It’s Hall of Fame season, kids! That means things are about to get stupid. So buckle up because Mark Faller, Sports Director of the Arizona Republic, would like you to know that he has submitted a blank Hall of Fame ballot, and here’s why:

With no guidance from either the Hall of Fame or Major League Baseball, no clarity from the courts or Congress, and no soul-baring from the players themselves, it’s up to the 600 or so Hall of Fame voters to be judge and jury for these symbols of baseball’s steroids era.

 The questions are unprecedented. Who was dirty? Who was clean? Who got an advantage from using performance-enhancing drugs and who didn’t?

 In the end, all we have is a ton of circumstancial evidence, a general acknowledgment that it was a dirty time in baseball for a lot of players, but no checklist telling us who juiced and who was clean.

A lesser man might point out that this member of America’s Baseball Writing Elite, and editor of the sports section of a major American Newspaper has misspelt the word “circumstantial”. I prefer to focus on the apparent fact that he has no idea what journalism is.

Mark Faller isn’t the entire problem with this process, but he is emblematic of it and he’s also the first one this season to publish an article outlining his own misunderstanding of his role and responsibility as a member of the fourth estate, so let’s address this.

I don’t know how long Mr. Faller has been covering baseball, but since he’s a tenured member of the BWAA, and he’s the sports director of The Arizona Republic, it’s likely a long time. Presumably, he was covering the game of baseball at the time that many of these players were active. He likely wrote about the McGuire / Sosa home-run chase. If he was practicing in Arizona, it’s a good bet that he wrote about the exciting 2001 Arizona Diaomondbacks’ successful World Series campaign, complete with Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson throwing heat, and Luis Gonzalez slugging 57 HR in the regular season. He may have even been writing about baseball when Jose Canseco was an up and coming surly slugger who looked like he stepped out of a weightlifting gym somewhere, or when that tightly wound ball of explosive, sinewy muscle Lenny Dykstra got in a fist fight with the catcher at home plate. This man, who calls himself a “Sports Director” and presumably has worked as a reporter, saw it all and had better access to it all than any other member of the non-uniformed public who cared about baseball.

Through it all, Mr. Faller didn’t write anything about steroid use in baseball, or potential steroid use in baseball. That’s fair enough. Writers and editors can’t just run speculative garbage that might ruin a player’s reputation, but did anyone even ask? Did anyone do any investigative journalism at all? Especially in the era before the internet and citizen-journalism, the news media is expected to ferret out the truth about whatever it is they’re covering. The gravity and palatability of that truth is supposed to be beside the point, journalists are supposed to cover the story, good bad or ugly.
I can’t find anything with Mr. Faller’s by-line reporting on steroid use, but since the lid was effectively blown off this whole thing by non-journalist and serial pariah Jose Canseco, I think it’s safe to assume that Faller and his ilk were lulled into a dopey, ineffective silence by the exciting fact that their jobs were to write about baseball games, and that’s being charitable! A less charitable assumption would be that they willfully failed to report on widespread steroid use by baseball players, because doing so would either limit their access to clubhouses and games, and could possibly reflect poorly on the baseball industry as a whole, off of which they had a habit of making a living. (What’s that? It’s not right to just assume stuff? Huh.)

In any case, after having lived through and reported on this era (or not reported on it, as the case may be), Mr. Faller’s piece betrays a flagrant misunderstanding of his profession. The garden variety excuse has always been that the writer doesn’t know who was clean and who wasn’t, so they’re not voting. Mr. Faller, though, takes it one step further, and expects there to be some sort of road-map to tell him who cheated and who didn’t! There might have been, and we might have been able to avoid the whole era altogether, had Faller and his colleagues simply done their jobs.

Posted by: elsalamigrande | March 16, 2010

A Visit From The Equipment Manager

We’re Back!

After an extended absence brought on by extended leave in Panama, work commitments that I’d rather not have to describe, minor injury, fever causing delirium (no kidding!), and some time to come up with the aforementioned excuses, elsalamigrande is now ready to recount the long awaited Baseball Gear Giveaway of 2010.

I had seen it myself on previous trips to Latin America, but the most dramatic examples had always been stories. Kids playing ball with taped up rocks, making gloves out of milk cartons, playing barefoot. What always got me were the surfaces. I once saw some school kids in Costa Rica playing baseball on the kind of hillside that my rugby coach makes us run up and down for punishment, or possibly for sadism.  Home plate was at the top of the hill, so a fielder had a pretty good shot at making a play on a runner hustling up from third, no matter where it was hit. That was fifteen years ago. I’d like to think that those kids became world class mountain climbers after chasing that taped up ball down the hill and back.

You can’t export playing surfaces, so I took two large equipment bags with me to Venezuela, and did my best to spread some old and not-so-old gear around to kids who didn’t have any and couldn’t afford any.

I want to give thanks up front to all the generous respondents to my Craigslist ad – especially Darcy in Burnaby, who came through big. The most generous donor was the Storm 98A softball team from Cloverdale, BC (featuring future superstar and official niece of elsalamigrande Morgan Mack) who turned up with more gear than I ever imagined being able to bring down here. It was almost more than I could carry. They gave it to me with specific instructions not to forget about the girls.

So, my trip to Venezuela began with two bags containing more used baseball equipment than I could carry at one time. At the airport in Porlamar, I was mistaken for a ballplayer more than once, and the more I insisted otherwise, the less I was believed. One bag was left at a hotel in Caracas, and the other brought along with us to the Isla de Margarita where, initially, I had more trouble passing out baseball gear than one would expect.

Our first young prospects were three kids playing with a tennis ball in a small yard in Porlamar walled off by high wrought iron bars. We saw them playing on our way to one of the games, and doubled back to get a few mitts and a ball and bat from the big bag back at the hotel. When we returned, our gifts were met with immediate suspicion.

