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"Venezuelan fans don't get to see their favorite players in the big leagues, so this is their chance," says Abreu. "You go to a game between Magallanes and Caracas, and 25,000 to 30,000 people are screaming on every out. It's like Boston-Yankees every time."
"It's so much fun playing in front of your family and friends," says Yankees third base coach Luis Sojo, a Caracas native whose hero growing up was Reds shortstop Concepci�n. Sojo enjoyed a 13-year big league career. For the last 19 years he's also played winter ball in his home country, though mindful of the dangers.
"This is a big country, and there are a lot of bad people around," Sojo says. "Still, I don't have a bodyguard. I don't carry a gun. I drive my own car. You don't walk the streets at two in the morning. You stay in the hotel and order room service. You've got to take care of yourself. That's what I tell my family."
Ironically, the grim economic conditions of the past 20 years have been partly responsible for launching Venezuelan baseball's golden age. With little wealth trickling down to the lower classes, a large segment of the population has come to see the sport they love as a way out of poverty.
"From the 1950s to the early 1980s the country was blooming," says Andr�s Reiner, 69, the godfather of the surge in Venezuelan major leaguers. Reiner, now a special assistant to the Astros, persuaded the team's general manager, Bill Woods, to open Venezuela's first baseball academy in 1989. "Everybody [here] was happy then, everybody was making money," Reiner recalls. "Youngsters were told to go to university. When I went to talk to parents to try to persuade them to let their sons go to the baseball academy, they'd laugh. It was tough. Now it's pretty easy. It's the parents who want me to look at their sons."
Reiner, who moved with his family to Venezuela from Hungary when he was 10 years old, believed that Venezuela's reputation for producing only one great player every 10 years was nonsense. "I was sure it was just the way the country was scouted and the way the players were developed," Reiner says. "We had to change completely the way things were done."
Some of the more notable graduates of Reiner's academy, which is located in Valencia, make up a major league honor roll: Abreu, Carlos Guill�n, Freddy Garc�a, Mora, Hidalgo and Santana. Venezuela, it turned out, was a mother lode of talent. The Astros' academy recruited players as young as 14 from all over the country and taught them everything from how to hit a cutoff man to how to speak English. "I was 15 when I went to the academy," says Abreu. "I lived there. I took English classes. They taught me the way they play baseball in the U.S. We practiced from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and they paid for your hotel and food and gave you a small salary."
The graduates of the academy had an easier time than many other Latin American players adjusting to huge cultural differences when they arrived in the U.S. " Major League Baseball could do a much better job of supporting Latin players when they get to the big leagues," says Regan, who this winter managed the Cardinals of Lara. "They basically say, 'Here's your salary. Be at the ballpark at four o'clock.' The baseball academies really help. The players they turn out are quality people. Most speak English. They're hardworking. They understand baseball, and they play the game right. They play more of a control-type game. They aren't explosive. You don't see a lot of 39-homer years, but they can hit and manufacture runs. They're sure-handed, and they don't throw the ball away."
Houston's success inspired other major league teams, and today there are nine baseball academies in Venezuela financed by U.S. franchises. It's proved a wise investment: 96 Venezuelans have broken into the big leagues since 1995, second in number only to players from the Dominican Republic. Reiner believes the gap is closing fast. "The Dominican Republic is small and easy to scout," he says. "It has just nine million people. Venezuela has 25 million people and is bigger than Texas. I think it's still an untapped area. There are places that don't even get looked at. The numbers are going to increase, there's no doubt in my mind."
Aparicio believes there was always plenty of baseball talent in Venezuela. "The difference now is, the scouts are here," he says. "We played only two or three times a week. Now [Venezuelan prospects] play almost every day. They eat better than we did, and they take vitamins. Their fitness is better. They're stronger."