Hotheads don’t last long at the Las Brisas baseball diamond.
Unless they have rare talent, like a rocket arm or a liquid swing, players find little tolerance for their antics among people whose opinions matter. To youth coaches and Major League Baseball scouts, tantrums are headaches and, possibly, signs of a player who can’t handle pressure.
So they lose the attitude fast or they wash out of the sport, said Alberto Landaeta, a 26-year-old assistant coach for a program that teaches nearly 200 boys between the ages of 6 and 14 in Caracas.
Not many of the boys Landaeta coaches have rare talent. They don’t have much of anything.
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What they bring to the diamond, Landaeta said, is “fiebruo,” a uniquely Venezuelan expression that refers to enthusiasm bordering on obsession. A couple times a week, they make their way out of Petare — the largest barrio in Caracas and one of the biggest in all of Latin America — or some other neighborhood and walk or hitch a ride to the Las Brisas field in eastern Caracas. They spend hours there running, throwing, practicing their swings against tires and just being boys.
Fiebruo: A uniquely Venezuelan word meaning enthusiastic verging on obsessive.
The field feels like a meadow in a thick forest — except that, in this case, the forest is thousands of concrete and block buildings. Right field offers a rare opening with a view of El Avila, the mountain ridge to the north that separates the Caribbean Sea from the valley where Caracas was founded almost 450 years ago. It has new artificial turf, another rarity in a city that’s been decaying for decades.
Behind the left-field line lies Macaracuay, an upper-middle-class neighborhood where people who drive their own cars live behind walls and guarded entry points. It’s a stronghold for Venezuela’s capitalism-friendly political opposition. Soccer is popular here, as it is throughout Venezuela’s upscale enclaves.
Behind the right-field line is Las Brisas, a small but infamous barrio that, like most barrios in Latin America, is a hive of violent crime, drug trafficking and dirt-poor living conditions. Baseball is the only sport that matters here.
The line between rich and poor lies directly behind home plate.
Most of the boys live in places that look a lot more like Las Brisas than Macaracuay. Baseball, even the drudgery of practice, is an escape for them.
They don’t have cleats or gloves. Some don’t even have shirts. But you forget about that on the field.
Alberto Landaeta, assistant coach at Las Brisas baseball diamond in Caracas
DRAW OF THE BONUS
Venezuela is a baseball country.
Despite its size — about 30 million — it has produced 341 major-league players, plus countless minor leaguers. A total of 65 Venezuelans were on major-league teams’ Opening Day rosters in 2015.
Former President Hugo Chavez was a baseball nut and talented pitcher. Players such as Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera and Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio are something approaching royalty here.
Just about every boy who practices on the field near Las Brisas is sure he’ll make it to the major leagues. Very few do, of course, but glory and riches await the best and luckiest. The average major-league salary in 2015 was $4 million, according to an Associated Press analysis of big-league contracts. A respectable Venezuelan salary is about $250 a year.
Even a prospect who never makes the big club can get enough money from a signing bonus to change his family’s fortunes.
SCHOOL OF BASEBALL
Alvaro Valdez has built his business around the signing bonus.
A few dozen players attend Alvaro Valdez Academy, a few miles from the Las Brisas field. Valdez provides equipment, a field, batting cages and his own time for free. He works to turn the players’ raw talent into marketable skills. He videotapes the best ones and shows them to major-league scouts.
This can go on for years. Some of the players don’t have much talent. Some get injured. One of Valdez’s projects is his own daughter, an elementary-school-aged girl with a compact, powerful right-handed swing.
If the scouts are interested, Valdez helps his players negotiate a signing bonus. He takes 20-35 percent of the bonus.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward scenario for Valdez. He might spend years with a player and never see any money. On the other hand, some players sign for hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s a lot of money in a country where the minimum wage is less than $12 a month.
Valdez said 12 of his students have signed with major-league teams since he founded the academy in 2008. Once they sign, he said, he works with the players and their families to manage their money.
This is a small way of counteracting the poverty so much of Venezuela is mired in.
“The majority of the players we sign are kids from the barrio,” Valdez said. “Lamentably, because of our culture, a kid from the barrio doesn’t have the same chances as a person who’s in conditions where they can see progress in a career.”
OUTSIDE THE LINES
Baseball also offers advantages to the kids who don’t make a living off it, said Javier Garcia, Landaeta’s fellow assistant coach.
Garcia offered the example of a friend who’s a tall, talented shortstop — the kind of player every big-league team is interested in. But Garcia said his friend didn’t take any of the teams’ quick-money offers. Instead, he used his talent to get to the United States through another path: college.
Garcia said his friend is playing baseball and attending classes at a college in Iowa these days. He refuses to sign a professional contract until he graduates.
“That way, if he doesn’t achieve his goal, he has a base for life,” Garcia said.
Garcia said he started playing at age 12 — late in baseball terms. He lived in Las Brisas and could walk to the same field where he now coaches.
Both Garcia and Landaeta lauded the values boys can learn from playing baseball that will serve them in their professional and personal lives.
“Like every discipline, you learn you always have to respect the coach, have confidence, to ask questions about things you don’t know,” Garcia said. “Being a coach now, what I’ve learned, I can use it to influence the kids.”
In October, Idaho Statesman and McClatchy reporter Sven Berg spent three weeks in Venezuela reporting on politics, the economy and culture. A pitcher in college, Berg was particularly interested in the country’s obsession with baseball.
Schedule at Alvaro Valdez Academy
Five days a week, Alvaro Valdez works out his pupils. Here’s their rough schedule:
▪ 6 a.m.: Strength and conditioning work in the gym
▪ 8:30 a.m. to noon: Defensive drills and conditioning on the field
▪ 12:15 to 2 p.m.: Batting practice