Swing and a Miss: Life, Death, Money, Politics and Baseball in Venezuela

Venezuelans' favorite sport isn’t safe from the crisis either. Even with absurdly cheap tickets, most people can’t afford to go. LVB players are victims of crime and the government uses baseball for shady business deals.

Photo: Ciudad CCS retrieved

Our game, Tigres against Cardenales de Lara, was lightly attended. When the rain began, everyone moved to the upper seats, and you could see that two thirds of the venue were empty. Years ago, people would camp outside stadiums for tickets that are now almost free. No, seriously: it’s Bs.S. 250 for a seat right behind the home dugout, that’s 30-50 U.S. cents, plus any woman with a male companion gets in free.

To put that in perspective, it’s slightly pricier than a beer cup. The Tigres jacket I bought in the official store was Bs.S. 10,500, the same as 42 seats!

Growing up in Maracay, just a few blocks from the playfield of Tigres de Aragua, my family has turned going to a game or two per season into a habit. There have been many problems within the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League (LVBP), but it’s one thing reading about it and quite another seeing for yourself.

Last year alone, PDVSA provided the league with $12 millions to cover the income that doesn’t come from box office and certainly not from advertisement. While watching the game, you see around the playfield billboards for dodgy cryptocurrency stuff (petro included), the Aragua State government, the (Tigres de Aragua chairman) Carlos Guillén Baseball Academy, and a local sportswear brand whose “About Us” section is, literally, filler.

Hey, at least they switched back from Zulia to Polar beer.

In fact, the relationship between the Tigres de Aragua organization and the Aragua State government has been… murky, for the past two decades. The latest chapter was getting Guillén appointed chairman by Tareck El Aissami, after the Aragua governorship took over the team in 2012. The excuse? Previous governor Rafael Isea had illegally changed laws in favor of previous chairman, Rafael Rodríguez Rendón. Tigres? More like Gatopardos.

Another issue is safety, and I don’t mean just the fans. During this game I saw, players wore a black ribbon on their uniform, a reminder that, a few days before, José “El Hacha” Castillo and Luis Valbuena, from Cardenales, were killed in a car accident caused by road pirates.

Juan José Ávila, chairman of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, made it all worse later, stating that “had they travelled in the team’s bus, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Yeah, that’s gonna go great with the fans you want at stadiums.

Players were angry too. Many are currently, or formerly, in the MLB and have become targets for robbery and kidnapping themselves. Despite hiring bodyguards, pretty much every team in the league has stories. For Tigres, it was the 2011 kidnapping of catcher Wilson Ramos at his parents’ house, in Valencia. It was so bad, Ramos thought that was it for him.

I can’t help but have some reverence for the game and what it means for Venezuelans.

Yet, despite corruption, the excess and all the backroom deals of the LVBP, I can’t help but have some reverence for the game and what it means for Venezuelans. Our highest-grossing movie is about baseball. Intellectuals like Andrés Eloy Blanco wrote about it; Hugo Chávez was a big fan and, legend has it he wished to be a baseball player before joining the army. Names like Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera or José Altuve are living legends.

It’s all bread and circus, yes, they don’t even try to hide it, and perhaps we need it. We left in the fifth inning, after half an hour of waiting for the game to resume. It rained, but that didn’t deter the painful sight in the parking lot, squalid children begging for a piece of food or some bills. In the past, this area around the stadium was like a midway filled with vendors selling kebabs—never mind the funny taste—beer, shirts, caps and banners of all teams. Now, it was the cold December night wind traversing an empty street where more cops than necessary stand around, not really having anyone to watch over.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.