Forget turmoil, tanking economy, departed MLB teams - Venezuelan baseball thriving

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It looks like any small-market Major League Baseball stadium in the United States – with its perfectly manicured outfield, combed diamond and gleaming Jumbotron all tucked between a set of chaotic freeways and a mess of high-rise buildings. But when players accustomed to the ballfields in places like Cincinnati or Kansas City step onto the diamond at Caracas’ Estadio Universitario, it becomes readily apparent that one is not in the U.S. anymore.

Instead of the smell of hot dogs and Budweiser, it's the aroma of arepas and rum that wafts through the air as horns and drums generate a deafening roar and flags and banners make the stands seem more like a raucous Italian soccer match than the more relaxing experience of attending a baseball game.

The Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional (LVBP), a testing ground for homegrown and foreign-born players alike that has counted the likes of Baseball Hall of Famers such as Greg Maddux and Rod Carew as well as 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, is regarded as one of the premier winter league training grounds for major league talent. Yet over the past decade, baseball in the country has fallen on tough times as the government struggles with economic turmoil and widespread violent crime and MLB teams rethink their presence in the country.

"It’s a dangerous country in a lot of respects," Benny Looper, the assistant general manager of player personnel for the Philadelphia Phillies told Fox News Latino. "It’s a sad story with that country because it is a beautiful place with so much to offer."

While some top Venezuelan ballplayers – and even more prospects - still make the migration south in the winter to play in the LVBP, the once ubiquitous training academies set-up by MLB franchises have all but disappeared in Venezuela. Every team has a training academy in the Dominican Republic, and while there used to be 21 academies in Venezuela as recently as 2002, there are now only four teams running one in Venezuela: Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

People on various points on the political spectrum want to protect baseball to a certain degree.

— Adrian Burgos, a professor of Latino history at the University of Illinois

The shuttering of all those academies has coincided with an overall decline of MLB players heading to Venezuela – as well as the rest of the Caribbean basin – to play in the winter leagues. In general, stricter guidelines from MLB teams over how players can be utilized, paired with the growing popularity of the MLB-controlled Arizona Fall League, has kept many top prospects out of the Caribbean’s winter leagues.

But, as with just about everything else, Venezuela’s case is a bit more complicated.

Given the dicey political and security situation there, MLB teams are more concerned than ever about players with multimillion dollar contracts heading to Caracas for the winter – especially following the 2011 abduction of the Washington Nationals' catcher, Wilson Ramos. Another fear is if relations deteriorate even more between Caracas and Washington, some Venezuelan-born MLB players would be stuck in the country with no chance of returning their U.S. team, as was the case with Cuban ballplayers following the implementation of the U.S. embargo in 1960.

"We’re hopeful that things will go well in the country," Looper said, reversing his train of thought so quickly he immediately ran out of hands. "On the other hand, things could go bad – but it hasn’t yet."

Along with security and political issues, teams worry about the lack of oversight.

"If Félix Hernández is playing on a Venezuelan team and they’re on a playoff push, the Mariners can’t tell the team’s manager to rest [Hernández] so that he’s ready for his season in the U.S.," Adrian Burgos, a professor of Latino history at the University of Illinois and a noted baseball scholar told FNL. "This keeps whittling down the talent – even the homegrown talent – that can play in these leagues."

"You’re lucky to get an all-star for a Triple A team to play in the winter leagues," he added.

All of this has kept U.S. players and many Venezuelan players – much to the chagrin of the country’s socialist government - out of winter leagues and in the States during the MLB’s off-season.

But while all of this appears to point to a decline in the LVBP, the opposite actually seems to be happening. Baseball – even more so than in the U.S. today – is the country’s national pastime and many experts claim it is the one thing in the highly sectarian country that bridges its wide political divide.

The late President Hugo Chávez was a huge baseball fan and used the sport to burnish the image of his Bolivarian Revolution, even though many of the country’s teams were owned by multinational corporations.

The winningest team in LVBP history, Leones del Caracas, is currently owned by the Grupo Cisneros conglomerate that is headquartered, of all places, in Coral Gables, Florida.

Experts argue that baseball is one of the few, and maybe only, areas in Venezuela where the socialist government and private business interests can work together side by side.

"People on various points on the political spectrum want to protect baseball to a certain degree," Burgos said. "There is a pride in the sport and for the players that insulates the sport and the league."

This insulation of the game has even crept into the way some in the country view the few remaining MLB academies, with some – especially pro-Chavista politicians – calling for the nation to establish its own training centers to counter the influence of the major leagues.

Chávez himself demanded education and job training, subsidized by MLB, to be a part of the academies and insisted that teams pay 10 percent of players’ signing bonuses to the government. All of which led to the speculation that the real reason so many big-league teams exited the country was to avoid that tithing.

The four remaining American teams with academies claim that they are closely monitoring the political and economic situation in Venezuela, but to them the benefit of getting an early crack at the talent in the country still outweigh the risks.

"We think that our presence there with the academies is an attractive thing for players," the Phillies' Looper told FNL. "We want to maintain our presence there… but right now we’re taking it on a year-by-year basis."