Twins pitcher Juan Rinc�n was recognized by the men who were robbing him a few years ago, and after he told them he wasn't carrying any cash, he offered to write them a personal check. They accepted. At eight the next morning Rinc�n got a call from the bank asking for his approval to cash the check. He gave it, reasoning that the robbers knew who he was and where he lived.
Rangers outfielder Richard Hidalgo was shot in the arm during a carjacking outside Valencia in 2002, when he was playing for the Astros. Asdr�bal Infante, a prospect in the Tigers' farm system and the brother of Tigers infielder Omar Infante, was shot and killed during a robbery in Guanta in 1999. Jos� Mora, the older brother of Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora, was murdered by a hired killer in April 2002 after he'd been in an altercation. "You can trust nobody," Melvin has said. "Not even a policeman." Mora, who batted .340 last year, the second-highest average in the American League, lives outside Baltimore. "I'd love to live in my country," he says, "but now I don't want to raise my kids there."
So much of what happens in Venezuela, good and bad, is connected to the country's vast petroleum reserves. It was U.S. oil workers who popularized baseball in Venezuela in the 1920s, after they came to drill for the low-grade crude that had been discovered in the Lake Maracaibo region. So while the rest of South America dances in the streets over soccer, in Venezuela beisbol is the national passion.
It's estimated that 78 billion barrels of oil are still recoverable in Venezuela--the most of any country in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and the fourth-largest supplier to the U.S., which buys two thirds of its exports. "Every part of Venezuela's economy is tied to how oil is doing," says U.S. ambassador Bill Brownfield. "It's a one-issue economy."
Which means that every time the price of oil drops significantly, the country is plunged into economic crisis. Venezuela has insufficiently developed its other significant natural resources--aluminum, gold, iron, coal, timber, diamonds and fishing. And because of the high crime rate and political volatility, tourism is a fraction of what it might be. The result, according to the U.S. State Department, is a national unemployment rate of about 20% and an underemployment rate of 30% to 40%. Between 1975 and 1995 the poverty rate in Venezuela soared from 35% to 70%, according to the Poverty Project of the Universidad Cat�lica Andr�s Bello in Caracas, and some estimates today put the rate as high as 80%. A country in such straits is a natural breeding ground for crime.
Hugo Ch�vez, Venezuela's president, promised to reverse the downward economic spiral when he campaigned for election in 1998. A burly ex-paratrooper who often wears a red beret, Ch�vez led a military coup attempt in 1992, for which he spent two years in prison. He was pardoned and began trading on his notoriety by campaigning on a populist platform, vowing to stop government corruption and to create jobs for the poor.
Despite high oil prices, Ch�vez has not delivered on his promises. His rule has become increasingly authoritarian. He's cracked down on the press while speaking admiringly of Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. He's alienated the U.S. by buying arms from Russia and providing oil to Cuba. He's also goaded the Bush Administration verbally, characterizing the President as an "a------" and referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "an illiterate." Wealthy Venezuelans have been moving their money abroad so fast that, according to a local joke, Venezuela's largest export after oil is cash. "Baseball is the only unifying factor in this country right now," says Ambassador Brownfield. "It's literally the only subject I can bring up that doesn't get me into trouble."
To Venezuelans, however, baseball and politics definitely mix. Ch�vez likes to pose throwing a baseball and, like Castro, brags about his prowess as a pitcher. During a 2002 anti-Ch�vez protest in Valencia, Phil Regan, who was managing that city's baseball club, the Navegantes de Magallanes (Magellan's Navigators), saw the marchers approach the hotel where his team was staying and chant, Ni un paso atr�s (Not one step backward). "The crowd stopped in front of the hotel, sang the national anthem and began passing their caps to the players for autographs," recalls Regan, a former Orioles skipper who has been managing in Venezuela since 1992. "After a while they marched off. That's how much they love baseball."
Indeed, in the winter of 2003--04, as Ch�vez faced a recall election that he would ultimately survive, a popular chant at games that featured his namesake Endy Ch�vez, the Washington Nationals outfielder, was �Endy, s�! �Ch�vez, no!
If there is one man who knows best that no wealthy Venezuelan is safe from crime, it's Urbina, the Tigers reliever with 227 big league saves. His family was first victimized in 1994, when Ugueth's father, Juan, was killed while resisting carjackers. Then, last year, Ugueth was jolted again when he learned that his mother had been kidnapped. She was the first relative of a Venezuelan major league player to be abducted.