Maybe a story about how they play ball in the Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Profesional, i.e., the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, doesn't qualify as history, particularly if it is talking about what happened only last winter. But thinking about it, now that Jim Lonborg and the rest of the guys (not to mention a few scared sportswriters) are all safely back in the States again and comfortably into another big-league season, what went on south of the border last winter seems as though it could have taken place in another century.
Listen to the letter Jim wrote from Maracay, which is about 50 miles from Caracas, last December and see if you don't agree.
I am now pitching for Los Tigres de Aragua [Jim wrote]. There are about 35 major-leaguers here, including Latin Americans such as Luis Aparicio (who is Venezuela's national hero), Luis Tiant and Cesar Tovar, as well as imports such as Bo Belinsky, George Scott and John Bateman. My Spanish is horrible, and none of the other American players can speak the language either, so the communications problem slows us down—especially on paydays. Each player receives a minimum of $1,000 a month, plus expenses—$250 a month if he is single and $350 a month if he has his family with him. But there always is some hassle with management on payday. Dick Egan, who pitches for Spokane now, refused to pitch one night because the club held up his expense money, and Bob Burda of the Giants quit the club three times in one hour because the club reneged on promises it made to him. When I get paid I immediately convert the money into U.S. currency and put it in the safe-deposit vault at our hotel.
The man with whom we deal all the time is Crespo Verona, the club's general manager, who breaks more appointments than you could imagine. He also speaks very poor English, so he brings in this guy we call Freddie the Freeloader to translate, and Freddie always confuses things even more.
We had three managers the first two weeks of the season. The first one, a native Venezuelan, wasn't around long enough for me to remember his name. We lost our first four games, and the crowd got on him, especially when he coached at third base. The fans threw beer bottles at him after one game, and when some of them came out on the field and punched him, he quit. Carlos Pascual replaced him temporarily, but now Cal Ermer of the Twins organization is managing. He's a class guy. He stands up for us in our negotiations with Verona, and he also has us winning.
There are six teams in the league, and three of them play their home games in the same stadium in Caracas. So none of our trips are too, too, long, not Boston-to- Anaheim long, anyway.
We travel to and from the various cities in taxis paid for by the club, but the way they drive down here I'd rather walk. We had one cab driver who lived on the horn and never gave anyone else a chance. He bumped pedestrians and bicycle riders off the road all the time, and when we complained he became very irritated. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a switchblade knife, pointed it at Dick Egan, who was riding up front, and said to him: "For you." The next time he went for the knife Mel Queen found a machete under the front seat and handed it to Egan, who drummed a tune on the dashboard with it the rest of the trip.
This driver got so excited one day that he drove right through a toll booth, which is something you should never do in Venezuela because armed guards are on duty at every booth. This day the guard had his machine gun ready to fire at us, but the driver jumped out of the cab, raised his hands and yelled: "Lo siento mucho [I'm very sorry]." After that the rest of us were able to get off the floor.
Some of the players who started the season with us have already returned to the States. Dick Dietz of the Giants left here after getting involved in a riot at the park in Maracay. Dietz, who was a leading hitter and best RBI man, couldn't catch one day because of an injury. We needed his bat in the lineup, so he was told to play left field. In the first inning he misjudged a fly ball and it cost us two runs, and when he ran in from the outfield the fans threw paper cups filled with ice at him. Later, in the top of the ninth, a ball hopped over his glove and two more runs scored. Dick really got showered with the hard stuff when he came back to the dugout that time, and he was so incensed that he tried to knock down some policemen and climb into the stands. Two days later he was on a plane heading for home.
Socially, things have been pretty slow, as you can imagine. When you take out a girl down here you also must take out her due�a. The first date I had was with a girl named Chela; her mother, two sisters and a girl friend came along with us.