PUERTO LA CRUZ, Venezuela - It's an extremely hot Saturday afternoon at the Chico Carrasquel ballpark. So hot, in fact, the teams which will play later in the afternoon, the Caribes de Anzoátegui and Tiburones de La Guaira, have decided to skip batting practice altogether. The sun is unforgiving, and the temperature is about to reach 110 degrees. The Venezuelan Winter League resembles winter only in its name. The weather and intensity in which it is played is burning.
On one side, Edgmer Escalona has agreed to talk to us -- but only if we get to a place between the clubhouse and the dugout, away from the heat. This is the first time he has played in his native country for a team other than Leones del Caracas, the club he debuted with back in 2008.
The 26-year-old righty was traded to La Guaira in the middle of Spring Training. This was the team he grew up rooting for. He is a native of that region, known for its beaches near the capital city of Caracas. That's why he was extremely happy when he found out about the trade.
"I was born in La Guaira, my family is from La Guaira, I grew up being a La Guaira fan, what else can I ask for?", Escalona said. "I felt so proud when I found out about the news. And it has been extremely great for me so far. A great group of teammates and a great organization. I have nothing else to do but thank them for the chance they are giving me."
Escalona appeared in 22.1 innings spanning 22 games with a 6.04 ERA and 21 strikeouts for the Rockies in 2012. Late in the season his performance improved dramatically, but he could certainly use a lot of work during the winter in the extremely competitive Venezuelan circuit. Escalona has already shown the tools that allowed him to earn a spot on the big league roster: a blazing fastball combined with good command. In his very first outing in Venezuela, he struck out the side in the inning he pitched while working as setup man, the role he will have this season with Tiburones.
"I was focused on my work ever since I got here. I saw each batter, I noticed every weakness they showed. That's how I got a work plan for me. And thank God, the fastball was going wherever I wanted it to be".
Escalona's work on the mound has been impressive, but he knows he has to improve his off-the-field persona, which has been the subject of controversy. His high-voltage temper has been cooled off, at least for the time being. No showing off. No earrings. He has to prove to La Guaira and to Colorado that he has matured enough so he can move forward as a pitcher.
"I made that one of my goals, my objectives coming here," Escalona says. "When I came to La Guaira, I noticed that our fans, which are considered the most joyful and upbeat in Venezuelan baseball were divided among those who wanted me here, and those who didn't. Many of them said, 'this guy is crazy, we don't need him here.' It's my responsibility to show them what I'm capable of, both as a pitcher and as a human being. I'm not a bad person, and it's up to me to prove them that."
The Rockies have only one restriction regarding Escalona: he cannot pitch in consecutive games.
"They want me to stay healthy and not to get injured. I would love to see the Rockies where the Giants are now -- fighting in the postseason," Escalona said. "That's the one thing I want to help achieve. I want us to be out there. So I'm paying attention to the instructions they gave me. I'm doing my training and everything needed in order to stay useful to them."