The eldest boy, maybe 10, took charge quickly when I tried to pass the bat and glove through the fence. “Por que?” Why? His younger brother and sister fell in behind him and watched it all happen, but the kid was initially having none of it. I told him that it was “por beisbol.” No kidding, he seemed to say. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to tell him anything more than it was for him, and that I didn’t want anything for it, but it wasn’t washing. The kid went to get his Mom. I explained to her through broken Spanish that I was from Canada, here for the Serie Del Caribe, and wanted to give her kids this baseball gear, and she gave the kids permission to take it. They thanked us, and the two youngest immediately began to play with their new gear. The older one remained puzzled and I don’t blame him. There isn’t much in the world that comes for free.

After Venezuela crapped out in the Series, we headed on a whirlwind tour of the island in a rented Renalut that was far too fuel small and fuel efficient for a country with 1.5 c/l gasoline. Our packs rode in the back seat while the big bag of gear was jammed in the trunk. Part of me had been worried that the children we encountered on the relatively well-off tourist-centric Isla de Margarita would have gear, and have little use for a  bunch of beat up second hand crap from Canada, but I couldn’t be more wrong.

A short ways down the dirt road from Playa del Agua there were about 10 kids playing with a 2×4 bat and a taped up ball in a lot that looked like it once had a house on it – a shaky foundation still present and causing obstacles. The game stopped when the white man pulled up in his rental car and started dealing out gloves to the kids. There was a standard period of confusion as they came to terms with the fact that I didn’t want anything from them, and they immediately began distributing the gear according to rank. I made sure that the girls got gloves.

Onward we went, a day later to Juan Gregor where, again, we didn’t have to go very far to find houses made out of plywood and kids playing ball with a stick. This time, it was three boys, about 5 years old, playing with what looked like a tree branch. One of them did have a proper glove. We stopped the car and I dug out three small mits, a new ball and a miniature bat. Those kids weren’t suspicious of anything, although they were a little astounded. I played with them for a bit. The one kid fouled off my nice ball into a makeshift chicken coop, and they looked at each-other like they might get in trouble, so we decided to get moving and waved good bye. When we got back to the car, I remembered that I had some cleats in that bag that were just about their sizes, so we came back with three sets.

By then, Mom had arrived. She was too confused about the ball gear to be worried about the chickens. She thanked us as we gave each of the three kids (who had all been playing barefoot) a new set of ball cleats. The eldest got a set that were too big. “He’ll grow into them,” I explained to Mom. “Si.”

The next day, further towards the inner city of Playa Congrejo we found more kids. The owner of our hotel, Carlos found us a lot where three kids were doing their best to play ball with what they had. The street front lot, which I think abutted a tent based living facility and kitchen where a curious and brooding mother poked here head out a few times, was one half covered in garbage. The other half, however, had been meticulously cleaned by these same three children to be used for baseball.

I initially gave them a standard sized Louisville Slugger wooden bat, but traded it for a smaller aluminum one when it became apparent that the kids were too small to hold the weight. The rules were simple in garbage lot baseball: You get one good pitch. Make contact and hustle for the pizza box by the near brick wall that is first base. Second base is the edge of the pile of garbage, and third base is over there somewhere. If you manage to bury a fly ball deep enough in the garbage, it’s a round trip. A ground ball that gets lost in the garbage, however, is a ground rule double.

We donated the last of the gear in the bag we brought to the island to a baseball school that some lawyer who we met at the series set us up with.  By then it was mostly catcher’s gear, which I figure sandlot kids didn’t have much use for.

We returned to Caracas with only 2 hours of daylight remaining, an AM flight to catch, and a whole bag of gear sitting at a hotel to be given away. I met a driver at the airport and told him that I wanted to find kids playing baseball. Standard Venezuelan confusion ensued.

He wanted to get us a hotel.

Yes. A hotel will be fine. But first, we must pick up this baseball gear and deal it out before sunset.

Well, we can do that once we find a hotel.

We can do that before we find a hotel.

I do know of a good hotel. It’s not far. They have shuttle service to the airport.

The baseball gear. We want to deal out this gear.

Can I have some of that gear for my son?

Sure! Just find me some kids on a sandlot.

First, I must find you a hotel.

Eventually, I had to walk away and pretend to look for another driver to get my point across. Then it was out to pick up the gear and a mad rush around town looking for kids on sandlots. We found the mother lode on the only semi-flat piece of ground in the hills of Caracas. About 15 kids, all taking turns at bat on a lot that once held a concrete/re-bar structure and still held the leftovers.

No sooner did I remove the bag and open it than the gear was gone. I directed traffic a bit to make sure that the girls got equal opportunity in the feeding frenzy. Then I put my own mit on and tried to get in on the game, but it wasn’t that easy. These kids, freshly acquainted with what was likely the newest ball gear of their lives, weren’t about to put that stuff down. Not for anything. Not even for baseball. Many kids left briefly to stash their new loot and then returned. I did end up getting my one Venezuelan sand lot at-bat, mostly, I think, because the kids could see that I’d get a kick out of it. I looked at three pitches outside, then grounded one to the kid playing 3rd base/left field who beat me easily in a footrace to first. Next time.

These kids were also confused once the new-gear high wore off. I explained the best I could that this gear was for them, and they couldn’t quite figure out why. Our driver told them that we were from Canada, we didn’t need this stuff, and we wanted them to have it. Then they asked when we were coming back.

I don’t know when I’ll be coming back, but I hope that it’s soon. I’d like an opportunity to see more of Caracas and the other parts of Venezuela that aren’t geared for tourists. When I do, I hope that I’m as lucky as I was this past time and I’m able to bring down some used gear and get a game going with the locals.

Posted by: elsalamigrande | February 16, 2010

Ubiquity of the Status Quo: Why Hugo Reigns King.

