DENVER, CO - JULY 20: Carlos Gonzalez #5 of the Colorado Rockies celebrates his walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the ninth with Jhoulys Chacin #45 as the Rockies defeated the Braves 3-2 at Coors Field on July 20, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
ed. Today's article from Rafael is the first in a series we'll be running about Venezuela and Colorado Rockies Baseball. Our goal is to bring to light the significance of the Colorado Rockies to Venezuelan baseball, as well as the importance of Venezuelan players on our roster. Stay tuned in upcoming weeks as we follow the journey of amateur Venezuelan players as they travel from their home country to Major League Baseball.
In the United States, Baseball is considered The National Pastime, a sport inseparable from the nation's identity. Since its inception, it has been exported across the world (the Japanese were playing as early as 1878). However, in the past 60 years the sport transcended the American and Japanese national frontiers and has become also a discipline madly followed by other nations as well. One of them is Venezuela, a place that has exported more than 130 native players to Major League Baseball since the 1930s.
The talent was there and you could prove it: players such as Luis Aparicio, Dave Concepcion, Bo Diaz, Manny Trillo, and Tony Armas, among others, were making important contributions.
During the 1980s, the biggest star in Venezuela when it comes to baseball became no other than Andres Galarraga. The bulky first baseman demonstrated his offensive prowess with the Montreal Expos. His charisma and soft-spoken demeanor made him a favorite with fans and media alike.
However, in the early 1990s, Galarraga's star started to fade. After a less-than-stellar 1991 campaign with the Expos, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals where he continued to struggle. Venezuelans were worried they were going to lose one of their greatest representatives in American ballparks. His .243 batting average and 39 RBIs were a shadow of past performances.
At the time, Don Baylor was the Cardinals' hitting coach. When he was appointed as manager of the new Colorado franchise, he persuaded Rockies' management to take a chance on the Caracas native. In 1993, Galarraga became the first Venezuela-born batting champion in Major League History, batting .370 while being selected to his 2nd career All-Star game.
Back in his home country, the race between The Big Cat and Tony Gwynn was closely followed. Baseball fans (which represent approximately 85% of the nation's population, according to recent polls) woke up every day trying to figure out how many points Galarraga gained or lost. Morning newscasts opened with a sports story instead of the usual headlines about crime, corruption or economic uncertainty.
Venezuela's contributions to Major League Baseball were slow, but steady, up until the 1990s. A series of factors, such as the local economy and the determination of a stubborn group of people helped MLB establish baseball academies in the country. As a result, the talent pipeline exploded in the numbers of players entering MLB from Venezuela.
Galarraga's story repeated itself 18 years later when a kid from Maracaibo became the third Venezuelan batting champion. Carlos Gonzalez unpredictably took the batting title with his .336 batting average after an intriguing Triple Crown race that lasted late into the season. While in 1993, Venezuelans would turn to their televisions first thing in the morning, recent developments in communication technology such as Twitter and internet media in general amplified the noise Cargo's feat had made to an undeniable volume.
Currently, the Rockies feature eight players from Venezuela on their 40-man roster who have arrived in many different ways: Gonzalez came with a trade with the Oakland Athletics; Jonathan Herrera was signed as an amateur free agent by Colorado in 2002; Ramon Hernandez was signed out of Free Agency this past offseason.
This makes the Rockies a focus of attention in this country, and the team is constantly featured in newspaper covers and special features. Such is the case with this year's Spring Training: all Venezuelan reporters who have made the trip to the United States in order to cover pre-season activities make Salt River Fields At Talking Stick a must-see destination.
What's even more interesting is that these players, although they share a common bond with nationality and even being from the same region in several cases (González, Herrera and Jhoulys Chacin are all from Maracaibo), have different origins and stories of how they became part of the Colorado eight.
We will bring you some of those stories during our Spring Training trip. Stay tuned.