Sanctioned Baseball Goes On

The OFAC sanctions produced another case of overcompliance when American baseball cut its ties with the Venezuelan league. This is the story of how I learned to stop worrying about MLB and love the game.

Photo: Karen Jaimes

In Venezuela, baseball is as good as it gets, and has been for decades. It’s the national pastime, still unrivaled by any other professional sport. The professional league, Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Profesional (LVBP), has been closely linked with the United States and Major League Baseball (MLB) in particular since its beginnings in 1945. 

But this year something happened: that link didn’t disappear, but changed its nature. In the final days of August, MLB announced that it would not allow any affiliate players and/or personnel to participate in the upcoming LVBP season, pending an official green light from the US Office of Foreing Assets Control (OFAC). The context: the August 5th round of sanctions against the Maduro regime.

The championship was already in danger when the MLB made the announcement. It usually kicks-off in October, but the LVBP had decided to cut a substantial number of games from the regular season, due to the economic collapse, infuriating a regime which saw an attack on its efforts to maintain any sense of normalcy. 

Now, the MLB’s decision looked like the final nail on Venezuelan baseball’s coffin at first glance. There could not possibly be baseball this year. 

The arrangement

While the government took the MLB announcement as another badge of honor in their fight against imperialism, and vowed to have baseball no matter what, the league and the teams started a remarkable lobbying job, asking MLB how could they reverse this.

The answer was resoundingly clear: first and foremost, the league had to get rid of any ties with Maduro’s regime.

This meant mainly (but not exclusively) government sponsorships, which always has been a considerable part in the LVBP, especially with PDVSA, the national oil company. That, and any other link to the government, including advertisement, had to disappear, a tall ask considering how close we were to the beginning of the season.

Without any change from MLB, the LVBP finally announced that there indeed was going to be a season, that it would start in November and it would have 42 instead of 63 games for each team in the regular season. This time, there was no tantrum from the government. An eerie silence surrounded the whole thing. Every team needed to do a lot of work to build their rosters, considering this new scenario. 

The season finally began on November 5th, with not much fanfare, but plenty of TV stations covering the games. In Valencia there was a big crowd on opening day, which was utterly unimpressive considering that the flamboyant Carabobo chavista governor Rafael Lacava gave away every ticket to “artificially” fill the stadium, and when a light drizzle fell down, people vacated the premises in droves. 

My hometown team (and one of the loves of my life) is Maracaibo’s Águilas del Zulia. Their home opener came on November 11, and had quite a significant attendance. Conspicuously absent were any signs of government sponsorship. The huge painted “Movilnet” logo (the government owned cell phone service company)  on the bleachers was replaced by another company not owned by the State; but the painting was noticeably fresh. It looked like a hastily covered crime scene.

Ticket prices in the stadium are in dollars, for all intent and purposes. In Maracaibo they range from $1 to $5, some of the cheapest in the country. 

Two hidden relationships

At the press box in Maracaibo stadium Luis Aparicio el Grande, I spoke with 21 year old Gustavo Ríos, the online scorekeeper for the LVBP. The data he was collecting was going to MLB. It was like a broken relationship where the parties are constantly checking each other’s social media. But it’s also an indicator of the importance of the business side of baseball: MLB will keep tabs on anyone playing the game because they can’t afford to lose talent. 

The percentage of affiliated players that would have had a stint in every LVBP team, even without the MLB limitations, is way lower than most people believe. In Caribes de Anzoátegui and Cardenales de Lara the rosters will be comprised of 80% non MLB affiliated players. The MLB affiliates might be a smaller percentage, but the quality of their playing makes for a significant difference. 

Journalist Fernando Arreaza pointed out how Leones del Caracas and Naveganes del Magallanes were the main victims with the MLB decision, given that the two biggest teams in the country had more players affiliated to MLB organizations. You could see it among the few foreign players in the championship: many of them are over 30 years old and only three of them from the United States.

It should be also noted that the participation of MLB affiliate players in Venezuelan baseball has been declining since the value of the players skyrocketed a couple of decades ago. A player is basically an investment for MLB organizations, and letting them play four months of the year in another country is just not good business. If you add that fact to the current situation in the country, authorizing a player to come to our league makes little sense, and that’s even before any sanctions, limitations, or otherwise.

Tigres de Aragua was the only team whose members chose to participate off the record. They confirmed that there was no government advertisement in their hometown stadium in Maracay. Then came Tiburones de La Guaira. Their Chief of Operations, Domingo “Tortuga” Fuentes, told me about the pitiful attendance in their home games and budget cuts from losing three sponsors: PDVSA, Movilnet, and Avelina, a food company with nothing to do with the regime, whose owner is on a list of sanctioned individuals by the USA. 

I spoke with Venezuelan baseball legend Ángel Bravo, a former big leaguer and one of the few people on coaching staff that repeated from previous years, because, unlike the players, over 95% of the managers and coaches that were supposed to direct all the eight teams are affiliated with MLB organizations. Blanco told me that his own participation was in doubt, because he receives a pension from MLB, but he called and made sure that he was OK to be with Tiburones, because he’s not currently under contract with any team in the US.         