PORLAMAR- Take it for what it’s worth, coming from a baseball fan with limited Spanish who has been here for all of two weeks, but it seems to me like Hugo Chavez is going to be the man around here for some time to come; mostly because he’s doing everything right. That’s not to say that Venezuela is a rising power, and that its citizens are enjoying prosperity across the board, or even the Venezuelan people are better off than most. In truth, I don’t know and wouldn’t feel right making broad generalizations about this place’s outlook on the strength of what I’ve seen. But I’ve seen enough to say that it’ll take a seismic shift to unseat the entrenched power base. Hugo Chavez is giving the people what they want.

There is definitely enough poverty to go around, even in the relatively rich Isla De Margarita, a tourist center with the resources and infrastructure to host the welterweight class international event that is the Serie del Caribe. The sanitation, for example, isn’t at the level that any first world country would consider tolerable. Garbage and canine waste are common roadside decorations, and often occupy the empty lots that one finds on almost all city blocks in Porlamar. I did see a garbage truck making the rounds in Playa el Agua, but the familiar scattered refuse and dog shit still dotted the street sides and vacant lots. The beaches, and any other place that people congregated to spend money, however, were spotless. I’m unaware of a conventional, working postal system.

It’s tempting to think that these are things that we take for granted in the western world, and their absence is taken for granted in Venezuela. The streets have likely been covered in garbage for as long as anyone can remember. It’s nothing to get in a twist about. Unemployment may be high, but it must be lower because of the government sponsored stimulus plan that one sees advertised frequently on billboards, and on television.

Venezuelans aren’t much different from everyone else; certain key elements must be in place to keep them happy and so long as they don’t go away, change, or go up in cost, nobody’s going to cause any meaningful swell in unrest.  The first of those things is television.

Every TV I turned on in Venezuela, no matter the quality of the hotel I stayed in, had somewhere around 90 channels. There were sports channels, movie channels showing both Latin and subtitled or dubbed American movies. They have even been infected by the oxymoronic plague known as “reality television”. If Hugo Chavez had something to say – and it seems that he frequently did – it was carried on 15 of the 90 channels. I assume that these are the channels of Venezuelan origin. As I mentioned, several of them were shut down right before our arrival two weeks ago for not carrying the president’s speeches.

Most of Hugo’s speeches come off pretty drab and boring, especially to those of us with Spanish as a second language. But they’re not all created equal. I watched a solid 20 minutes, over bored sighs of protest from my girlfriend, of Chavez doing a pretty convincing Oprah Winfrey impression. He was in an outdoor setting, sporting a Venezuelan flag jumpsuit, surrounded by what looked like about 1000 of his closest friends. The set was one of open rigging and sound and video techs running about – the type of TV one expects from a summer music festival. Hugo spoke pensively and proudly about the country, its tremendous advance since he began making everything wonderful, and how that is likely to continue for some time. He took questions from the audience, usually a smitten middle aged woman who didn’t ask much, but heaped praise about the country, and its tremendous advance since Hugo began making everything wonderful and, would it continue? Oh, yes it most certainly would. And I think we have time for one more question.

These nationally licensed channels also carried their own unique version of the Venezuelan national anthem, nightly, at 11pm.  The whole thing struck me as transparent and tacky flag waving, and I’m sure that most Venezuelans feel the same way about it if they feel anything about it at all. But what, exactly, is there to complain about? There’s a game on every night, and if you don’t want to watch that, there’s a movie or some other kind of distraction. Let ‘em speechify if it keeps the goods coming.

In every country to which I have had the fortune of visiting, people’s complaints have commonly been about one thing: the price of fuel. It hovers around about $1.20/ liter in my home town of Vancouver. Every time it goes up, people come as close as they ever will to rioting. There are reliably fire breathing newspaper columnists convinced of a vast conspiracy between the oil companies and the government. Those who can afford the time or are going anyways cross the border to buy it for $3/US gallon in Washington State. I hear that it’s over $2/liter in Europe. Universally, nobody likes it. I always thought that it was amusing that the bitching and moaning never really stops, but we aren’t yet at the point that people have stopped driving. But I digress.

In Venezuela, gas costs $0.015/liter at the pump. That’s one and one half cents per liter. I suspect that the government subsidizes its cost from the oceans of revenue that comes from being one of the world’s leading exporters of crude oil. In any case, cheap gas keeps people happy. The car of choice in Porlamar is a Chevrolet Malibu of late eighties vintage. There are also plenty of old Dodge Darts and Chrysler New Yorkers among a crush of more modern and fuel efficient Toyotas and Renaults. Very few of the old muscle cars are in any kind of respectable condition, but they all have aluminum racing rims and dual exhausts. One mint ’67 Ford Mustang fastback in Playa el Agua stuck out. When the rental car company stuck me with an unobtrusive, modern 4 cylynder Renault compact, I felt cheated. Everyone has a car. They are affordable. Hell, at 1.5¢/l, you can’t afford not to!

The streets of Caracas buzz with activity in the daytime. People hang out on the corners and talk. They watch the ballgame, they play ball. Most people can afford a tank of gas and a cold beer and a chicken dinner while they watch the game as day turns into night. On Sunday, they were preparing for Carnival – two weeks of costumes, parades and cheap beer. Chavez might as well have always been in power, that’s why a tank of gas is affordable and the beer is cold and the sky is blue, to hear him tell it.

We experienced one power outage while on Isla De Margarita. The series was over, and we were waiting for a hamburger in a diner in the town of Juan Gregor when the lights went out. Candles were distributed in less than 5 minutes, and business went on as usual. My chicken burger arrived hot and tasty. After about 15 minutes of darkness, it all came back together to the cheers of the young patrons of the restaurant. One of them praised Hugo Chavez and was met with a few groans. I regretted having blown out our candle about three minutes later when the power went back off and, without missing a beat, someone shouted over to the supporter’s table, “Hey, get Chavez on it!” and laughter filled the darkness.

