DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And for baseball fans, it is time. Pitchers and catchers reported, then everyone reported. Spring training is finally here. And maybe it's worth noting, some of the biggest names in the majors are Venezuelan, like two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers and All-Star infielder Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros. Both of them were discovered at U.S.-run baseball academies in Venezuela, but now because of economic and political unrest Major League Baseball is shutting down most of its operations there. John Otis reports.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Players take their cuts in the batting cage at the Chicago Cubs academy here in the central Venezuelan town of Guacara. One young prospect is catcher Anderson Perez.
ANDERSON PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "Everyone's dream is to travel to the U.S. and play for a major league team," he says.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Introduced by American oil workers in the 1920s, baseball is Venezuela's national sport. To groom local talent, 23 of the 30 major league teams opened training academies here in the 1990s. Pedro Gonzalez manages the Cubs' Venezuelan squad.
PEDRO GONZALEZ: Every time you see Cabrera, Altuve and those guys doing what they do in the big leagues, you can easily imagine why the scouts are continuing to come here.
OTIS: The players earn about $1,000 a month, a decent salary in a country with a badly devalued currency. Off the field, they receive English classes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And you come and write the words - I think. You can just cross (ph) the words here.
OTIS: The language comes in handy because many players move up to minor league teams in the U.S. A select few reach the top. With 65 players on team rosters last year, Venezuela provided Major League Baseball with the second-highest number of foreign-born players after the Dominican Republic.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: But now, this talent pipeline is being squeezed. As problems pile up for Venezuela's socialist government, Major League Baseball is drawing down. Due to skyrocketing crime, many teams have moved their academies to the Dominican Republic, says Hector Ortega, the Cub's trainer in Guacara.
HECTOR ORTEGA: They got afraid to come to the country because the situation on the streets are dangerous.
OTIS: Venezuela's chronic food shortages prompted the Seattle Mariners to shutter its Venezuelan academy last year. Ignacio Serrano is the baseball columnist for the Caracas newspaper El Nacional.
IGNACIO SERRANO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: He says, the Mariners couldn't find enough flour, eggs and chicken to prepare three meals a day for 40 hungry players. Due to political tensions between Caracas and Washington, Venezuela now requires that Americans, including baseball team officials and scouts, apply for visas to visit the country.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Today, only the Cubs, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies still run academies in Venezuela. That's bad news for up-and-coming players, says Herlis Rodriguez, an outfielder for the Phillies Venezuelan squad.
HERLIS RODRIGUEZ: To me, it's a big problem. The Venezuelan talent is in trouble right now. We got, like, less opportunity to get a contract in the United States.
OTIS: Still, Venezuela remains awash in baseball prodigies. Thus many players and coaches predict that once living conditions improve, major league teams will be back. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Guaraca, Venezuela.
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