The Venezuelan Professional Baseball League dates to 1946 and the eight-team league survived another season this winter, despite runaway inflation and oppressive poverty that has strapped all of the teams financially.
The schedule is drawn up as a 63-game round robin, with the eight teams playing one another nine times. There were several cancellations for reasons other than weather, including three days of mourning in early December after Lara players Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo were killed in a car crash caused by roadside bandits.
The regular season started on Oct. 12 and wound up on Dec. 30, with Magallanes in first place at 33-25 and Caribes in sixth place at 27-29. Magallanes had the league’s MVP in Delmon Young, who hit 17 home runs, and Caribes had the MVP runner-up in the Twins’ Willians Astudillo.
Six teams make the playoffs and Magallanes and Caribes played in the first round. The series was tied at two wins apiece, and Game 5 was tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth.
Astudillo came up to face Magallanes’ Deolis Guerra. You remember Deolis as one of the pitchers that was supposed to make Twins’ fans eventually feel better about the Johan Santana trade to the New York Mets on Feb. 2, 2008.
It didn’t work out that way, as Guerra left the Twins as a minor-league free agent six years later without having pitched a game for Minnesota. He saw brief big-league action elsewhere.
If you are among the Twins loyalists to have become a student of Astudillo’s adventures, you have seen what happened next:
Astudillo took a hack and hit a high drive that was sailing near the left field line. He could have pulled a Carlton Fisk and started waving “stay fair,’’ but instead Wondrous Willians was slightly off-balance, so he just went down to one knee, rested his right arm on top of a bat stuck in the ground, and waited a couple of seconds.
It was a fair and a home run. Astudillo went nuts as he started to circle the bases. His teammates joined in the hysteria, as did the home crowd in Puerto la Cruz, in a stadium named after a great White Sox shortstop, Chico Carrasquel.
Another great Venezuelan and White Sox shortstop, Ozzie Guillen, nicknamed the 2006 Twins the ‘’little piranhas,’’ and he might have gotten the idea from familiarity with Caribes – Spanish for that type of feisty fish – in his country’s winter league.
Caribes was able to protect that lead in the ninth, and then two nights later, it held a 7-4 lead going into the ninth at Magallanes’ stadium in Valencia. Stu Cliburn, the pitching coach for the Twins’ Class AAA Rochester team, also had that job for Magallanes and had a suspicion what might happen when Astudillo came to bat in that half-inning.
“Willians had a couple of hits and had driven in two runs,’’ Cliburn said. “Plus, there were some players who weren’t happy about the way he watched the home run, and then the celebration, in the previous game.
“Pedro Rodriguez was our pitcher – a good reliever for us, but he wa steamed. And he stuck a fastball in Willians’ ribs.’’
Allegedly, there was also a fastball thrown at Astudillo’s head. Asked about it when he arrived in Twins’ camp late last week, Astudillo nodded “yes,’’ and made the motion of a pitch going past his head.
“I don’t think so,'' Cliburn said. “Rodriguez just hit him in the side and Willians went to first base.’’
Caribes won the game and the series to advance to the second round. But wait – with only three winners, another team was required for the semifinals, so Magallanes hosted a wild-card game vs. Aragua, another series loser. Magallanes won and also advanced to the second round.
Magallanes then lost to Lara and Caribes lost to Caracas. Astudillo was drafted by Lara and that team – the one that had lost Valbuena and Castillo in the December tragedy – won the Venezuelan championship.
Cliburn was asked for a scouting report on our old friend Delmon Young, now 33, after watching him for three months.
“He was strictly a DH, but he was driving the ball,’’ Cliburn said. “There are a lot of scouts there from Korea and Japan. I think he was hoping to get a job over there. