Venezuela provides the United States with more than oil. It is also a pipeline for top-tier professional baseball talent. The only South American country where baseball is more popular than soccer, Venezuela teems with youths who dream of a career in America's big leagues.
They are as young as 16, and they are being groomed to play baseball far from home. At a baseball academy run by the Tampa Bay Rays that is a two-hour drive from Caracas, drills and routines mimic those of major league teams.
Meet 19-year-old Ismael Antunez, a fleet-footed center fielder and one of the team's top prospects, with an ambitious goal:
"... to be a star in the big leagues.... work hard so I get there," he said.
Recruited from every corner of the country, players get a modest salary, room and board, medical services, counseling on life in the United States, and English classes. There is a nightly curfew, and only one day off per week.
What drives them? Eighteen year-old catcher Omar Narvaez says the possibility of a multi-million-dollar major league contract is appealing, but …
"At least for me, the financial part is not what makes me play baseball," he said. "Obviously money is not a bad thing. But I signed to pursue a dream."
Omar's family lives in a nearby town and shows up regularly to watch him play. His father, Omar Sr., says he would like nothing more than to see his son compete in the United States.
"The best baseball is played in the United States. The best players and coaches are there," he said. "We want him to succeed among the best."
Omar Jr. says he values the support.
"Family matters most. Girlfriends come and go. But the family is always there, in good times and in bad," he said.
This day, the Tampa Bay club competes against a Pittsburg Pirates' farm team. On the field, it is English-only, a rule that extends to arguments with the umpires. The young players hope to follow in the footsteps of Venezuelan-born major league stars like Johan Santana, Bobby Abreu, and Felix Hernandez, all of whom are heroes in Venezuela.
Young baseball players at a Venezuelan sports academy run by the Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay manager, Esteban Gonzalez, a former minor leaguer with the Houston Astros who never reached the big leagues, says his players are all aware that the odds are against them.
"It has been said that for every 100 Venezuelan prospects, only three will reach the big leagues, only one of which will establish himself," he said.
Ismael Antunez says he's not worried.
"I always stay positive. I have gotten this far, and I know I will get there," he said.
And if he does?
"I would help my family and everyone who has supported me," he said.
Late-game heroics give the Tampa Bay club an extra-innings victory. The United States and Venezuela may be estranged diplomatically, but on this field America's national pastime melds perfectly with youthful Venezuelan athleticism and passion.