Finding diamonds in the rough
TRONCONERO, Venezuela -- Dressed for work in shorts and a T-shirt, Jesus “Chalao” Mendez hardly looked imposing. But for young Venezuelan baseball players with major league ambitions, Mendez has more juice than Hugo Chavez and George Bush put together.
Mendez, whose nickname means “crazy,” is chief Venezuela scout for the Philadelphia Phillies. Stocky, deep-voiced and gregarious, the 44-year-old Caracas native controls the fate of hundreds of Venezuelan youths chasing the near-impossible dream of making it to the big leagues.
One day last month, Mendez tried out five anxious and wide-eyed 16- and 17-year-olds during a 90-minute workout at the Phillies’ baseball academy here in central Venezuela. It is one of nine such camps operated by Major League Baseball franchises in this country.
As he does every week in cities across this baseball-mad nation, he trained his radar gun, stopwatch and practiced eye on the youths as they pitched, ran, hit and fielded. He was searching for the elusive mix of athletic skill, physical tools and youthful promise he calls “projection.” (Translation: big-league potential.)
“It’s like gold mining, looking for a nugget,” Mendez said. Of the 2,000 young Venezuelan players he observed last year, he signed only six to a Phillies minor league contract.
The returns may seem minimal, but prospecting for talent is essential to major league teams in an age when foreign players in general and Venezuelans in particular are a growing presence on U.S. professional baseball rosters.
Venezuelans occupied 50 of the 849 spots on major league rosters and injured lists on opening day last year, up from 20 in 1997. The nation has surpassed Puerto Rico as the second-leading offshore source of baseball talent to the big leagues, and is gaining ground on the Dominican Republic, which had 99 last year.
Six Venezuelans -- Victor Martinez, Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, Francisco Rodriguez, Johan Santana and Miguel Cabrera -- made the All-Star team last summer, up from one in 1997.
The talent pipeline continues to flow despite Venezuela President Chavez’s anti-U.S. rhetoric and his having sent several U.S. oil, telephone and electric companies packing in recent years. Other teams have been scared away by a crime wave that has included armed robberies and kidnappings of players and their families.
Those worries have caused the number of teams operating academies to drop to nine from 21 six years ago.
Geopolitics were far from the minds of the five youths who showed up last month, seeking their big chance. They were hoping Mendez would offer them, if not a contract, a coveted spot in the Phillies’ academy, a red brick building resembling an Eastern boarding school where 35 youths receive room and board, intensive instruction and invaluable game experience in an inter-academy league.
By impressing the Phillies’ staff during an academy stay averaging three weeks, the youths might then be signed to professional contracts, with bonuses that average $13,000, a king’s ransom in this poor farming and industrial region.
“If I can just get in, I will get good training and advice,” said 16-year-old pitcher Jorge Hernandez, taking a breather after throwing 84-mph fastballs for Mendez. “I have many friends who have signed contracts already, so I know I can do it.”
In the bleachers sat several agents known as buscones, or “bird dogs,” who sign youths barely into their teens to binding contracts. Also present was Hernandez’s mother, Carmen Hidalgo, who knows a nod from Mendez would change her son’s life.
But Mendez, outwardly friendly and encouraging, wasn’t overly impressed. Hernandez’s fastball wasn’t fast enough, Mendez said, adding that the player’s 5-foot-10 height was a disadvantage.
“Almost all of them, I’ll have to let down easy,” Mendez said as he watched 17-year-old catcher Francisco Vargas take batting practice with a case of what Mendez called “bar arm,” an overly rigid left arm. “I never tell them afterward they can’t play. I tell them what they have to work on to get better.”
Mendez calls the five together and in an avuncular tone gives them tips before sending four on their way. He advises Hernandez to correct his throwing motion, Vargas to keep his hands looser and higher at the plate, and Israel Pena to be more aggressive fielding fly balls.
“This is a complicated job,” Mendez told them, by way of apology. “I’m just reacting to what I see.”
Then he took right-handed pitcher Jonathan Quinones, who at 17 is 6-1 and throws an 88-mph fastball. “I see projection,” Mendez told him and offered him a two-week stay at the Phillies’ academy.
Baseball has been a national passion in Venezuela since the 1920s, when U.S. oil workers introduced it here. Unlike other South American countries, where soccer reigns supreme, baseball is the national pastime here.
But up to the late 1980s, Venezuelans in the major leagues were rarities. Until then, the country seemed to produce only a handful of players and only one genuine star per decade, said New York baseball player agent Peter Greenberg, who has worked in Venezuela since 1991 and represents the Twins’ Santana.
It was only after major league teams, led by the Houston Astros in 1989, began to build academies in Venezuela similar to the highly successful camps they maintained in the Dominican Republic that Venezuelan baseball talent began to flower.
Building the academies was crucial because Venezuelan youths require intensive care, feeding and development. Most have little access to the youth leagues, or the high school and university team play in which most U.S.-bred major leaguers hone their skills, said Sal Artiaga, Phillies director of Latin American operations.
“When U.S. players are drafted, usually out of the college ranks, they are fully formed and what you see is what you get,” Artiaga said. “Whereas with Latin players, bringing them along at an early age with game experience and instruction is a vital part of the process.”
Most Venezuelan players who turn pro do so by age 17, then spend five or six years in the minor leagues before reaching the majors. Only one in 20 minor leaguers reaches the majors.
Until Chavez took office in early 1999, major league teams were on a path to building a presence in Venezuela with academies and scouting networks to rival the Dominican Republic, where all 30 teams except the Milwaukee Brewers operate academies.
But Chavez’s regular attacks on President Bush and the leader’s socialist “revolution” have cooled many teams’ enthusiasm.
In late 2006, a close Chavez ally, Gov. Felipe Acosta Carles of Carabobo state, suggested the government confiscate the country’s most popular professional team, the Valencia Mariners.
Chavez, a pitcher in his youth who once had big league aspirations himself, upbraided Acosta for his confiscation idea. But the threat sent ripples through teams such as the Phillies, who have invested millions in their academies.
Of more concern than the political climate to some teams is Venezuela’s rising crime. Both the Phillies’ and the Seattle Mariners’ academies were robbed by groups of assailants in 2003, and Venezuelan stars such as Santana and the Yankees’ Bobby Abreu routinely use bodyguards when they come home for visits.
Still, even teams such as the Dodgers and Angels with no physical presence here maintain a strong scouting network and send Venezuelan prospects to their academies in the Dominican.
After offering Quinones a stay in the Phillies’ academy, Mendez was approached by the young player’s agent, who demanded that Mendez sign the player on the spot, instead of waiting two weeks for evaluation at the academy.
Other teams were interested in signing him, said the agent, Alexander Gutierrez. “Fifteen days is too much time,” he said, admitting that his contract to represent Quinones was running out and that he needed to get him signed to make any money.
“I’m not going to be pressured,” Mendez told him. “I’ve got to see how he behaves among people, not just how he performs on the field.” The agent shook his head, turned, and walked away with Quinones in tow.
Later, Mendez was adamant. “I’ll fight for a player I want, but I don’t sign anyone on the spot. We’ve had bad experiences with talented kids who turned out to be drinkers, dope smokers or thieves.”
Still, Mendez, whose baseball career took him as far as the St. Louis Cardinals’ triple-A team in Louisville, was incredulous at the youngster’s lost opportunity. “He turned down what all these kids want.”
Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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