MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) — On a ragged baseball diamond, its grass tall and infield dirt pockmarked, nearly 200 boys practice for hours every day. Many of them are inspired by the example of Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, who learned the game on this very field.
The baseball school in the poor neighborhood where Cabrera grew up is one of many across Venezuela, a web for training young ballplayers that has made the country an emerging power in Major League Baseball.
A record nine Venezuelans are on the rosters of the Tigers and the San Francisco Giants in this year's World Series. And the players have been giving Venezuelans plenty to cheer about with feats like Pablo Sandoval's three-homer game and Gregor Blanco's diving catches in left field for the Giants.
Baseball has long been Venezuela's top sport and a national passion, producing such greats as Dave Concepcion and Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio. But it has blossomed like never before the past decade and sent ever larger contingents to the major leagues from a large and well-organized system of youth leagues and baseball schools.
On this season's opening-day rosters, the 66 Venezuelans were second only to the 95 from the Dominican Republic for foreign-born players. For the World Series, the nine Venezuelans, nine Dominicans and two Puerto Ricans on the two teams produced a record 20 foreign-born players for the championship, surpassing the previous high of 16.
The Giants have five Venezuelans: Sandoval, Blanco, Marco Scutaro, Jose Mijares and Hector Sanchez. The Tigers have four: Anibal Sanchez, Avisail Garcia, Omar Infante and Cabrera — who this season became the first player since 1967 to win the Triple Crown, leading the majors in in average, home runs and RBIs.
Young fans in Venezuela have been watching the World Series with excitement. Often, they root for hometown heroes, and at the baseball school in Maracay, nearly everyone is behind Cabrera and the Tigers.
Cabrera comes from a family steeped in baseball. His mother, Gregoria, played 12 years on Venezuela's national softball team. Uncle Jose Torres runs the baseball school training kids as young as 3 at David Torres Stadium. The field is named for Torres' late brother, who was Cabrera's first mentor.
"The kids dream of playing in the major leagues, and their parents want to plant their children in this field hoping that seed might become the next Miguel Cabrera," Torres said.
One of them is 11-year-old Adriangel Torres, a nephew of the coach and a cousin of Cabrera.
"My dream is also to be a major leaguer and bat like he does," Adriangel said. When the boy went to bat, he knocked a ball into the outfield and exclaimed: "You see! I'm strong like Miguel, too!"
Such enthusiasm among players and their families has created a generation-after-generation baseball culture that for many is a central part of Venezuelans' national identity. In other South American countries, soccer is No. 1. In Venezuela, as in the Caribbean countries of Cuba and the Dominican Republic, baseball is king.
Many believe the sport has been played in Venezuela since before 1900, when some Venezuelans who had studied in the United States apparently brought home balls, bats and gloves. Baseball's popularity grew in the 1920s, promoted by American oil workers who brought along their love of the sport.
In 1939, Alejandro Carrasquel became the first Venezuelan to play in the major leagues, for the Washington Senators. He has been followed by the likes of Aparicio, Chico Carrasquel, Andres Galarraga and Omar Vizquel.
While Venezuelans are proud of the major leaguers, their deepest loyalties lie with the eight teams in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, among them the Leones (Lions), Tigres (Tigers) and Tiburones (Sharks).
Those who have gone off to the major leagues feel the local tug, too. Cabrera, Sandoval and others have come back in the offseason to play at home, even though their better-paying U.S. teams often discourage it because of the chance of injury.
In 2010, Sandoval didn't want to miss the seventh and decisive game in a key series for his local team, the Navegantes, and he flew in at the last minute, rushing by helicopter from Caracas to the city of Valencia. He got a hit, but his team still lost 7-2 to the rival Leones.
Venezuelan games are festive affairs where entire families cheer in team jerseys and hats, and where beer and whisky flow freely in the stands.
The sport is so ingrained in Venezuelan society that it has slipped into the language of daily conversation. People say "pitch here" if they want a buddy to kick in some money, or "you've got a three-two count" to indicate a person is on the verge of either success or failure.
The fanaticism extends to the country's leagues for children and teenagers, which have thousands of teams with an estimated 130,000 kids from ages 3 to 19. One of the main leagues is called "Criollitos," meaning little Venezuelans.
Dilia Barrios sits in the stands at Maracay, watching her 4-year-old grandson practice. She says the network of youth programs is a "creation of coaches, of mothers, fathers, grandparents and other relatives of the boys, who for the love of baseball cooperate with money and dedicate a lot of time, without receiving anything, in order to make this something great."
Many towns have locally run baseball schools, with coaches typically working for little money and parents paying a monthly fee.
The big jump of Venezuelans playing in the U.S. started in the 1990s. The Houston Astros set up a training camp in Venezuela to work with young players, and about a dozen major league teams followed with their own academies.
"From those first academies came players like (pitcher Johan) Santana and many others," said Luis Sojo, a former New York Yankee who manages Venezuela's team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Most of the major league academies have since moved to the Dominican Republic, in part because of the higher costs and crime rates in Venezuela.
Still, four big league academies remain, with ties to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Colorado Rockies and the Detroit Tigers. Venezuela, meanwhile, has its own strengthened baseball schools and academies.
Venezuelan achievements in the major leagues this season go beyond the World Series. In addition to Cabrera's Triple Crown, Felix Hernandez pitched a perfect game for the Seattle Mariners and Santana pitched a no-hitter for the New York Mets. As the Giants triumphed in the National League, hot-hitting Scutaro became the third Venezuelan to be honored as the most valuable player in a major league championship series.
As the World Series began, one Venezuelan TV announcer proclaimed it "the show of the Venezuelans."
"I hope this is the first of many times that we're going to see so many Venezuelans in the World Series," said Carlos Vivas, a fan of Sandoval's local team. "There are many great players still waiting for an opportunity."
Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.
Jorge Rueda on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jorgeruedaap
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