Posted by: elsalamigrande | February 12, 2010

PISTACHIOPISTACHIOPISTACHIO! MAL-TIN! GET’CHER MAL-TIN RIGHT HEAH!

There wasn’t much drama left in Porlamar after the extra innings loss to Mexico. The Leones weren’t climbing out of the hole, and the crowd knew it. Still, the estadio was just over half full for the next night’s game – A 7-1 drubbing at the hands of Puerto Ricans, who ended up getting hot too late in the tournament to matter. The Dominicans would be crowned on the Sunday.

We had good seats for that game, back in the VIP lower boxes where the chairs didn’t cut and the view was free of obstructions. With the home team down early, the game took on a more familiar feel, one closer to the minor league ballgames back home, where everyone’s there for the sake of being there. A beer tab sufficiently secured, we checked out the ballpark fare on the concourse.

Hamburguesa

The Veneuelan hamburger, The hamburguesa, comes standard with several toppings almost never found on its Canadian/American counterpart. These are: shoestring potatoes, ham and a fried egg. Also standard are the more familiar lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and two separate applications of ketchup and mayonnaise, one on the bun and one on the shoestring potatoes. The shoestring potatoes were a nice surprise, but the ham and egg threw me.  I’m a no-pork guy, so I now order mine “sin jamon”.

In or out of the ballpark, hamburguesas offer terrific bang for your buck, averaging 15 – 25 VBF and coming in chicken, beef, pork and “mixto”, which is all three.

Perro Calientes


I’m told that it’s only in Venezuela that the name for hotdog is literally translated. I have no way of confirming this. In any case, the ballpark dogs are nothing special. They come with the shoestring potatoes and mayo and ketchup that we remember from the hamburguesa, but I couldn’t find anything worth cooing over here. My main complaint is too much bun. The dog itself didn’t scream flavor to me, despite being cooked on a very impressive charcoal grill.

Maltin


I haven’t seen anything marketed quite as heavily as Maltin, aside maybe the 2010 Olympics. There are billboards everywhere, painted walls, bus ads, banners. The Maltin logo and the logo of Maltin light adorn napkin holders, bus stops and the home-run fence at Estadio Nueva Esparta. An often repeated television ad has the standard young people, having way more fun than anyone ever does hanging around after school, watching a baseball game on TV at a hamburguesa stand and doing other young, fun, refreshing things, maltin perpetually in hand. So, upon purchasing a frosty cold maltin at the ballpark with my perro caliente, I can safely and dutifully report, as your editor, that it is without question the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted coming out of a can.

Maltin is malt liquor without the liquor. It has this kind of… flavor, like fermented soy husks or something. I’m not a big fan of throwing away things I’ve paid for, but there was no way in hell that either myself or my partner in crime could stomach more than two sips of Maltin. In fact, apart from a row of school age children being taken to the Puerto Rico / Dominican Republic day game by a glorified babysitter who had a can each doled out to them at snack time along with a kitkat bar and a muffin, I haven’t seen a single person drinking this stuff. I’d be interested to find out if anyone knew whether or not Maltin has an established following in Venezuela or anywhere else, or if it’s just being rammed down people’s throats by marketing. The stuff is unequivocally foul.

The Meat Platter

Bar-b-q fans take note, the Venezuelans know how to do it. We encountered this rare treat in the concession area adjacent to the 1st base cheap seats. This section is separated by the rest of the concourse by a one way door and an armed guard. In theory, the privileged may mix with the proletariat, probably to get bbq, but I saw no evidence of trans-class mixing.

The grill fired up in the final innings of the night game, so that the charcoal was ready just into the break. Once hot, the grill was piled with sausage, meat, other kind of meat, other kind of sausage, and chicken. The line formed as soon as the first plate was ready – without a doubt the biggest concession line of the trip. A user was entitled to a portion of each kind of meat piled high atop a plate full of potatoes and coleslaw until just before it threatened to fall off. 50 VBF, which is somewhere under ten bucks depending on who changes your money. Mayonaise, mustard, ketchup and napkins are user applied.

Having already eaten a hamburguesa, I opted for only the chicken, and was greeted with a puzzled look by the server who, after making sure she understood me correctly, conveyed this odd information to the man manning the grill who shook his head, piled on the chicken, passed it down the line to the server who passed it to me an charged me only 20 VBF. It was easily some of the best char-grilled chicken I’ve ever had. All leg and thigh, hacked in to bite sized pieces with the bone in. A beautiful smokey char-grilled flavor that just screams summer.

Taquenos

There isn’t much to these little deep fried heart attacks. They’re just a slice or two of cheese, rolled up in dough and deep fried to perfection. A pack of 5 costs 6 VBF and it’s easy to wonder half way into the third one what the hell you were thinking. Mrs. ElSalamiGrande, the resident taqueno expert, is adamant that the ones sold in the bleacher seats are far better than the ones sold to the VIPs. Cheezier, hotter and saltier.

Snacks

Not a peanut to be found. Chips (corn, potato and plantain), and pistachios are abundant and can be had for around 6 VBF. “PISTACHIO,PISTACHIO,PISTACHIO!” is a common war cry among vendors, as are ear piercing whistles.

Beer


What’s a ballgame without beer? Not much in the way of selection down at the ol’ estadio. The brewer giant here is called Polar, and their corporate stamp is on everything – including Maltin. The flagship brands Polar Ice and Polar Light, both mirage like lagers that make Bud Light taste like Guiness, are all you can get at the stadium. 5 VBF per 222ml bottle, poured into the kind of plastic cup that you might use to drink from the water cooler at your dentist’s office. The vendors, who hustle cases of these bottles up and down stairs, were all more than happy to run tabs for us, but I sometimes had to take their word for it when we settled up. Not because I was drunk, but because I wasn’t. How many three ounce beers can a man keep track of while he’s watching a game?

