Eagles in the Outfield: Where's Venezuelan Baseball in 2023?

At least in this realm, the sanctions were lifted and we even saw active MLB stars in many league games. But attendance and media attention are still a shadow of what once were

Every year since 2019 I’ve been covering how each baseball season in the Venezuelan Winter League has been unfolding, and every year I find myself with both new and old things to say. Variables and constants. This is just like the sport of baseball, and life. Things that change and things that stay the same. I do this job always on the lookout for things that change. I keep on doing it because of those that stay the same. 

The 2019-2020 season was rocked before it began because Major League Baseball 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 Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), hindering the entire league. 2020-2021 was barely a season due to the pandemic. The following season saw a return to a normalcy of sorts, always within Venezuela’s constraints.

And now, the current 2022-2023 season gave us new developments on past problems, but also flashes of the past with the faces of the present and future. It also gave me that dose of melancholy that I’ve come to crave with sour delight, having my Aguilas del Zulia not being able, once again, to qualify to the postseason. I don’t really care, it’s always wonderful because I’m keenly aware of the notion that all of this will be here after I’m gone, and that gives me immeasurable pleasure.

The MLB (OFAC) – LVBP Saga

As we’ve been covering, the political uncertainty between the US and Venezuela spilled to baseball since 2019 in the forms of sanctions. From that moment on Navegantes del Magallanes and Tigres de Aragua were not able to cross the threshold that OFAC and MLB require to normalize their administrative situation.  Without OFAC’s go-ahead, these teams had been unable to hire anyone affiliated to the Major League Baseball system. 

That was one of the changes this year. By the end of September 2022, the league President announced that both Tigres and Navegantes had received OFAC licenses, therefore normalizing their situation so they could start the process to be on par with the rest of teams in the league in terms of a bigger access to a pool of players and coaching staff. The league is basically back where it was before 2019 in terms of its relationship with Major League Baseball.

It is True, I saw it on TV

There was a 40% maximum capacity rule last season due to the pandemic that was merely decorative because, for the vast majority of the games, the attendance was so meager that the benchmark would not have been even met. This season started with no such limitation, but it’s all the same because attendance is still low, save for some good moments, especially full crowds at the emblematic Caracas – Magallanes games. 

The sale of tickets at stadiums is not the main source of revenue for the league, anyways. The real business of Venezuelan baseball is broadcasting. That’s alive and well. Not only were up to six TV channels where games are spread throughout the season, but this year saw the strengthening of Beisbol Play, a streaming service where more than 80% of the games, including all of the postseason ones, are available live for $13 a month. This is certainly a development clearly trying to capture the viewership of the diaspora in part, most of them who could gladly afford the fee. 

In the Luis Aparicio Stadium in Maracaibo, as it has been for the past seasons, there’s a lack of journalists. The press box is nowhere near 50% capacity. Most of all the mighty broadcasting force is in the technical personnel, a hugely important or even a key part of the profession, the majority of them not from Zulia. However, the involvement of print or digital media is almost nonexistent and depends on the willingness of a few individuals that make an effort to come to the stadium.   

Rising Stars, Shooting Stars

The Venezuelan League always shows great batches of rising stars on the field. That’s very likely to continue in time, no matter how prosperous or deteriorated the social conditions of the country are since this seems to be a bottomless well of talent for the sport. For many, it’s really the main appeal of the league.

This season something different happened, a sort of blast from the past with a 21st-century flavor. Some of the biggest Venezuelan stars in baseball played games for their respective teams here in the country. That was always the case until the 1990s when the investment that MLB teams made in Venezuelan players became so huge that the risks of letting them play here were just way too large to handle. 

A big difference between the 1980s and today is that Venezuela did not have the number of quality players in the MLB it does now, which makes the appearance of some of these names even more mind-blowing. Certainly, from a strictly sporting point of view, it is terribly exciting. 

But what went on this year? Is it a sign of the “Venezuela is fixed” phenomenon that some interested sectors of the political spectrum are trying hard to sell? Is that what suddenly brought these players to showcase themselves in the country? Hardly. 

The main reason for the appearance of these stars in the LVBP season had nothing to do with politics or social conditions. It has more to do with the fact that the World Baseball Classic, a competition that pins countries against each other (a sort of baseball World Cup that’s played once every four years), will be held in March this year, and the players wanted to get some playing time under their belts before the actual competition. It is very hard to imagine that this will be a recurring theme. This might be the case for just a set of particular circumstances that came together.

Regardless of the reasons, Venezuelan baseball got to enjoy at least ten games with Ronald Acuña Jr. in the Tiburones uniform, without a doubt one of the best players in the world (some would say the very best actually) and he certainly did not disappoint. Players like Seattle Mariners’ Eugenio Suárez and Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres also got playing time with Leones.

Even my team saw a small stint of Rougned Odor and bonafide legend Salvador Pérez playing a couple of games in Maracaibo. Although  “we” were eliminated by the time they came, I must say that I really enjoyed seeing them. In all cases, you could see the caliber of these athletes. One step beyond. Here’s hoping something like that happens again. Even if there’s always local quality to enjoy, no matter how high in baseball’s echelon these players are, there’s something special about MLB stars. A mystique about them.     

Same As It Ever Was

All in all, there was certainly a fleeting feeling of little oxygen in Venezuela’s baseball this year, because, as we’ve been able to corroborate in the past few years, the game does not exist in a vacuum, it goes hand in hand with the country. The bubble-like environment that the Venezuelan economy is going through can be felt in baseball. I still must say that the faces of those buying the beers look way different than of those who sell them. 

As far as I’m concerned, it’s all great. Going to the ballpark with a dear friend that knows nothing about the game and trying to explain in an hour what takes a lifetime to grasp it’s still one of the great joys of life. As endurable as ice cream. That’s really all I need to love the sport, the little things that it keeps on giving me. Win or lose, baseball is still a repository of meaningful metaphors for life, of the things that change and the things that stay the same.