"I'm afraid," Carrasquel says now. "I've been attacked. But there are problems all over, and I'm not above them."
Did the young robbers, who were never caught, know who he was? The great Carrasquel? One of the first two All-Stars from Latin America? "These boys didn't understand what they were doing with all the drugs they were on," Carrasquel says. "They'd kill their own mothers. They lack all respect."
The same might be said by Venezuela's other great baseball icon, Luis Aparicio. "Little Looie," the only Venezuelan in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, succeeded Carrasquel as the White Sox' shortstop in 1956, becoming the second in a long line of Venezuelans who were brilliant at that position--a list that includes Dave Concepci�n, Ozzie Guill�n, Omar Vizquel and, now, the Dodgers' C�sar Izt�ris. Aparicio, the '56 American League Rookie of the Year, spent 18 years in the majors, made 10 All-Star teams and won nine Gold Gloves. Like Carrasquel, he is revered in his homeland, but that hasn't shielded him from tragedy.
Three years ago Aparicio's 40-year-old daughter, Sharon Iris Aparicio Llorente, was shot during a carjacking in Maracaibo, the city where he grew up. She was paralyzed from the neck down and spent the next two years hospitalized before dying in the fall of 2004. "People are scared," Aparicio says, echoing Carrasquel. "It's dangerous now in our country."
At 70 Aparicio is still active in baseball. He manages the Tiburones (Sharks) of La Guaira, the port city on the other side of the mountains that encircle Caracas. One of his batboys is 11-year-old Gustavo Polidor Jr. The boy's father, a journeyman shortstop, played seven seasons in the majors, for the Angels, Brewers and Marlins, between 1985 and '93. He was only the 38th Venezuelan to have made the majors in the 46 years since Carrasquel's uncle Alejandro Carrasquel became the first Venezuelan big leaguer, in 1939. Being called up was still a rare and wonderful thing for a Venezuelan, an accomplishment that made him a household name in his country.
The Polidor house in Caracas has a room in the back where Gus Sr.'s baseball memorabilia is on display. When Gus Jr. was younger, he always invited visitors back to check it out. His mother, Eduvigis, cannot get the memory of that out of her head. "Here's my dad," Gus Jr. would say, showing the drawings and photos of his father in a major league uniform. "He would show them as if his father were coming back," Eduvigis recalls.
But Gus Polidor wasn't coming back. One day in April 1995, as he was preparing to take Eduvigis out to do errands, he left the garage door open so he could take out the trash. As Eduvigis, holding one-year-old Gus Jr. in her arms, began to get into the car, she saw two men rush at her husband from opposite directions. One man stayed with Polidor, holding a gun on him, while the other approached Eduvigis and the baby. He put a gun to her head. She still has nightmares about it. She can still feel the man's fingers holding her arm. She heard her husband and his assailant raise their voices, and then she heard two shots. Polidor fell, mortally wounded in the head. "He died protecting his family," she says. "He was killed like a dog."
It took more than nine years for the killers to be convicted. At one point they were captured but set free because of the huge backlog in the courts. Eventually they were caught robbing a bank, and Eduvigis, who'd earned a law degree in the belief that it would help her bring the killers to justice, pushed for them to be tried for her husband's murder. On Oct. 6, 2004, the two men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison. "They tried to defend themselves by saying they didn't know [their victim] was Gustavo," Eduvigis says. "They said if they had known, they wouldn't have done it."
While that wasn't even close to a valid defense, it made a certain sense in Venezuela. Baseball is the one thing citizens have in common in this deeply divided country, a nation polarized socially, politically and economically. Everyone's a fan. Everyone has a team he roots for. "We talk in baseball jargon," says Alfredo Villasmil, a veteran baseball writer for the Caracas newspaper �ltimas Noticias. "If you don't get invited to a party, the next time you see the host, you tell him, 'Man, you gave me four balls.' If a coworker asks you to do a chore you don't want to do, you say, 'That pitch is down and away.' Baseball means everything to us."
Aficionados of the game like to tell the story of the time Magglio Ord��ez was being carjacked, in November 2002, and one of his assailants realized he was the All-Star outfielder for the White Sox. The thieves apologized and let him go. But that incident represents the rare exception. More often Venezuela's major leaguers, with their fancy cars, fat wallets, gold jewelry and beautiful women, are magnets for trouble.