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Original Issue

Red Socks for a Venezuelan Tiger

An inning of ball and an inning of revolution made a snappy game

Maybe a story about how they play ball in the Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Profesional, i.e., the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, doesn't qualify as history, particularly if it is talking about what happened only last winter. But thinking about it, now that Jim Lonborg and the rest of the guys (not to mention a few scared sportswriters) are all safely back in the States again and comfortably into another big-league season, what went on south of the border last winter seems as though it could have taken place in another century.

Listen to the letter Jim wrote from Maracay, which is about 50 miles from Caracas, last December and see if you don't agree.

I am now pitching for Los Tigres de Aragua [Jim wrote]. There are about 35 major-leaguers here, including Latin Americans such as Luis Aparicio (who is Venezuela's national hero), Luis Tiant and Cesar Tovar, as well as imports such as Bo Belinsky, George Scott and John Bateman. My Spanish is horrible, and none of the other American players can speak the language either, so the communications problem slows us down—especially on paydays. Each player receives a minimum of $1,000 a month, plus expenses—$250 a month if he is single and $350 a month if he has his family with him. But there always is some hassle with management on payday. Dick Egan, who pitches for Spokane now, refused to pitch one night because the club held up his expense money, and Bob Burda of the Giants quit the club three times in one hour because the club reneged on promises it made to him. When I get paid I immediately convert the money into U.S. currency and put it in the safe-deposit vault at our hotel.

The man with whom we deal all the time is Crespo Verona, the club's general manager, who breaks more appointments than you could imagine. He also speaks very poor English, so he brings in this guy we call Freddie the Freeloader to translate, and Freddie always confuses things even more.

We had three managers the first two weeks of the season. The first one, a native Venezuelan, wasn't around long enough for me to remember his name. We lost our first four games, and the crowd got on him, especially when he coached at third base. The fans threw beer bottles at him after one game, and when some of them came out on the field and punched him, he quit. Carlos Pascual replaced him temporarily, but now Cal Ermer of the Twins organization is managing. He's a class guy. He stands up for us in our negotiations with Verona, and he also has us winning.

There are six teams in the league, and three of them play their home games in the same stadium in Caracas. So none of our trips are too, too, long, not Boston-to-Anaheim long, anyway.

We travel to and from the various cities in taxis paid for by the club, but the way they drive down here I'd rather walk. We had one cab driver who lived on the horn and never gave anyone else a chance. He bumped pedestrians and bicycle riders off the road all the time, and when we complained he became very irritated. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a switchblade knife, pointed it at Dick Egan, who was riding up front, and said to him: "For you." The next time he went for the knife Mel Queen found a machete under the front seat and handed it to Egan, who drummed a tune on the dashboard with it the rest of the trip.

This driver got so excited one day that he drove right through a toll booth, which is something you should never do in Venezuela because armed guards are on duty at every booth. This day the guard had his machine gun ready to fire at us, but the driver jumped out of the cab, raised his hands and yelled: "Lo siento mucho [I'm very sorry]." After that the rest of us were able to get off the floor.

Some of the players who started the season with us have already returned to the States. Dick Dietz of the Giants left here after getting involved in a riot at the park in Maracay. Dietz, who was a leading hitter and best RBI man, couldn't catch one day because of an injury. We needed his bat in the lineup, so he was told to play left field. In the first inning he misjudged a fly ball and it cost us two runs, and when he ran in from the outfield the fans threw paper cups filled with ice at him. Later, in the top of the ninth, a ball hopped over his glove and two more runs scored. Dick really got showered with the hard stuff when he came back to the dugout that time, and he was so incensed that he tried to knock down some policemen and climb into the stands. Two days later he was on a plane heading for home.

Socially, things have been pretty slow, as you can imagine. When you take out a girl down here you also must take out her dueña. The first date I had was with a girl named Chela; her mother, two sisters and a girl friend came along with us.

There is a good 18-hole golf course outside the front door of our hotel, and we always manage to get some local boys to caddie. They also make sure the iguanas, absolutely the ugliest creatures I've ever seen, don't get us. These iguanas are everywhere; one day Mel Queen saw one at the bottom of the swimming pool.

