports.
Pitcher Alejandro Carrasquel made his debut with the Washington Senators in 1939, becoming the very first Venezuelan player in the Major Leagues.
The Venezuelan pipeline to Organized Baseball has not stopped ever since (names such as Luis Aparicio, Bo Diaz, Manny Trillo and David Concepcion will surely ring bells with older fans), with an influx of talent which boomed in the late 1980s and early 90s.
Andres Galarraga became the first Venezuelan to claim a MLB batting title in 1993, Omar Vizquel was awarded with 11 Gold Glove Awards throughout his long career as shortstop, Wilson Alvarez threw the first no-hitter by a Venezuelan in August 1991…you get the picture.
Current superstars include Miguel Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner (2012) since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967 and Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, who pitched a perfect game in 2012.
These days, it’s hard to picture a Major League game without at least one Venezuelan. So much so in fact that four criollos were on the 2015 World Series rosters: Wilmer Flores for the New York Mets, and Franklin Morales, Alcides Escobar and Fall Classic MVP Salvador Perez for the Kansas City Royals. This is why baseball keeps on getting the lion’s share of coverage in sports media, including the two all-sports national daily newspapers, Meridiano and Líder.
The fan base is passionate, loud and they give every game a party atmosphere. You can see it in most fans wearing team jerseys at the ballpark – or making it a part of their everyday attire. Twitter goes beserk with every controversial play and team win.
There’s simply no way to put into words how passionate Venezuelans are when it comes to baseball, even though it has been tried by some of the very best.
That’s the reason why, whenever a young American player who hasn’t seen baseball away from his country, comes to Venezuela and is blown away by the intensity they get to experience at a ballgame. There’s definitely nothing like it.
By this point you can’t picture Venezuela without baseball. And, judging by the contributions it has made to the game abroad, you can’t imagine baseball without Venezuela.