Richard Gómez, the GM of Leones del Caracas, said they are doubling on efforts in every aspect, working with a smaller universe of players, cut down from 50 to 35. A confidential source in the capital’s team said they have to check the background of every company they can be involved with in order to accomodate MLB wishes: if they are booking rooms in a hotel in Margarita island, for instance, they must check if the owners have no government ties. 

Overcompliance, again

In early December there was a twist in the tale, when OFAC gave a partial green light to MLB that allows its affiliates to work with most Venezuelan teams (six out of the eight teams). Tigres de Aragua and Navegantes del Magallanes were excluded, two teams managed by foundations with noticeable government ties. 

Ignacio Serrano, a prominent baseball columnist, said that MLB took an extreme measure even before OFAC pronounced itself on the matter. The same overcompliance about the sanctions shown by banks or companies like Adobe. He noted how MLB ‘s measure affected pitching in particular, where the level was noticeably affected. 

Serrano also made a good point regarding the low levels of fan participation, specially attendance-wise: Leones and Navegantes account for (at least) 50% of the fan base in Venezuela, and those two teams are performing poorly, even having their respective play-off chances in jeopardy. According to John Carrillo, a veteran broadcaster who also works for DirecTV, the average attendance in 2018 was 3,700 per game, and 2,500 in 2019. As of December 16, according to MLB data, the highest attendance in one game was a little over 9 thousand for the Águilas opening home game. It’s important to note that Águilas ballpark, Luis Aparicio, can accommodate a little over 20 thousand people.

This means that the biggest attendance in the country did not even fill half the capacity of the stadium.

Three teams (Bravos, Caribes, and Tiburones) haven’t gone over the 5 thousand fan threshold in their home games.

And there is the jobs issue. Juan Andrés “Juanchi” Machado, part of the three generations of his family that have worked within Águilas management, is currently Chief of Operations in the ballpark. He said the August MLB announcement made them overwork to make things happen and deliver the best possible product to fans. Instead of 80 doorkeepers working last season, this year Águilas just had around 37. Journalist Aquiles Estrada pointed out the LVBP season used to offer jobs which are crucial for thousands of people. 

The Parting Glass

LVBP is under a catch-22: they would benefit from saying they are no longer in business with the government, but if they say that, the government is likely to inflict some sort of retaliation to the league. The biggest winner in this conundrum is the government itself, which no longer has to procure money for the LVBP, yet they get some credit for the existence of the season, due to the normalcy that comes from the simple fact that the games are being played, and because most people, due to lack of good information and/or the abundance of misinformation, think the regime is bankrolling the whole thing. 

This misconception has turned some fans against the people working to make the league happen. Broadcasters Ponty Álvarez and Aquiles Estrada said that they are trolled during every game via Twitter, because some accuse them of being in cahoots with chavismo, which is something that can’t be farther from the truth. 

I have to mention the local journalists, the ones that are left. The press box in the ballpark can accommodate up to 30 journalists sitting down, but there were many times when I was alone with the scorekeeper and people from the team. It was unusual to see ten people in the press box, and those that do go, like Rafael Castillo and Luis Fuentes, do it on their own dime, for the love of the sport. After all, baseball is beautiful no matter what.     

There are fans visiting the ballpark, some are sporadical attendees —people who want and need to do something different—, and regulars that love the game. Américo González is 75 years old and has been coming to the stadium even before the building was finished, “I used to come every Sunday to see how the construction was coming along.” Américo is part of what was known as the Esquina Caliente (the hot corner), a group of around 20 fans that came to every game. Now some are dead but most are out of the country, and Américo only came to one game this year because of the danger of returning home at night and the lack of gas for his car.

Águilas qualified for the playoffs with a couple of weeks of anticipation, and had played exciting baseball this last month and a half, endearing themselves to the few that come to see them. Victor Contramaestre, a regular attendee, hit the nail on the head when he told me “the region most affected by the magnitude of the crisis is enjoying the best baseball in the country.” 

In fact, there is one constant in all the people I spoke to (fans, journalist, players), an opinion that, by the way, I agree with: the level of baseball was better than expected in the entire country, a testament to the talent of our boys. I asked team manager Marco Davalillo, whose father won two championships managing the team in the early 1990’s, about the impact on the Águilas game, and he gave me sort of a Yogi Berra response. “Baseball,” he said, shaking his head, “27 outs that way, 27 outs this way.” 

First, when I thought about writing this piece, I imagined an unhappy story. I was wrong. This is a story of perseverance, of survival. The survival of the league, the players, the fans, the journalist, the workers. No one gave up, it didn’t matter if the punches were coming from MLB or the government. The truth is that everyone was caught in a fight that was not necessarily theirs and adjusted, sometimes beautifully, often creatively, to the circumstances. 

Sometimes fans put an unfair burden on players, because they represent their ambitions, their aspirations. We want them to resolve in the field our everyday frustrations. The truth is simpler. Players are a collection of aspirations too; baseball is just a poetic way of living. Baseball, at its best, is a functioning democracy, where everyone contributes, and good work is rewarded in the long run. Baseball justice is closer to perfection than any justice system, it has defined rules and the team that draws better within them usually comes on top.

Baseball brings continuity to our lives, three strikes are still an out, and continuity brings a sense of peace. 

I’m glad we’re having baseball this year, because the human spirit has to be bigger than any fight in order to survive.