Outside of the Estadio, Solera (also a Polar product) and Polar Pilsen are respectable brews that come in respectable sizes. I would suppose that these are kept out of the Estadio for some notion of crowd control if it weren’t for the fact that whiskey vendors are common. I guess you just make more selling watery beer.

All in all, the ballpark food was worth the trek down in and of itself. Anyone who’s still reading should stay tuned for more bloggy goodness concerning windsurfing, oyster toting beach hustlers, the upcoming jump to Panama, and the long awaited payoff on operation ball-gear-for-kids.

Posted by: elsalamigrande | February 9, 2010

High Drama In Section Superior – The Pain of Expectation

Before being able to officially run away with the tournament, the Dominican Republic had to beat Puerto Rico in the day tilt on Friday. They couldn’t, so the crowd that jammed in to watch Venezuela take on Mexico in the nightcap had a reason to be especially noisy. The Leones were in it. By a thread, sure, but this is baseball. Puerto Rico didn’t look like they could beat anyone early on, but they made quick work of the Dominicans with a 7-3 pounding in the day game. And, so, there was good reason for the Caracas and Venezuelan faithful to pack in to Estadio Nueva Esparta and cause some noise. We sat, for the first time, in the “Superior” Section, a balcony above home plate consisting of about 25 rows with several important distinguishing features: The rows, very narrowly spaced, were populated with aluminum seats, bolted together into what amounted to a series of long, sharp serrated blades with threaded studs sticking out of the sides.

As if causing painful complication for spectators in shorts wishing to leave or return to their seats, the seating added further complication to an already dangerous and random event: The foul ball. Nets kept balls fouled straight back from ruining the dental work of anyone who shelled out to be in the VIP section directly behind the plate. But if it was back and up, over the net, a baseball traveled at full steam directly to a curiously vaulted concrete half-dome that covered the section superior. I can’t imagine that the lid had anything to do with rain, which would cancel a baseball game, but a well wired and amply powered Bose sound system mounted underneath it betrayed its true purpose. This was a noise reflecting device. Latin music, reggeton and a particularly enthusiastic Venezuelan baseball announcer boomed out of the speakers, off the no-doubt acoustically tuned concrete half-dome, directly through the bones of the spectators in the section superior and out to the rest of the stadium.

Concrete sound and fly ball reflecting feature

Look out Below

I wondered if the bolts on the seats stayed threaded for more than a season at a time. The feature deflected fly-balls much like it deflected noise – ruthlessly. Up off the bat, ricochet off the cement and back down into section superior, where a mad rush over the knife seats would ensue, the winner claiming the prize. I’ve chased many ballpark foul balls in my time, and would have pestered you dear readers with a few thousand words about the feeling of triumph had I been blessed with one. But in the ruthless section superior at Estadio Nueva Esparta, I was out of my depth and decided not to chase. Puerto Rico put the finishing touches on knocking off the Dominicans around 7:30, and the seats in section superior, along with the rest of the stadium began to fill in. Down the first base line in the field level seats, the Mexicans had really outdone themselves. I counted 9 pieces in the Mexican brass band, including 2 trombones and 1 tuba, in addition to a full drum section and a full complement of comically oversized Mexican clackers. The requisite mariachi band was in full dress, but without instruments. If the Venezuelan fans were intimidated, they didn’t show it. Sure, the Mexicans were flashy, and as loud as they come, but Venezuela had the numbers.I estimate a total paid attendance well above 20,000, most of whom took full advantage of the inflatable noise making sticks passed out by various mobile phone carriers and financial institutions.

The “visiting” crowd (Venezuela batting in the top halves for this particular game of the round robin) cranked it up in the top of the first as they went ahead 1-0 with a leadoff home run in the top of the second. By then we had an arrangement with a designated beer vendor. He would keep them coming, and bill us at the end. This is surprisingly easy to negotiate, despite limited common ground language-wise. The beer was Polar Light, an even lighter version of the popular, barely-there Polar Ice. The contents of a 222ml bottle poured in a plastic cup cost 5VBF – just under a buck. Brand and volume were both non-negotiable. Nobody in the stands serious about drinking was a fan of Polar. For them, it was whiskey, either purchased from vendors running up and down the aisles yelling “wiki wiki wiki!” or somehow smuggled in in water bottles that looked like they belonged on bicycles. Our water bottle, containing water, was unceremoniously emptied at the gate, after no discussion.

Venezuela got on the board in the top of the second with a home run by Michael Ryan, and scored again in the third on a run scoring single by Oscar Salazar, further encouraging noise. The din never really settled down and waited for the next event, like it does at American baseball games. It just kept on going, swelling when appropriate until the Mexican center fielder made a Willie Mays style basket catch off of a well hit ball by Venezuelan slugger Raul Padron to shut them up. For a while.

You can tell a lot about a man by the way he runs the basses. Mexico’s Chris Robertson of Oakland, California, tore around 1st on a single to left looking for a reason to go to 2nd. As soon as the leftfielder let go of the throw to second, he turned on the jets and gave the Mexican fans a mini heart attack until the ball landed well off target, and he slid in safe. It was heads-up and ballsy. Fans love that kind of stuff. I suspect that managers do, too… when it works.

The most comfortable place to watch the series is likely the VIP skyboxes, to which we have yet to be invited. Observations through the glass show couches and televisions… probably a bar. Two window washers perch above the boxes for the whole game, wiping the condensation caused by the air conditioning off of the viewing glass with long-poled squeegees as necessary.

Mexico tied it up at 2 in the bottom of the 6th when MLB journeyman Karim Garcia hit a 400 footer that hasn’t landed yet. I ruined a perfectly good white shirt with a hotdog spill in the process. Venezuela got a man on in the top of the 9th with one away to bring up Raul Padron, and the crowd could feel fate closing in until Padron hit one back to the box for a double play and set the Mexican brass band going.

