CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela’s big baseball season started on Friday – and an economic crisis and global pandemic will make it a record book.
Stadiums that have long been a temporary escape from the South American country’s growing poverty and political unrest were empty when the players got a place on the field. No fans were allowed to stop the spread of coronavirus. Players and coaches must undergo weekly testing to stay on the list.
Still, many were eager to return to the nation’s favorite pastime.
“This is what I live for,” said Daniel Mayora, a third baseman with La Guaira Sharks. “This is my job and how I can support a family.”
Venezuela is known around the world as a producer of great players like Miguel Cabrera and José Altuve who grew up playing the sport. But recently, players have several times found themselves in the middle of the accident.
Last year, the US Major League Baseball told players who wanted to hone their offseason skills by joining the Venezuelan league to stay away – noting the Trump administration’s sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro’s government. The Treasury Department eventually granted licenses to play with privately run teams such as the La Guaira Sharks and the Caracas Lions.
The country’s severe economic downturn has also taken a toll, forcing the Venezuelan league to shorten the season by a third. The International Monetary Fund estimates a 25% decline this year in Venezuela’s already strong GDP, while sky-high hyperinflation in recent weeks has further reduced the value of the bolivar.
Coronavirus has thrown another curve in Venezuela’s baseball season. At least 40 players tested positive for the virus when the preparations started. And while the start date was originally set for December, officials unexpectedly moved it up. This meant that the players had almost no time to train.
“It’s not easy for any player to get in shape quickly,” said Amador Monte, head of Venezuela’s Professional Baseball League. “But I think they will adjust.”
Some are skeptical about the time, and note that Maduro chose to relax in the country’s eight-month-old lockdown of the pandemic and start the baseball season before the upcoming legislative election. The election is likely to pave the way for a one-party system in Venezuela. Congress is the last branch of government in opposition hands, and Maduro allies are expected to win a clear majority because opponents boycott the vote.
“They want to express normalcy,” said sports writer Mari Montes.
Caraca’s Lions boss Richard Gómez said his team is doing its best to give viewers watching from home an exciting game despite the challenges.
“The conditions we play this season are so unfavorable that we did not even have time to train,” he said. “Not even for two weeks.”
Dugout assistant Guillermo Pedraza said he feels “enormous happiness” in returning to the pitch.
“I spent 10 months without work, and they were the hardest,” he said. “But finally we are here. We are a baseball nation, and no one can live without it. ”