Baseball suspended amid Venezuela's political crisis

Monday, December 23, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela -- No jam-packed stadiums. No hot dogs. No seventh-inning stretch or shouts of "Play bol!"

The three-week-old general strike against President Hugo Chavez has thrown a curve to Venezuelans' cherished winter baseball season.

With games suspended because of the turmoil, the crack of the bat and roar of the crowd have been replaced by the din of people banging pots and pans to support or protest Chavez's rule.

American players signed with the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox and other big league clubs abandoned the country after the U.S. Embassy advised U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Venezuela.

Even though local players, managers and coaches were willing to take to the diamonds, the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League reluctantly suspended the season Dec. 9, saying it couldn't guarantee the safety of sluggers and spectators.

Baseball helps Venezuelans come together and temporarily ignore their other obsession -- politics. But now politics have left the ballparks empty, the players and fans desolate.

'Saddest moment'

"This is the saddest moment of my life as a ballplayer," lamented Luis Sojo, the former New York Yankees' World Series veteran who is an infielder with the Lara Cardinals team in his native Venezuela during the winter.

"I get choked up to see the stadium empty day after day, and how each time there are fewer players out here practicing," said Sojo, who in the summer coaches a Yankees farm club in Norwich, Conn.

This season was supposed to spotlight Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez, the right-handed pitcher whose mixture of dazzling fast balls and confounding sliders caused a sensation as his Anaheim Angels defeated the San Francisco Giants in the 2002 World Series.

Rodriguez's fiery performance made him a national hero in his native Venezuela. But Venezuelans managed to see him play only four innings in two appearances before the winter season was halted -- perhaps to the relief of executives with the Angels. Many major league teams are reluctant to let top talent play in the winter leagues for fear of injury.

The president hasn't commented publicly on the suspension of the season. But he must regret it.

Chavez is a left-handed pitcher and first baseman, and once had dreams of turning pro. But he joined the army and decided to become president -- first by mounting an unsuccessful coup in 1992 and then by getting elected six years later as a populist promising to remake Venezuelan society.

He plays in military games and once pitched to visiting Cuban President Fidel Castro. Chavez insists he struck Castro out. The Cuban leader called it a walk and strode to first base.

Americans who came to play in the winter season have left the country, heeding the U.S. State Department's warning. Among them were Jason Lane of the Houston Astros, Allen Levrault of the Florida Marlins and Derek Haselhoff of the Boston Red Sox.

Unless the political crisis is resolved soon, there is little chance the season will resume. The first round of the playoffs was scheduled to start Jan. 2. Officials say they could extend the season to mid-January or stage fewer playoff games with fewer eligible teams, but only if conditions improve.

"You'll hear 'Play ball!' only when we can guarantee the quality of the game and the safety of the players," said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, president of the Venezuela Professional Baseball League.

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