Commentary

Welcome to Venezuela

Updated: March 11, 2009, 1:58 PM ET
By Joe Connor | Special to ESPN.com

Quick Facts

Most Known (Outside Baseball) For: Lush mountain scenery; lots of oil; lots of crime; and some of the world's most beautiful women.

Location: Northern South America, bordering the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, between Colombia and Guyana

Size: 353,839 square miles; slightly more than twice the size of California

Population: About 26 million

People: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arab, German, African, indigenous people

Language: Spanish, numerous indigenous dialects

Government: Federal republic

Capital: Caracas (population: about 5 million)

Famous National Anthem Verses: "Let's cry out aloud: Down with oppression! Faithful countrymen, your strength, Lies in your unity."

Quick Historical Baseball Facts

Most Known In Baseball For: Producing great shortstops like Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio, plus Dave Concepcion and Omar Vizquel, among others; being home of the Venezuelan Winter League and MLB academies like in the Dominican Republic.

Baseball's Venezuela Debut: Introduced by U.S. oil workers in the 1920s.

First Venezuelan-born to play MLB: Alejandro Carrasquel, born in Caracas, debuted with Washington Senators, 1939.

Baseball Hall of Famer: Luis Aparicio is the only Venezuelan in the U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame. Known as "Little Looie," he spent 18 years in MLB, made 10 All-Star teams and won nine Gold Gloves.

Venezuela's Best Baseball Town: Valencia (home of the Venezuela Hall of Fame and numerous MLB academies), plus one of the most historic Venezuelan Winter League teams, Magallanes.

Venezuela's Other Baseball Hot Spots: Almost all of the country is a baseball hotbed, but particularly near the cities of Caracas (the capitol), Maracaibo (oil territory), Maracay and Barquisimiento.

Venezuela's Baseball Weather: Tropical; hot, humid; more moderate in highlands.

Biggest Sports Competitors: Baseball is king but basketball is second, followed by other sports like soccer, volleyball, swimming, bullfighting and judo.

Best Baseball Museum/Most Important Shrine: Venezuela Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Valencia is one of the world's best baseball museums, outside Cooperstown, even better than the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

Only In Venezuela … Did local baseball fans help grow baseball internationally? Venezuelan businessman Jesus Coreo had the idea behind the Interamerica Series, which preceded the Caribbean Series, which was the brainchild of Venezuelans Oscar Prieto and Pablo Morales. … The business cards of some taxi drivers feature the image of a baseball diamond.

Quick Team And Player Facts

Biggest International Rival: Dominican Republic (mainly in the Caribbean Series)

Biggest International Successes: Venezuela has won seven Caribbean Series titles, including the 2009 tournament, but it hasn't won the Baseball World Cup since 1945. This is largely due to the fact that its best players are signed to MLB organizations from the age of 16, although a team from Maracaibo won the 1986 Big League World Series (ages 16-18). Other notable wins for Venezuela on the world stage include three Senior League World Series (ages 14-16) crowns. A team from Maracaibo also won the Little League World Series in 1994 and 2000 (ages 11-13).

Some Venezuelans To Watch For In The MLB Future: Jesus Montero (Yankees), Carlos Carrasco (Phillies), Elvis Andrus (Rangers), among others.

2006 WBC showing: Venezuela failed to advance to the semifinals.

Back from the 2006 WBC team: Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Francisco Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Bobby Abreu

Gone from the 2006 WBC team: Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Victor Martinez

Now on 2009 WBC team: Melvin Mora, Jose Lopez, Felix Hernandez

Play Ball! -- Venezuela

Venezuela has two professional leagues -- the Venezuelan Summer League and the Venezuelan Winter League.

Venezuelan Summer League Overview: A rookie-level minor league, affiliated with MLB, the Venezuela Summer League is often the first stop for a young Venezuelan signed to a contract by an MLB team. As a result, most players in the league are under 20 years of age, many as young as 16 or 17. MLB draft-eligible players born in the U.S. and Canada are not eligible to play in the league, which also features players from other Latin American countries signed to MLB organizations. Eight teams play a 70-game schedule at small, non-descript fields with little fanfare that also double as the academies of MLB teams. Most of the academies are located near the city of Valencia, which has a rich baseball history and is home to the Venezuela Baseball Hall of Fame.

Venezuelan Winter League Overview: Eight teams play approximately 63 games from October to December with the top five teams advancing to a 16-game round robin. The top two finishers then meet in a best-of-seven series for the league championship, with the winner advancing to the Caribbean Series that also features the best winter league team in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Mexico. Many of the players are Venezuelan-born prospects signed to an MLB organization, but non-Venezuelan prospects also participate.

Most Successful Franchise: The Caracas Lions have won the league title 16 times and the Caribbean Series, twice. But the Maracay Tigers have won five of the last six crowns, including the most recent Caribbean Series. Valencia Magallanes have the second most crowns (10) and two Caribbean Series titles as well.

Biggest Rivalry: Caracas Liones and Magallanes Navigators is similar to Red Sox-Yankees in MLB or Licey-Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League.

Big Name Participants (Current/Most Recent): Bobby Abreu (Caracas Lions); Francisco Rodriguez (La Guaira Sharks); Miguel Cabrera (Maracay Tigers), among others.

Additional Famous MLB Alums: Roberto Clemente; Pete Rose; Barry Bonds (Valencia); Greg Maddux (Zulia Eagles); Jeff Kent (Lara Cardinals); Ozzie Guillen (La Guaira); many others.

Best Ballparks: As a group, Venezuela's Winter League ballparks are the best venues in Latin America, and almost all overlook mountains or hilltops. They feature grass fields similar to U.S. ballparks. Among the best ballparks is University Stadium in Caracas. In addition to Caracas, Maracay and Puerto La Cruz are great places to enjoy a ballgame.

Ballpark Food & Drink: A Polar Ice with some arepas (balls of corn dough filled with meat or cheese) or fried plantain strips, parrilla (meat marinated and cooked on a charcoal grill).

Ballpark Atmosphere: This isn't Grandma's Night at the ballpark. Be prepared to get wet, especially if you dare sit in the bleachers during a game between the Caracas Lions and Magallenes Navigators, a rivalry equal to Yankees-Red Sox. Whenever a run scores for the home team in this rivalry, beer is tossed into the air. Also be prepared for a beer shower right after the last out. Vendors walk the aisles selling whistles, blow horns and -- lots of beer. Beer is sold out of tubs of ice and it's sometimes tossed at umpires or players who fall into disfavor. Latin music is blasted on the P.A. system not just between innings, but also between at-bats. The atmosphere in one word is raucous. There is no such thing as the sound of silence. Fans sing, whistle, dance and yell obscenities. And they can't stand losing. The fans will let a pitcher or any player know if their performance is not up to par. Venezuelans are some of the most vocal fans I have ever observed in my travels.

Wildest Entertainers: Female dancers. Between innings, beautiful Venezuelan women in skin-tight outfits dance for the crowd. Often, they're on a stage beyond the outfield fences.

Venezuelan Speak: Few public address announcers are more emphatic than the Venezuelans. When a well-known player is introduced in front of his hometown fans, it's done so to fire up the crowd, with particular emphasis on players names ending with "fan" or "fon." In Puerto La Cruz, its hometown boy "Omar Infannnnnnnnnte!!!!!!!!!!!" In Valencia, it's Edgardo Alfonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnso!!!!!!!!

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com who has visited more than 30 baseball countries on six continents. He's the author of "A Fan's Guide To The World Baseball Classic," which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: www.modernerabaseball.com and www.mrsportstravel.com.