I'm glad you're coming down. I think you'll like Venezuela for a week—though certainly no more. See you soon, and be prepared for anything.

I thought I would be, but Caracas soon taught me better. On the day I arrived, the headlines read: BANDAS DE TERRORISTAS and DECRETADA SUSPENSION DE GARANTIAS. Even without a Berlitz refresher it was easy to translate the stories: Communist terrorists had assassinated an army major and wounded an army general in sniper attacks, and Venezuela's President Ra√∫l Leoni had suspended many of his country's constitutional guarantees. "Let's get out of here now before the whole city blows up," said Larry Claflin, the baseball writer for the Boston Record American.

After Claflin left, I found my own way from the airport to Maracay on the autopista. I drove through downtown looking for the Hotel Maracay for almost half an hour before I stopped the car and tried to get directions. One man shook his head, another waved his arms, and another listened, looked and walked away. I finally met a man who spoke halting English, and he not only gave me the proper directions to the hotel but a casual warning. "Up the road," he said, "you see the National Guard. Go slow, or they shoot at your car. I already have five, six bullet holes in my car."

The long road away from the city was darkened by the overhanging branches of the trees that line the dirt sidewalks. There was a military officers' club on the left, and on the right was the National Guard headquarters. I braked the car almost to a halt as I crept past.

To the left, set well back from the highway at the base of a mountain, was the Hotel Maracay, a strikingly modern building with four MPs stationed on the roof and a dozen more, none of whom looked older than 17, standing around in the lobby. The sign at the reception desk said cheerfully, WELCOME TO MARACAY, in several languages.

I tried to reach Lonborg in his room but there was no answer, so I had him paged. "Señor Lonborg probably on the golf course," said one of the clerks. He was. "Hurry up," he said over the phone. "We'll wait for you on the first tee." I dressed and went out to the course, which is only a half-wedge shot from the hotel desk, and standing on the tee, clad only in bathing trunks, were Lonborg, Pitchers George Culver and Tom Kelley of the Indians, Outfielder Adrian Garrett of the Braves' farm system and Pitcher-outfielder Mel Queen of the Reds. "I see you made it alive," said Lonborg, grinning. "Yeah," I said, "but it'll take me six holes to calm down. How can you guys play golf under these conditions?" I pointed to the four MPs standing on the hotel roof. "Oh, hell," said Queen, "this is nothing compared to what happened in 1963. One night in Caracas more than 200 MPs surrounded the ball park to protect the players during the riots, but the terrorists still blew up an auto showroom right across the street from the ball park. I was playing center field that night, but when I heard the explosion I beat our third baseman to the third-base dugout. Actually, it's pretty quiet around here now."

Queen left to play bridge at the swimming pool with some of the other Americans staying at the Maracay, and the rest of us went out to play golf. When we finished our round we went over to kibitz the bridge game. Soon Lonborg replaced Queen at the table, and then Tom Kelley calmly announced that he had to leave. He was going back to jail.

Jail? Yes. One day when Kelley had been driving away from the hotel his car struck a woman pedestrian. It was ruled later that she had been intoxicated at the time of the accident, but Kelley was jailed because he would not sign a form that, in effect, would have made him liable for all of the woman's medical expenses. Kelley had to get up every morning at 5:30 with the other prisoners, but the police would parole him at 9 o'clock so that he could get a decent breakfast and then go pitch, if it was his turn to, or play golf. At the end of the day he would go back to jail. After he left Venezuela to go back to the States in January—the legal technicality was straightened out by then—Kelley said, "I was definitely scared. One American told me that some guys have been in jail there 15 or 20 years because of minor auto accidents like the one I had."

