Venezuela's Baseball League Is Struggling Amid Country's Deep Economic Crisis
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Venezuela has produced hundreds of big-league baseball players. They include all-star second baseman Jose Altuve, who's led the Houston Astros to this year's World Series. But as John Otis reports, Venezuela's professional baseball league is in trouble because of that country's deep economic crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL BATS CRACKING)
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The Caracas Lions take batting practice before tonight's game against the Sharks from the Caribbean port city of La Guaira. The Lions have high hopes for the new season that kicked off this month. Since the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League was founded in 1945, the Lions have won the championship 20 times.
UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Yeah, doubleheader. You get tired if you get all that batting practice.
OTIS: Although relations between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments have soured, the Lions roster includes several players and coaches from the United States. Florida native Mike Rojas manages the Lions, who are known as the Leones in Spanish.
MIKE ROJAS: To me, this is the best league in the Caribbean for winter ball. And, of course, you know, Leones de Caracas is the biggest name in baseball down here.
OTIS: But President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government has led oil-rich Venezuela into its worst economic crisis in modern history. The result is hyperinflation, food shortages and rising crime. All this has hurt the country's baseball clubs.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL BATS CRACKING)
OTIS: Tickets cost less than a dollar, but many Venezuelans must now spend that money on food. Others stay home because they fear getting mugged as they leave ballparks late at night. League attendance has dropped by about half. Things are so bad that there was talk of canceling the season until the Venezuelan government stepped in with $10 million to underwrite the league. Juan Gutierrez, a relief pitcher for the Lions, says he can tell something's wrong simply by looking at the bleachers.
JUAN GUTIERREZ: We used to have a lot of friends in the stadium. Because of the situation in Venezuela right now, not many people can come to the game. And it's really sad because us as the players - we like to see a lot of fans in the stands.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)
OTIS: Despite a three-hour rain delay, about 5,000 hardcore fans stay for tonight's game. They include season-ticket holder Marta Garcia.
MARTA GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "This is a beautiful game," she says. "It helps us unwind from everything that's happening in our country."
Indeed, there's still much to love about Venezuelan baseball. For one thing, it lacks the overkill of pro sports in the U.S.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: At the creaking, 65-year-old stadium the Lions call home, there's little advertising and no T-shirt cannons, fake noise or jumbotrons urging fans to get into the game. They're not needed.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).
OTIS: Venezuelans are passionate about baseball. Sometimes, they get a little too involved, says Jason Simontacchi, an American pitching coach for the Lions.
JASON SIMONTACCHI: I saw some fireworks. Someone had - was shooting, like, a Roman candle at our left fielder - throwing chunks of ice at the umpires. A lady - she was drunk - she fell off the - over the right-field wall.
OTIS: But no amount of fan involvement can save the Lions tonight. They fall behind early and lose to the Sharks 6-2. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas.
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