CARACAS, Venezuela — Former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has a word of advice for big leaguers who want to play winter ball in Venezuela: Don’t.
Now guiding the Tiburones in his native country, the first Latino manager to win a World Series says any major leaguer who wants protect himself from getting hurt should avoid taking part.
“If one of these players gets injured, no fan, or no team owner, is going to come and give them the thousands or millions of dollars they’re worth,” Guillen told The Associated Press from the clubhouse before a recent game. “Sincerely, I thank them all for being part of the league. But personally I don’t think any major leaguer should play here.”
Guillen says so many Venezuelan players choose to take the risks because they love the game and the fans back home. Among them are Kansas City Royals Gold Glove shortstop Alcides Escobar, who Guillen is coaching for the Tiburones.
But the hardships on and off field are many. Venezuela is mired in a severe economic crisis, and the league’s eight teams haven’t been spared. Attendance and sponsorship at stadiums are way down and budgets are tight after a collapse in crude prices.
Highways where teams travel are also notoriously perilous. Nobody wants to become the next Wilson Ramos, the Tampa Bay Rays catcher who was abducted in 2011 at gunpoint, so bodyguards are a constant presence in dugouts before games. The skyrocketing crime has led 16 major league teams to shutter their scouting academies in the country in recent years.
Despite the hazards, Guillen, who managed the 2005 Chicago White Sox to the championship, says the level of baseball talent in Venezuela remains robust and notoriously boisterous fans are as enthusiastic as ever.
“This isn’t about money. It’s about passion,” he said. “Do you think Escobar wants to get on a bus at 4 in the morning just for a trip to Puerto La Cruz?”
Guillen hasn’t managed in the majors since the Miami Marlins fired him at the end of the 2012 season — it was his only year at that job, and got off to a rough start when he incensed local fans by saying he admired Cuban leader Fidel Castro because the brutal dictator had managed to stay in power for so long.
Guillen later apologized, but throughout his career he’s struggled with a reputation of speaking a little too freely. In Chicago, he was once fined and ordered to take sensitivity training after using a gay slur to describe a baseball columnist.”
In Venezuela, he managed the Tiburones to the semifinals after years of inconsistent performance only to see its hopes of obtaining its first championship in 30 years dashed when it was eliminated Tuesday by the Cardenales from Lara state.
The 53-year-old Guillen insists his sojourn in Venezuela isn’t about trying to make a climb back into baseball’s mainstream. He says managing the Tiburones, where even at the peak of his career he would play for a few weeks each year, was always something he wanted to do.