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Monday, November 27, 2006
 
Mimicking Japan and Cuba? Hugo Chávez to Restrict Access to Venezuelan Baseball Players

Graham Dunbar of The London Times has an interesting article on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's plans to restrict Venezuelan baseball players who seek to play in the United States ("Game Over? Politics May Pitch Baseball into a Crisis," Nov. 25, 2006). Currently, Venezuelan players, like Dominican and other Latin (but not Cuban) and South American players, can be directly recruited by Major League Baseball teams, and can be signed by as young as 16. Indeed, amateur baseball players from countries that are not subject to the MLB Draft, an agreement between MLB and the host league (Japanese Professional Baseball), or law (Cuba), may be signed by any Major League organization at age 16, provided they turn 17 prior to either the end of the baseball season in which they are signed or September first of the year in which they are signed. In contrast, if an amateur baseball player is from the United States, including its territories, or Canada, he can only sign with a Major League organization if he first enters the MLB draft, and he must have graduated from high school.

With this less regulated set-up for signing most international players, including Venezuelans, nine MLB teams have invested millions of dollars in setting up baseball academies in Venezuela, and most have set up at least one academy abroad. As a result, "changing the rules" on how big league teams sign Venezuelan players could jeopardize those teams' investments in academies and recruiting. It could also curtail the influx of Venezuelan players into the United States. It probably goes without saying, but there a number of terrific Venezuelan players in the big leagues, including Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, and Magglio Ordóñez, and many top prospects are on the way.

Here are some key excerpts from Dunbar's piece:
Baseball fans in both countries fear that President Chávez may deprive the American game of one of its prime assets — the flow of rich talent from Venezuela.

One of the greatest concerns among the middle class, who increasingly steer their sons towards baseball academies rather than academic college, is that Mr Chávez will close the domestic professional league and restrict the rights of sportsmen to play in America. Ron Rizzi, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has served the game for 39 years and has been coming to Venezuela to watch players for the past decade. He said: “Chávez is so anti-US that he may inhibit players’ ability to get there. If he wins the election they might have to come out on a boat.”

It's not entirely clear what Chávez--who is up for re-election next month--actually plans to do, but he's no doubt hoping to extract more money from MLB teams that pursue Venezuelan players.

I have no idea if there is any connection between Chávez's plans and the $51 million the Red Sox are paying Daisuke Matsuzaka's Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, for the right to negotiate with him, but the timing seems noteworthy. After-all, the arrangement between MLB and Japanese baseball is far from a free market, and requires a complex posting procedure that involves MLB teams bidding for the right to bid for Japanese players. So maybe Chávez wants to build a competitive Venezuelan professional league that would justify a posting system, and perhaps Chávez figures that if MLB is willing to capitulate to Japanese baseball, then it would do the same with him. And if he's right, then other Latin countries could follow in his lead, which in turn would seem to boost Chávez's political stock in Latin and South American countries as a regional leader.

Or maybe Chávez, who is said to idolize Fidel Castro, simply wants Venezuelan baseball to mimic Cuban baseball, where it's nearly impossible for players to leave in the absence of defection, which itself is often dangerous, both for the players and their families. That doesn't seem like a terribly good ambition.

Or maybe, and in Chávez's defense, he's genuinely trying to improve the conditions under which Venezuelan players are signed by big league teams. After-all, a number of thoughtful observers have criticized MLB baseball academies as symbolic of American imperialism and exploitative of economically-disadvantaged countries. For instance, check out the following:
Related Coverage on Sports Law Blog:
The Citgo Sign Behind Fenway Park and Fearing Hugo Chávez
Bidding for Matsuzaka Poses Interesting Legal Issues





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Definitely the most thoughtful piece I've read on the politics of baseball in a long time. It's interesting to think about the effect of the Matsuzaka-frenzy in other international baseball hotbeds.

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