There was commotion and drama in the bottom of the 9th as the National Guard became involved with what appeared to be a domestic dispute in the lower deck behind the Mexican dugout. The Guard is ubiquitous at the games. Many of them ware riot gear and they are all armed with at least a sidearm. Many pack automatic rifles. These are in addition to a tiered assortment of stadium security and local police. In any case, the dispute drew the attention of everyone, including the Mexican players who came out of the dugout for the spectacle. I think I saw one of them with a celphone cam. It was a couple, who looked like they might be fresh off of beating each other up, adamantly refusing to leave. Guard in full riot gear (complete with catcher style leg guards. I’ve never seen that before) were trying their best to convince them that it was time to go, but they weren’t moving. I think that everyone was looking to see all that artillery in action, but they eventually went and the most exciting action was once again on the field.

Mexico hit a double (Luis Garcia), the next hitter was intentionally walked and had men on 1st and 2nd with no outs. They laid down a sac bunt to move them over, and were in scoring position with 1 away. Venezuela then put him on to load the bases. Coach Hedgens came to the hill to get the ball. The Venezuelan faithful remained undeterred. Somehow, the volume mounted as the big right hander Elio Serrano came out from the pen and made his warm-up pitches. He’s throwing the heat and going right after the guy. After getting a second strike on a foul ball to make the count 1 and 2, Serrano waved his pitching arm skyward like the captain of a football defense trying to get that extra push from the crowd to help them stop their opponents on 4th and inches. It could be that he was just working out a kink in his arm, but I didn’t want to believe that, an neither did the crowd. Serrano got a ground ball for a 4-2-3 double play, and we were going to entradas extras.

“HEEEEEYYYY VENEZUELA, HOO! HEEEEEEY VENEZUELA, HOO!” The Leones got a base hit with one away in the top of the 10th and put a lefty against a righty. They hit a deep ball to get everyone’s hopes up, but it didn’t even make the track. 2 away. A ground ball out, and it’s Mexico’s turn.

This is the series. All four teams here beat all challengers in their respective country’s domestic leagues for the right to play. Extra innings is what they live for, both as a team and, as it so often goes in baseball, as individuals. Most here are either barely on or barely off a major league roster, and the headlines generated by extra innings heroics are the kind of things that get attention. The truth, though, is that I don’t know how the make or break pressure effects some of these young hitters. Nobody does. Likely, pressure doesn’t affect them as much as those in fandom and in the sporting press would like to believe. We transmute our own perceived responses under pressure to what they might be feeling, and either praise them for their success in the proverbial clutch, or attribute their failure to it. Realistically, if they let it matter, they probably wouldn’t have made it this far. But even if our notional applications of pressure theory to the game of baseball were true, there is at least one hitter on the Mexican side to whom it couldn’t possibly apply.

In the bottom of the 10th, with 2 on, Vinny Castilla skied one off the wall to drive in the winner. The Venezuelans sighed and headed for the exits. The Mexican brass band cranked it up. Castilla’s main paycheque still comes from the Colorado Rockies, where he is the special assistant to the GM. The man hasn’t been on a Major League roster since 2008, and probably doesn’t plan to be on one ever again. He’s in this for the same reason that I’m down here in Venezuela. Baseball can be a lot of fun.

When we arrived back at the hotel, two kids hanging out on the steps asked anxiously “Venezuela?” It took a second for it to sink in that they were asking who won the game. They just stared with their palms up, making the universal gesture for “well? What? Come on!” I shook my head. “Mexico.” It wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Sufficiently pissed, they launched into quick, unintelligible Spanish dialogue, but I caught the gist of it. There was no, “ah. Next time.” More of a “*%&*$%* LEONES!…” We headed for bed, completely beat.

Posted by: elsalamigrande | February 6, 2010

Guzman Trotts on Home… Serie Del Caribe Television edition.

Thursday, inevitably, the two gringos who decided to come halfway around the hemisphere to watch a ball tournament in Venezuela were stricken with a case of traveler’s diarrhea that made watching ballgames a television-only activity. I couldn’t risk being at the ballpark faced with that kind of inconsistency.

So we watched a much anticipated tilt between Venezuela and the Dominican Republic  in the evening game on the tube in the hotel room, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. The leftover roast beast, in retrospect, might have been best forgotten instead of put on a roll with some avocado. Now, I’ve learned. I think.

The undefeated Dominican Republic were a force to be reckoned with Thursday night. Everyone was hitting, the pitchers were finding their spots. It’s hard to believe that these were, for the most part, minor league guys still looking for a place in the show, and free agents trying to prove that they aren’t wash-ups. Every player in this tournament looks like they’re in mid-season form.

The Pregame interview with Caracas Leones manager Dave Hudgens betrayed the fact that the Leones clubhouse was aware of what most observers already knew. “The guys are excited about this game because if we win, we’ll be in the hunt for the rest of ‘em.” In other words, loose, and Venezuela would be tied with Mexico and Puerto Rico at 1-2. The Dominican would be the runaway leader at 3-0.

Venezuela went ahead 2-0 in the third on an Oscar Salazar dinger and stayed ahead until the DR started to chip away in the 6th with a walk, a wild pitch, a single, and another single. Here come the Dominicans. In the 7th, they started chipping away again one base at a time; a walk, stolen base, another walk, a single to right, tie game. Then, with two outs in the seventh, the Caracas pitcher Darwin Cubian threw to first to check the runner, and Freddy Guzman took off from third leaving a cloud of dust. I think it was a hit and run, because when the pitcher started his pickoff move with a convincing leg kick, Guzman was already on his horse. Pickoffs are often the antidote to hit-and runs, but only if the runner hesitates, and Freddy Guzman did not. It was full bore down the line into a head first slide. The throw came from the first base side, and catcher Carlos Meladono did everything right – blocked the plate, applied the tag – but it didn’t matter. The call was decisive and final. Safe. The Dominicans were ahead by a run and it would finish that way.

