In light of the elevated threats faced by baseball players in Venezuela and Mexico, maybe it’s time to consider an advanced winter league in the States, possibly in Florida, where suitable ballparks sit vacant until training camps open in February, or California, where generations ago the baseball world flocked every offseason.
The high-profile abduction of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos last week was just the latest—and most harrowing—of a number of threats players have faced in Venezuela. In October, Minnesota Twins prospect Joe Benson was robbed at gunpoint when his cab was stopped on the way from the airport to his hotel. During the 2010 women’s World Cup in Caracas, a Hong Kong player was shot in the leg while taking the field in the fourth inning. The country has become more and more of an outlaw nation in recent years, with abductions blossoming into a lucrative career for emboldened criminals. Families of Venezuelan players are often targeted and held for ransom.
Mexico, likewise wracked by gang violence revolving around its drug trade, is almost as dangerous. By some estimates there have been more than 40,000 people killed due to drug-related violence in the past five years.
The Mexican Pacific League and Venezuela Winter League are two of the four traditional big winter circuits for major league players to play during the offseason. Roster spots are highly sought by minor leaguers looking for an opportunity to hone their game and draw attention to their skills. The other two long-standing leagues are in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where teams have faced serious financial obstacles in recent years. The Puerto Rican league briefly folded in 2007, before restructuring and restarting operations a year later.
Major League Baseball began operating the Arizona Fall League as an alternative to the four Caribbean Series leagues in 1992. Each of the 30 MLB teams supplies players, frequently top prospects, to the six AFL clubs, which play from early October through mid-November. The focus is entirely on player development, with tight pitch counts limiting the work of most pitchers, and position players sharing duty with other top young players at their spots.
The AFL has grown in popularity over its 20 seasons, though it’s hardly a big-time draw most nights, with fans frequently numbering in the low hundreds. Certainly the crowds are nothing like the cacophonous frenzy drawn to some of the Caribbean Series leagues. Still, whatever they lack in drawing power is made up in peace of mind, though even Arizona isn’t completely safe. Reds prospect Dernell Stenson was killed in a carjacking while playing in the AFL in November 2003.
Most ball players would probably still rather take their chances in Arizona, Florida, or California than in Venezuela or Mexico these days. There would likely be no shortage of guys interested in playing a couple of months in sunny South Florida or California in December and January, perhaps with a shot at a spot in the Caribbean Series for the league champion. Rosters could be filled with veteran minor leaguers and any big league players interested in playing. The level of play might be similar to Triple-A.
Professional baseball was once a staple of the Southern California winter, with a number of Hall of Famers having participated in the California Winter League in the early 1900s. Negro leaguers found an opportunity there to play with and against white major leaguers long before Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier in 1947. Barnstorming teams, both black and white, swung through on their tours of the country.
The popularity of winter ball helped pave the way for major league teams to move west, proving Southern California was rabid enough to support the Dodgers in the late ‘50s. One 1946 contest pitting Satchel Paige against Bob Feller drew 22,577 fans to Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field. In Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert, a tale of interracial barnstorming in the first half of the 20th century, author Timothy Gay devotes quite a bit of space to the history of baseball’s winters in California.
Certainly times are different now. With every major league game televised, the drawing-card factor of earlier days isn’t necessarily there. This may not be a money maker, though any live games in winter would look better on the MLB Network than whatever they’re showing as they grind through the offseason.
But the main motivation shouldn’t be financial. What’s the cost of a life? At the rate things are unfolding down in Venezuela and Mexico, it won’t be long until we’re asking that question. We very nearly did last week.