Venezuela wins despite mounting drama
TORONTO -- The story lines in this year's World Baseball Classic seem to be getting better and more interesting as the tournament moves forward. Although the Netherlands and Team USA have garnered most of the headlines, the drama with Team Venezuela should not be overlooked. As manager Luis Sojo leads his team to Miami this weekend for the second round, the Venezuelans go forward as a team in turmoil but also a team that is winning in spite of it.
That's because Venezuela -- which entered Wednesday night hitting .355 as a team, third-best in WBC play-- beat Team USA 5-3 to claim the top seed for Round 2. For Venezuela, the drama will only intensify in Miami, where there will be a significant Venezuelan contingent traveling to support its country. The Venezuelan fans, who already have had a strong showing in Canada this week, likely will be quite vocal -- about baseball and about politics.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is not well-liked among many Venezuelans living abroad, as evidenced this week when the crowd in Toronto turned on Victoria Mata, the country's sports minister, who was booed mercilessly when throwing out the first pitch. Magglio Ordonez, an ardent Chavez supporter, was booed in every at-bat. And then there's Endy Chavez, who has the misfortune of sharing a surname with his president and for years has been furnished with his very own chant: "Endy, si! Chavez, no!"
"It's going to be crazy," Sojo said of the atmosphere in South Florida. "This is baseball; I'm not worried about political stuff. I just want my players to perform and do good."
A senior Major League Baseball official said that tournament organizers are expecting a potentially hostile crowd in Miami this weekend. And that's not the only drama happening with Team Venezuela. On Wednesday, Sojo informed Venezuela's public-relations representatives with the team that he would not be conducting any interviews with the traveling Venezuelan media that day (although American and Canadian journalists were still free to ask away).
Sojo said the negativity from his country's journalists upset him. He added that there was one column -- later confirmed to be in the newspaper Notitarde -- that called pitching coach Roberto Espinoza a liar and general manager Enrique Brito incompetent.
Part of the controversy stems from Sojo's decision to use Mariners starter Felix Hernandez out of the bullpen in Game 1 against Italy. That left Venezuela down a starter against Team USA the next day in a game the U.S. won 15-6. There were varying reports as to whether Seattle had told Sojo, Brito or both that the team had to throw Hernandez and Carlos Silva on Saturday in Game 1. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik told SI.com this week that the team did not impose any restrictions or guidelines on the use of either pitcher.
Notitarde columnist Fernando Arreaza Ortega opined that there was deception by Team Venezuela's management.
"It was easier to lie, and I dare to think that Sojo was fooled," Arreaza Ortega wrote, "or he invented that story about there being 'restrictions and conditions.'"
Sojo is not the only one who is upset. Many of the players have been fielding phone calls from family back home telling them about the negative press. Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez declined to speak with reporters two nights in a row until a PR representative asked him to come out after he saved Wednesday's game. He said he was angry with the Venezuelan coverage.
"It's very unfortunate that they stick it to us," Rodriguez said. "It's bad; every time you call your people at home, they tell you this guy in the media is ripping you. We need [the media's] support, we don't need them to be against us, and unfortunately we don't have it."
When asked whether he would be speaking to the media again, Rodriguez was noncommittal.
"We'll see; hopefully, they're going to support us or help us out," he said. "I'm not the only one thinking the same way. It's very unfortunate, but it's the truth."
And it's not just Brito and Espinoza who are under fire. The coverage of Sojo has not been kind, with many writers questioning why he is the manager. Venezuela's loss in the second round of the 2006 WBC -- Sojo managed that club, too -- was extremely disappointing. And many in the media wrote that he should not be back.
Sojo was asked whether he felt the media respect him.
"Sometimes they don't," he said. "What can I say? That's the media. If I tell you something and you don't believe me and you call me a liar, what can I say? That's the way you think about me, why should I talk to you? If I'm I liar, you shouldn't talk to me, right?"
It wasn't just Notitarde, either. Several newspapers focused on the Hernandez-Silva situation, taking Sojo, Brito and Espinoza to task.
"I've got to support my GM, and I've got to support my pitching coach," said Sojo, who played 13 years in the majors. "This guy calls him a liar and incompetent. I'm very disappointed because we came over here to do a job, we came over here to win this. I have to support those guys."
The repeated questions from the media about Hernandez and Silva were also part of the reason Sojo imposed his one-day ban.
And so, as Team Venezuela heads to Miami for the second round of the WBC, politics and drama clearly will add to an already fascinating and competitive four-team bracket. Despite its loss Wednesday night, Team USA has been playing well and boasts an entire roster of major leaguers; the Netherlands just pulled off a huge upset and is armed with good pitching; and Puerto Rico is a very balanced team.
As Venezuela builds its momentum -- and with Hernandez slated to start the second game of Round 2 -- it has positioned itself as a very dangerous team. Trying to put aside the politics and drama will be its next challenge. If Wednesday night is any indication, it looks as if that won't be a problem.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.