It looked from the replays like a case could have been made that Freddy was tagged out. That’s baseball. Sometimes the bounces go the other way. For that game, I was lucky to have the advantage of a broadcast to allow for either certainty or an informed second guess. There is no video replay at the Estadio Nueva Espartica, possibly because such a thing could cause a riot under the wrong circumstances, or possibly because the infrastructure and talent just isn’t here yet to create an in-park audio visual experience like the ones we get in The Bigs. No doubt, though, the staff is learning. The first games we watched didn’t even have posted lineups. Recently, the players’ mugshots, names and teams are displayed prominently on the video-screen. Eventually, I hope to see a batting average or some kind of statistic.

Largely, though, it doesn’t matter. Freddy Guzman’s on-base percentage isn’t going to dull the sharp sting that ran through Porlamar (and ostensibly the rest of the country) when they faced the fact that the 1-2 Leones, who looked unbeatable coming in, now looked like they were going to blow it.

We caught two pieces of a doubleheader yesterday; the Dominican Republic thumping on Mexico 7-1 in the day game, and Venezuela executing decisively for a hometown victory against Puerto Rico, much to the delight of an extremely noisy packed house.

The crowd was light when we got there and took our spots in the bleachers. It reminded me of the Wednesday nooners at my local single A ballpark , everyone basically hanging out in the sunshine, the game being mostly an excuse.  The sun dropped down under a light cloud cover and made a brief final appearance before continuing down behind the green hillsides beyond the home run fence during the 7th as Nelson Figurroa, a New York Mets prospect, worked what would turn out to be a gem of a complete game. A handful of Dominicans were on hand, chanting and cheering in the waning sunshine as the rest of the stadium got ready for the main event.

During the hour between games, we hung around drinking beer and eating some uniquely Venezuelan barbecue that comes as a heaping plate of meat over potatoes and coleslaw. By the time the plate was finished, the stands had filled up with Venezuelan supporters.

I wrote before about how the Mexicans broke noise barriers with oversized clackers and snare drums. It turns out that the Venezuelans put them to shame on pure volume. Noisemakers are as standard here as programs and peanuts at an American ballpark, and the fans tax their limits with every out, every hit, and every questionable call. Add to that the perpetual din from the vendors. You name it, they’re selling it, especially noisemakers. And that crap ain’t gonna move for a vendor who isn’t ready to make himself heard. One particular popcorn vendor had a piercing mouth whistle that cut through the whole soundscape. It got to be a bit much; I didn’t want the popcorn the first time that I identified the guy, but I guess that a few ear-splitting whistles might make me think it over a little more carefully?

In any case, Los Leones de Caracas went ahead in the first and added to it with a 2 run jack courtesy of Oakland A’s farmhand and recent drug sweep victim Raul Padron and finished Puerto Rico off 5-2, to bring Venezuela’s record to 1-1, and PR’s to 0-2.

Of course, I wouldn’t know on account of poor seat placement. What were terrific bleacher seats for the first game (great angle from 1b side, not too far away) became fairly worthless once the crowd, and especially the vendors, began pacing up and down the aisle, directly between us and the ballgame. Seats on the other side of the aisle would have rocked pretty hard.

Tonight is Dominican Republic v. Venezuela in the nightcap and Mexico v. PR in the day game, but I’m not sure which we’re going to catch. Mrs. El Salami Grande is almost at her baseball threshold, so we might have to hit the beach for a while to re-charge. Stay tuned.

Posted by: elsalamigrande | February 3, 2010

Finally, Some Baseball!

The daytime opener of the series went yesterday afternoon with the Puerto Rican side dropping a close one, 2-1 to the Dominican Republic. It was a hot one, so we sat it out back at the hotel. By the way the stands looked on TV, everyone else had the same idea.

When we arrived for the 8pm game between Mexico and Venezuela it couldn’t have been more packed. This was the official opener, and it came complete with a fireworks display, opening ceremonies and inflated ticket prices. Anyone who fancies themselves a negotiator should have a whirl with Venezuelan baseball scalpers. These guys (and girls) crowded around waving tickets and shouting prices as soon as they got a whiff of the fact that we wanted to go to the game. In the end, we paid about 400 BV for two good seats right on the first base line. According to an online ticket broker, that was a pretty good deal. Tonight, I’m making them all line up single file, writing down their offers and making an informed decision.  The trading floor method is more stress that I need to go to a ballgame.

But what a ballgame! Mexico went up early and never looked back. The Leones trotted Texas Rangers Farmhand Guillermo Moscoso out there. He settled down for a while after giving up two runs in the 1st, but it wasn’t long before his junk started hanging and Mexico teed off, silencing the hometown Venezuelan crowd. The Mexican fans made up for it though. They were out in droves, painted up in red, white and green and sporting noisemaking artillery that probably requires a license in many jurisdictions. Snare drums and megaphones were the leads, but the most popular apparatus was a giant version of the party favor that makes a clacking noise when spun. These things were three feet tall, another three feet across and required strength and endurance to operate. The Mexican squad consistently gave these people excuses to unload on the noise front, most memorably with two laser sharp throws from left field for outs at the plate, and a 7th inning no-doubt homer to left field.

Down 5 runs in the 6th with 2 away and the bases loaded, the Venezuelan crowd got back into it, chanting an Obamian “Si Se Puedes! Si Se Puedes!”. Mexico walked one in to make it 6-2, and the RH starter got the hook.  The reliever got the ground ball out, and that was the last we heard of the hometown crowd.

The Mexicans embarrassed what I understand was supposed to be a much stronger Venezuelan squad. Mexico plays the Dominican Republic in today’s day game. If they can turn out another strong performance, they’re automatically the team to beat.

Venezuelan beer vendors run tabs. I can’t believe that nobody has thought of this yet in Canada or the States. No messy fumbling with money and change while the game is going on. As soon as one was empty, our man had another one ready. I lost track of how many, but it was 100BVF for the two of us to drink for 9 innings. That might buy 2 beer at a MLB park.  I plan a full post on the ballpark food once I’ve tried everything that looks like it’s worth it, so stay tuned.

