When Venezula President Hugo Chavez wanted American Major League Baseball owners to pay for the privilege of their pillage, many were more than miffed. But as sports commentator Dave Zirin says, "It's long past time MLB gave something back to the nations they so blithely upend."



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"Marines shouldered bats next to their rifles when they imposed imperial order in a region by blood and fire. Baseball then became for the people of the Caribbean what baseball is to us."
- Eduardo Galeano

When Hugo Chávez struck out in his December referendum aimed at overhauling the Venezuelan political system, a small group of overfed men raised their glasses in triumph: the assorted owners of Major League Baseball.

Edward Bennett Williams once called them a "Den of Idiots" and, for the last decade, the idiots have descended in vulpine fashion on both the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, marauding like free marketers on steroids in their quest for baseball talent on the cheap. Currently, 30 per cent of all minor league players are from the DR alone.

Owners love Latin America for the same reason Disney can't get enough of Haiti: they can sign children for pennies, treat them like trash when they're finished, and face contact lens-thin regulations for their troubles.

The impact on the athletes can be devastating. "Super Mario" Encarnación, once the most prized prospect of the Oakland As, was found dead in a Taipei motel room in October 2006, after an apparent drug overdose. He had been playing at the margins of the semi-pro baseball circuit desperate to not return home a failure to the DR. He returned, only when his friend, former AL MVP Miguel Tejada, paid to have his body shipped back to their village from Japan.

Owners love Latin America for the same reason Disney can't get enough of Haiti: they can sign children for pennies, treat them like trash when they're finished, and face contact lens-thin regulations for their troubles.

Encarnación did do better than Lino Ortiz. The 19-year-old pitcher was about to be called up to the Majors when he died from taking an animal steroid in the DR looking for an edge. Steroids are actually legal and available over the counter, but their cost makes them prohibitive. Lino bought his from the pet store and met an all-too-early-death.

After the DR, the country that supplies the most talent in Latin America is Venezuela. There are now more than 50 players from Venezuela in Major League Baseball, including superstars like Johan Santana, Magglio Ordoñez and Miguel Cabrera. In the last 20 years, 200 Venezuelans have played in the Major Leagues with more than 1,000 in the minors. And yet despite this bounty of talent, the idiots are starting to scamper from Venezuela because Hugo Chávez is demanding that owners pay for the privilege of their pillage.

Lou Meléndez, MLB's vice president for international operations, was more than miffed to receive documents that called for instituting employee and player protections and requiring teams to pay out 10 per cent of players' signing bonuses to the government. Chávez wants to tax MLB for what they take from the country.

Heaven forfend... there is surely nothing political about shutting down your baseball academy for fear that the natives might demand business practices that might approximate the humane.

"We don't pay federations money for signing players anywhere in the world, and we don't expect to do so. It's certainly not a way to conduct business," huffed Meléndez. "When you see certain industries that are being nationalized, you begin to wonder if they are going to nationalize the baseball industry in Venezuela."

As ESPN wrote, "There has been speculation, more internal than public so far, that Chávez, a socialist and self-proclaimed revolutionary who took office in 1999, will turn Venezuela into the next Cuba. In other words, some worry that baseball in Venezuela will serve to illustrate (once again) how politics spills over into sport."

The hypocrisy is stunning. Heaven forfend, there is nothing "political" about a multibillion-dollar business running roughshod over an entire nation with no accountability for the dashed dreams of the 99 per cent who don't make it stateside. And there is surely nothing political about shutting down your baseball academy for fear that the natives might demand business practices that might approximate the humane.

(Hugo) Chávez dares demand regulation and the first instinct of the owners is to flee toward more exploitable ground.

Already, the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, and San Diego Padres have cut and run. "We just figured we might as well do it [then] to avoid some of the hassle of having to deal with some of the legislation that Chávez passes down there in hiring coaches, worrying about severance pay, and just getting in and out of the country," Juan Lara of the Padres told the media.

This tension exposes the rot at the heart of this relationship. Chávez dares demand regulation and the first instinct of the owners is to flee toward more exploitable ground. Not only is Chávez right to pressure baseball to actually give something back, other countries - the Dominican Republic, in particular - should follow his lead.

Every year, millions of Latin American children are shredded as they reach to escape poverty with a bat and a ball. It's long past time MLB gave something back to the nations they so blithely upend.

Even an idiot can see that.


 

Note: Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket Books, 2007). He is also the author of "The Muhammad Ali Handbook" (MQ Publications) and has also gotten himself a blog site, www.myspace.com/edgeofsports, which he invites you to visit. His book, "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States," is also in stores. You can receive his column, Edge of Sports, every week by emailing edgeofsports- subscribe@zirin.com. Dave says: "I love writing this column but can only continue with this work if people buy the books. We have a lot of mouths to feeds in this house (and about three of them are mine). If you believe in progressive, iconoclastic sports writing please pick up a copy of Welcome To The Terrordome. If you believe in being part of a project to "tear down the Terrordome," pick up five and give them to the apolitical sports fans in your life. The only way ideas like this spread are from the bottom up. And if you want to sound off on the article, please take the time to visit and post a comment at http://edgeofsports.com/2008-02-26-328/index.html.

Other articles by Dave Zirin:
The Fall Of Marion Jones, Inc.
Why Michael Vick Is Not A Fascist
When Domes Attack
The Unforgiven
The Meaning Of The Sports Spectacle
Clown Prince Of Bizarro World
No Scapegoats: The Other Side Of Hip-Hop
(co-written with Jeff Chang)

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Anti-War Protestor
Pimping Mike Tyson
Pat Tillman's Brother Breaks His Silence
The Passing Of Peter Norman
When Fists Are Frozen
Why Today I Wear My Zidane Jersey
Hey Guys, It's Not A War
Using Soccer To Kick Iran
Why Did Pat Tillman Die?
Why Pat Tillman's Parents Are No Longer Silent








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February 29, 2008