The Silent Demise of Venezuelan Baseball

Venezuela’s favorite sport keeps going, amid excruciating circumstances, sparse crowds and almost no reporters. A dispatch from the field of the Luis Aparicio El Grande Stadium

The regular season of the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League is over, and Águilas del Zulia won’t be part of the round-robin that started after Christmas and extends till January. Their baseball was just not good enough this season, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story to tell. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It might not be a happy story, but then again, happiness is subjective.

For the 2019-2020 season, uncertainty came in the form of MLB withdrawing from the Winter Agreement with Venezuela, fearing that they might fall in violation of OFAC directives and be the subject of sanctions. As we mentioned in previous publications, OFAC ended up giving a green light to six out of the eight baseball teams in December 2019—all except Navegantes del Magallanes and Tigres de Aragua—hence restoring the Winter Agreement between MLB and the greenlit teams. Tigres and Magallanes have no links to Major League Baseball, but there’s little to no mention of this.  

Last season was in peril due to the pandemic, but ended up being played under what seemed like miraculous circumstances, not only because of the restrictions that most sports leagues were implementing, but also from the inherent difficulties of the country. There were no fans in the stands and no games were played in some cities, including Maracaibo. 

For the 2021-2022 season, things went back to normal… sort of. Bravos de Margarita didn’t return to the island for their home games and instead played in the Forum de La Guaira. Other limitations included a maximum capacity of 40% attendance in the stadiums for each game, which I immediately knew wouldn’t be an issue, since attendance is obviously declining and those big baseball parks are hard to fill.  

Take Me Out to the Ball Game  

On October 26th, Maracaibo hosted the first professional baseball game in more than 20 months, and a sense of excitement marked the occasion, at least in the stands. Around 5,000 fans visited Luis Aparico El Grande Stadium that day, and even though the seating capacity is three times that, fans were concentrated in the main seats, which means their presence was certainly felt. Ticket prices were 10 dollars all season long, and the bleachers—where prices would have been a dollar—were never open. 

This influx of fans was somewhat sustained throughout the season, averaging around 3,000 per game. In fact, Maracaibo had the best attendance average in the whole league, despite having a team that didn’t win many games. The constant presence of a decent number of fans is an indication of a city in need of entertainment, trying to escape the stress of the pandemic and that of the country. 

In the past, you could see a batch of regular season ticket holders going to every game and following the story arc of their team throughout the season. This wasn’t the case this year, where the faces were new each game. I’d say it was, in general, less of a hardcore baseball crowd and more of a “casual ballgame from time to time” crowd. How can I support this claim? Well, with the fact that there was no booing. One thing is true, going to the ballpark can be a fun experience, no matter what happens on the field.

There was a huge absence during the entire season, especially noticeable in October and early November: political propaganda. There was none of it, even with regional elections just around the corner, from neither the government nor the opposition. Politics had been a fixture of the ballpark since I was a little boy in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. This is the first time in my life that politics were nowhere to be found. No billboards, no politicians in the games, no announcements, nothing. This might relate to the overall fed-up disposition of the people in Maracaibo on the subject.

Off the Record

Another conspicuous disappearance this season in Maracaibo was journalists. That influx of people in the stands spending money didn’t translate to our guild. It was a scene of the prosperity of the people against the austerity of the media. I watch most games from the press box, a place that can hold up to 35 journalists, but had no more than five people occupying those spaces, not even on opening night, or on November 18th in El Juego de La Chinita, the most traditional game for Águilas each year.

It was sad and a reflection of the profession as a whole in the country. Most outlets that still exist simply don’t have the budget to cover baseball, or even jump through the hoops of more basic things like transportation… Just getting to the stadium in a city with basically no public transportation (or gas, for that matter) is a hard—sometimes impossible—mountain to climb for most people. 

The lack of journalists extends to other teams that would, in normal circumstances, send their radio broadcasters (crew and all) to every city, to cover every game. This time, they had to rely on TV broadcasts to do their jobs. Even most televised games—with exceptions—were produced remotely, with the camera crew in the stadium, but play-by-play announcers and commentators back in the studios.      

Even though it’s baseball, and many could argue that it’s not that important, journalism is needed to speak truth to power. For instance, in the case of Águilas this season, there was plenty of criticism to be made, but no one was there to ask the right questions. All the information was produced by the teams themselves. They sure have a lot of great professionals, but they’re working from a place where there isn’t enough freedom to properly practice the profession.   

By the way, I would never want the job of criticizing the Águilas. I can’t do it. I’m just too biased, I love them too much, and I don’t want that to change. It’s a luxury I don’t want to part with. But I think someone needs to do it. It’s important. 

If They Don’t Win It’s a Shame 

When someone made fun of me for wanting to go to the game even after Águilas were out of contention, I just smiled. I love the game, no matter the context. Águilas player Ali Castillo made a beautiful play with his bare right hand and I immediately remembered the people taunting me. I thought “this is why I came, just because of the chance that something like this might happen.” 

I guess I’m not a “bottom line” kind of guy, I’m more an “enjoy the present” kind of person. To me, just like life, baseball moves at an unhurried pace with sudden moments of explosiveness, some ugly, some beautiful, all with the definition you want to give them, which means that they are really unimportant in the grand scheme of the universe. I guess romantic futility is my true passion, the purest reflection of life. I love baseball.