Cloudy today, so the Mexico-DR day game might be in order. Otherwise, we’ll hit the night game: Venezuela at Puerto Rico.

The Island City Abuzz, Let’s Go Home on my Way to The Casino, and How Would You Like Your Roast Beast?

Casa Lucetica will be my home for the coming week. It’s a short cab ride from the airport, clean by Venezuelan standards and has a pool. I can think of worse places that have sucked $40/ night out of me.  Regrettably, no Wi-Fi, but I’ll update once a day one way or another.  Everyone thinks I’m a ballplayer, though I can’t imagine why. I’m carrying about 20 pounds too many to be taken seriously. Though, I suppose, this is winter ball. The myth was perpetuated when I went down to the beach to run this morning (hear that coach? I’m not just jerking around down here, I’m running!)

The Streets of Porlamar were full around dinner time, most people doing nothing in particular. There is a large shopping district that consists mostly of clothing shops and electronics shops. People leaned against doorways drinking soda and beer, watched kids play with a tennis ball and chatted. At nightfall, roll-down shutters covered the storefronts, and the activity was quickly dialed down.

The night bartender at the hotel spoke fairly good English and even better French. He expressed a kind of ambiguous philosophy about liberty which seemed kind of political, but didn’t want to take any specific, party oriented stand. My kind of guy. He insisted on taking us to the casino where he was still sitting at the slots after I burned $40 on blackjack. He waved goodbye through some cigarette smoke and we left to find a bedtime snack.

An open air grill called “Panda” came highly recommended. They were just shutting the wrought iron gate when we got there, but were happy to make something to go. We opted for something called “Pollo De Res” which, literally translated, means “Chicken of the Beast,” which has to be some kind of chicken, right? Our host opened a cryosealed package containing a side of some sort of red meat, which was not chicken, and proceeded to cut it crossways in to pieces the size of CDs, and toss it on the grill. Once cooked, those pieces were cut again into bite sized pieces and given to us in a Styrofoam container with a side of corn rolls, a creamy garlic sauce, spicy mystery sauce and a salad. 100B.The Pollo De Res was pretty tasty. It was lean, but not as tender as I’d have liked it to be. More than half of the order is in the hotel fridge for later. I figure that when the flesh lived it was part of an ostrich, a large vulture, or some kind of stray mutant pigeon, in that order of likelihood. If Zagat’s is reading I’ll give Panda a solid 7.5/10 as a takeout spot, the portions having carried the last half point.

Any misguided fantasies that I had about landing in a riot turned out to be exaggerated at best. Caracas is a ghost town in the middle of the night. Everything locked tight and not a soul anywhere. The taxi that we flagged from the aeropuerto was the only car I saw for the whole drive to the hotel. Not even a stray dog, just bars and locks and barbed wire.

Overnight in a small but clean room at the Buena Vista Inn (which had no vista to speak of, certainly not a Buena one) and we awoke to the unforgiving Caracas sunshine. This city is hot.

The fine people at the Buena Vista generously agreed to keep a bag of baseball gear that we plan to hand out to children in about 2 weeks once we return to Caracas, provided that we lock it. A quick translation of the word “padlock”, a taxi ride, and we’re off on the dime tour of the northern part of the city. It seemed typical of a Latin American metropolis; people bustling about fruit stands and bodegas, motorcycles executing a string of near misses to get where they’re going, and no small amount of gawking at the gringos in the taxi. The soaped in message on the back windows of many cars proclaimed “Leones de Caracas Campeones de Beisbol!” reminding everyone that, as of last night, the Caracas Lions were going to Porlamar to represent Venezuela in the series – and the Navigantes De Magallanes were not. MLB.com ran an article ahead of that game painting San Francisco Giants slugger Pablo Sandoval’s one game return to the Navigantes like the second coming, and I can imagine why. Having the Giants clear their young third baseman and only real bat for a trip to Venezuela probably took some doing. In the end, he was cleared to play for one game, the seventh game of a tied series, and only as a designated hitter.

Now, it hardly matters. The Navigantes are staying home, Los Leones having earned the right to represent Venezuela starting on the opening night of the tournament, at 8pm against Mexico.

Our driver found us a shop that had a lock, took us back to the hotel where we checked out and left the bag of ball gear, and back to the airport we went for the flight to Porlamar.

In Canada, anyone who walked into an airport and tried to buy their way on to a plane with a large amount of cash would be subject to immediate police attention, and likely an uncomfortable interrogation.  That’s why I had booked our flight to the Isla De Margaraita in advance with a credit card. However, despite printed receipts, our names were not on the register, our tickets impossible to confirm. The staff at Avior Airlines went to no small amount of trouble to search for the reservation, but it did not exist. I’m suspicious of the credit card company and the accounts department at Avior in that order. A call to the credit card company is to happen as soon as it’s practical.

So, it was cash on the barrel head if we wanted on that plane, and US dollars only fetch 2:1 for any kind of legit transactions. 5.5 Bolivares to the USD is the going rate on the black market, as we were helpfully told by one of the various hangers on fighting to help us carry our bags. Behind the counter at an airport kiosk that was ostensibly a travel agency, a thick mustachioed man counted out 8,250 Bolivares against our 1,500 USD in a particularly charming accent “Cinquenta, Uno, Cinquenta, Dos, Cinquenta, Tres, Cinquenta, quarto, cinquenta, cinco, cinquenta sais, cinquenta septe, cinquena ocho, cinquenta nueve cinquena  WAN THOUSAND. Cinquenta uno…”

Two or three counts and re-counts and we were on our way – Seven hundred odd bolivares for two one way tickets to el Isla de Margarita on the day before the ball tournament.

”Tiennes una bueno vol,” said the lady at the counter with a smile.

“Gracias.”

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