The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on March 5 will mean unseemly celebration on the right and unending debate on the left. Both reflect the towering legacy of Chavismo and how it challenged the global free market orthodoxy of the Washington consensus.
Less discussed will be that the passing of Chavez will also provoke unbridled joy in the corridors of power of Major League Baseball (MLB).
Historically, Venezuela has trailed only the Domincan Republic (DR) in the global race to provide a cheap source of MLB talent. Last year, 58 players on MLB rosters were born in Venezuela, second to the DR's 64.
For decades, teams had set up unregulated “baseball academies” in both countries where children as young as 15 could be signed for a pittance. And then 97% of major league hopefuls are casually disposed without any future prospects.
A Mother Jones article published in its March/April edition exposed in excruciating detail the DR baseball “sweatshops” and the preventable death of young Washington Nationals teenage prospect Yewri Guillen.
It describes the academies as a deadly breeding ground for tragedy defined by “corruption and youth exploitation”. This is exactly what Chavez, a baseball fanatic himself, was aiming to challenge.
Venezuela is the birthplace of towering talents such as last year’s MLB triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera, “King” Felix Hernandez and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval. In the past 20 years, 200 Venezuelans have played in the major leagues with more than 1000 in the minors.
But the academies also left a wreckage of young lives behind, a status quo Chavez sought to change. He told MLB that it would have to institute employee and player benefits and job protections. He wanted education and job training, subsidised by MLB, to be a part of the academies.
Chavez also insisted that teams pay out 10% of players’ signing bonuses to the government. Venezuela’s president essentially wanted to tax the MLB for the human capital it blithely took from the South American country.
As the Christian Science Monitor put it in a May 6, 2011 article, “the threat of expropriations and onerous foreign exchange controls make teams wary of doing business in Venezuela”.
Sure enough, over the past decade the number of teams with “academies” in Venezuela has dwindled from 21 to five. The threats of kidnapping and violence are often cited by teams as the primary reason for this move, but the facts say otherwise.
One major league executive told the LA Times anonymously: “Teams have left Venezuela because of issues with the government and security that have made it more difficult to do business there. Absent those problems, there would be a lot more teams here using academies.”
Major League Baseball has never been shy in their rage that Chavez wasn't “rolling out the red carpet” for them “like they do in the Dominican Republic”. Lou Melendez, senior advisor to the MLB's international relations department, said in 2007: “We don’t pay federations money for signing players anywhere in the world, and we don’t expect to do so. It’s certainly not a way to conduct business ...
“When you see certain industries that are being nationalised, you begin to wonder if they are going to nationalise the baseball industry in Venezuela.”
Despite the academy closures, MLB never stopped strip-mining Venezuela's baseball hopefuls. Instead, they now sign Venezuelan children and whisk them off to the Dominican Republic to be trained, miles and an ocean apart from their families. Rather than be more humane in response to Chavez, MLB was just more brutal.
I spoke with Illinois history professor and author of Playing America's Game, Adrian Burgos, Jr. He said it in perfect albeit wrenching fashion: “The irony is palpable. On the same day Mother Jones publishes an article on Yewri Guillen’s death and the Washington Nationals’ lack of having a certified medical official on staff at its Dominican academy, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez dies.
“Certainly, Chavez's demise makes MLB officials excited at the prospect of re-establishing their own blueprint for a baseball academy system being put into place in Venezuela, an effort that Chavez had forestalled. I still wonder who is/are the Latino representative(s) within the Commissioner's Office speaking for Latinos.
“Do we need any more teenagers [like] Yewri Guillen, MLB prospect, dying for a lack of access to proper medical care due to a lack of health insurance and funds in the DR or Venezuela — health care that ought to have been, would have been, provided for such a signed prospect in the US? Dead prospects and dead president — I am weary of the road ahead in Venezuela and on its baseball diamonds.”
[Reprinted from www.edgeofsports.com -- Zirin's website. Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket).]