CARACAS, Venezuela – It's about six weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training in the U.S., but in Venezuela, the nation's fiercely competitive professional league is in full swing, and it's drawn the biggest contingent of American players in decades.
In the land of Hugo Chavez, a place in many ways hostile to Americans owing to its reputation for rampant crime, a crumbling economy and an anti-capitalist government, hitters and hurlers from across the U.S. are thriving as they try to impress big league scouts who flock here for the winter season.
It's not just about working on mechanics. Many come for the paycheck. While Venezuela's eight professional teams no longer can compete with major league salaries as they did during the oil-fueled economic boom of the 1960s, when Pete Rose wore a Caracas Leones jersey right after his rookie of the year season, they still pay from $10,000 to $20,000 a month, which can be two to three times what most players make in the U.S. minor leagues.
"Diapers aren't cheap," said C.J. Retherford, a 28-year-old Arizona native who made $3,000 a month last season for the RedHawks of the sister cities of Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. He now plays third base for the Tiburones, or Sharks, from the city of La Guaira outside Caracas — one of the nine "imports" the league allows each team to hire.
For players accustomed to the small crowds of minor league stadiums back home, the frequently sold out Estadio Universitario in Caracas can be daunting. Abundant servings of rum and whiskey and a nerve-rattling cacophony of drums pump up the 25,000 screaming fans who hang on every pitch.
"It's Friday night football every game, all the game," said Jamie Romak, a 28-year-old outfielder for La Guaira who played for the St. Louis Cardinal's AAA team in Memphis, Tennessee. "You can have an eight run lead, blink your eyes twice and suddenly it's a one-run game."
Not everyone loves the experience. In addition to the challenges of playing abroad, from unfamiliar food to a foreign language, Venezuela presents its own set of daily problems.
Foremost is security. Bodyguards lurk near the dugout, keeping a close eye on Venezuelan big leaguers whose million-dollar contracts make them prime kidnapping targets. Nobody wants to become the next Wilson Ramos, the Washington Nationals catcher who was abducted in 2011 at gunpoint outside his family's home in Valencia. He was rescued two days later after a nationwide manhunt.
The American players for La Guaira and rival Leones live a few blocks away from the ballpark at a five-star hotel, rarely venturing farther than the attached shopping mall. What they see of Venezuela is mostly what passes the bus window on long road trips between games. Their families? Only on Skype.
"You have to be smart," said Tony DeFrancesco, a coach for the Houston Astros' AAA team who is making his managerial debut in Venezuela with La Guaira. "I enjoy running, cycling and mountain climbing, but I just can't do it by myself here."
While the Americans are insulated from the worst of Venezuela's economic woes, in the almost three months since the season started they've seen prices jump and store shelves go bare of basic goods as inflation soared above 50 percent and the nation's currency plunged to a tenth of its official value in a flourishing black market.
Players cut from the roster sometime have to wait a week to find a flight out because Venezuelans trying to skirt rigid currency controls have bought up all the tickets. Then there was the home run derby at the All Star game, which abruptly ended after one batter due to a nationwide power outage.
Venezuela's politics are also a potential distraction. This year's season kicked off days after Chavez's successor, President Nicolas Maduro, expelled the top U.S. diplomat in the country, and anti-American graffiti dominates a wall next to the Caracas stadium's parking lot: "Not a dollar more for the capitalists."
"You can't let the political situation affect your game. When you're on the field you have to tune it all out," said Omar Vizquel, one of Venezuela's best contributions to the big leagues. The former Cleveland Indians shortstop helped manage the Leones this season to prepare for his debut as an infield coach with the Detroit Tigers.
But for those who roll with the punches, Venezuela is a showcase for second chances and the pursuit of dreams.
Take Retherford. Last May, he was given a 50-game suspension after testing positive for an amphetamine, which he says he used to get going after long bus journeys. The Los Angeles Dodgers cut all ties with its former minor league all-star, and he ended up with the RedHawks, a team not affiliated with major league baseball, earning barely enough to support his family.
In Venezuela he's proven he still has some magic, batting .322 with 11 home runs and 44 RBI. More than 5,000 followers on Twitter attest to his popularity among Venezuelan fans, who call him "El Conejo," the Rabbit, as much for his protruding teeth as for the luck provided by his hot bat.
Fawning female fans approach him for autographs when he leaves his Caracas hotel, but he says the star treatment was more intense in the smaller city of Barquisimeto, where he played last season for the Cardinals.
"I'd go to the mall and it was picture, picture, picture," says Retherford, brandishing a new tattoo with a rabbit hiding behind baby blocks spelling his 1-year-old son's name.
While he's aware the door to a big league career is becoming smaller as he gets older, he hopes his strong performance in Venezuela will attract the attention of teams in Japan or South Korea, where pay is better.
For now, both he and Romak insist they're enjoying their time in Venezuela. Compared to the bitter experience of AAA ball, where veterans bemoaning their demotion from the majors make life hell for up-and-coming prospects, the adrenalin and team spirit here is contagious, says Romak.
"It brings out the little kid in you," Romak said. "I've never played in the big leagues, but I don't think the environment is nearly as fun."
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.