Significantly, Venezuelan parents also push their kids to play baseball now. "My mother hated that I was a ballplayer," Aparicio says. "The hardest day of my life was when I told my father I was going to quit school and play baseball. And he owned the Maracaibo team! Now you see fathers at little league games yelling at their seven- and eight-year-olds to play harder."
"We just played for fun," agrees Garc�a, 29, the White Sox righthander with an 85--54 career record. "Our parents pushed us to go to school. Now Venezuelans see they can make good money playing baseball. I've got friends who graduated from college, and they can't get jack. They're driving taxis."
arc�a grew up in a poor hillside district of Caracas, in a ramshackle house that overlooked a highway. His father drove a taxi. His mother was a nurse. They were always working, too busy to take him to ball games. So he sneaked in.
Today he lives in one of the best sections of the city, where he's a neighbor of Urbina's. They're best friends. Garc�a's house is at street level, protected by a 12-foot-high stone wall topped by an electric fence. There are bars over his windows. A neighbor's attack dog barks savagely when anyone approaches.
Urbina's house, built two years ago, is perched high above the street, with a commanding view of the surrounding hills. A ladder connects his pool deck with Garc�a's patio, and they use it to go back and forth between the houses, as if they were living in a very, very fancy boys' treehouse. Urbina was best man at Garc�a's wedding in December, the bride a cousin of Ozzie Guill�n's. The two players like to hang out together during the day and watch Mexican soap operas. "I like to stay home," Garc�a says. "When you go out, you have to go out with a bunch of people. Ten years ago you could do whatever you wanted. Now, if you have money, you're a target." A third house is situated to the side of Urbina's property and above Garc�a's, and they are planning to buy it and one day connect the three houses to create one huge compound.
"There are two kinds of people here: rich and poor," says Urbina. "No middle class. Thirty years ago Venezuela had a middle class. I don't want my kid to try to be a baseball player. I don't like this trend. I want him to go to school. Then he will have a choice. The problem is, it's really hard to find a regular job now in Venezuela."
Urbina said in December that he was looking forward to counseling young Venezuelan players at spring training. "We all come from the same background," he said. He remembers what it was like to be a carefree boy playing baseball in the street, hitting a taped cabbage with a piece of wood. "We come from the bottom and make our way to the top. I tell young guys, 'Work hard every day, respect the game. Play defense. Listen to the managers and coaches. You represent everyone who went before you.'"
Spring training. It is a time of hope. It is a time to scream at the heavens in despair. ?