The next night there was a game in the stadium at Maracay, which Los Tigres won 2-1 as Dick Egan pitched a one-hitter to beat Luis Tiant and Caracas. There should have been elation in Los Tigres' clubhouse, but instead there was a brawl. Carlos Pascual, who was filling in for Ermer as manager, claimed that Bob Burda had insulted him on the field, and he went after Burda in the dressing room. Egan, coming to Burda's aid, hit Pascual on the jaw and Pascual grabbed a metal chair and tossed it at Egan. "Man alive," George Scott of the Red Sox said afterward. "I'm sort of tremblin', man. If that Egan ever ducked that chair'd hit me in the face. I'm gettin' out of here for good, man." Scott returned to the U.S. a week later. Eventually Pascual was led away, but now Paul Casanova, the strong-armed young catcher of the Senators, entered the fight. "Dick," he said to Egan, pointing a finger in the pitcher's face, "you shouldn't have done that." Egan admitted he was wrong, but suddenly the two of them were kicking and punching and swearing at each other. They fought steadily for 10 minutes, and when they were finally pried apart Ronnie Clark announced, "It's Egan 5-4-1 on a split decision."

"Great scene, wasn't it?" Lonborg asked as we pushed through the crowd of about a thousand that milled outside Los Tigres' clubhouse. Spotting the rotund form of Freddie the Freeloader, Lonborg called him aside and said sternly, "Listen, Freddie, you better keep your mouth shut about what happened in there tonight." Freddie stuttered a moment and answered, "Oh, you know me, I never say anything." "We do know you, that's the problem," said Lonborg.

The following Sunday Los Tigres were playing at Valencia. Maracay and Valencia enjoy the type of rivalry that once existed between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, and on this day more than 30 busloads of fans, as well as the Maracay Baja Marimba, accompanied Los Tigres to Valencia. A baja marimba consists of about a dozen gaily dressed musicians and dancers who do sort of a calypso throughout the game. Each team has its own baja marimba, and there is a kind of contest to determine which one can make the most noise during a game. When a Maracay player does something, his baja marimba strikes up the tune Maracay, Maracay, and all the Maracay supporters more or less thumb their noses at the rival fans. And when Pancho, the bat boy—really bat man—for Los Tigres, beats the umpire and the other club's bat man in the race to dust off home plate, the noise in the Maracay stands crescendoes to headache intensity.

Lonborg pitched against Valencia that day, but he gave up four unearned runs in the first and three more unearned runs in the seventh, and Cal Ermer, back on the job after his illness, removed him.

After the game there were bullfights back in Maracay. Little native boys shouted "malo" at Lonborg as he sat in the bull arena, and other people turned to stare at him throughout the fights. "Verona was on the radio, and he said something about my wanting to leave," Jim explained. "The people aren't too happy about it." The next day Lonborg tried again to meet with Verona, but the general manager evaded him. That night we drove to Caracas, where Los Tigres were playing the next day, and later we stopped at the airport where Jim purchased a one-way ticket to New York. "I'll pitch one more game, but I'm leaving here next Sunday no matter what they say," Lonborg said.

In Caracas the next day there were more incidents involving the terrorists and the Venezuelan government, and that night at the ball park the American players were tense. "Ah, they're always shooting someone in Caracas," said Carlos Pascual. "It's something you get used to." Four white-helmeted MPs, armed with machine guns and pistols, were stationed in the dugouts, and two hours before the game about 75 more MPs were in position throughout the stands to secure the stadium against any possible terrorist movements. The Central University owns the 35,000-seat stadium, which this night held less than 2,500, but it cannot afford to turn on the ballpark lights until 15 minutes before game time, and the darkness did not alleviate the tension among the players. Lonborg looked everywhere for Verona, but again the general manager was not to be found. "Bobby Maduro, the coordinator of Latin-American baseball, called and told me that for my own good I should stay down here," said Lonborg. "He also said I'd have to pay a $1,000 fine if I leave."

Lonborg had his ticket to New York, and he planned to use it. "I'll just have to chase Verona down in Maracay tomorrow and get this all straightened out," he said as he left with the rest of the Maracay players. I was leaving for New York the next day, so I decided to stay downtown overnight rather than drive to a hotel out near the airport.

"Yeah, you'd be crazy to drive anywhere tonight," said Lonborg. "They're liable to shoot at anything."

I did not sleep much that night, and the next day I was on a flight back to New York. For a few days I wondered how Lonborg had made out, and when I could not reach him in Boston I thought, "They kept him down there after all."

Then one night there was a phone call from San Luis Obispo, Calif. It was Lonborg. "Yeah, I'm back," he said. "They let me go." He laughed. "It was all quite an experience. But, you know, I don't think I'll ever go back there again."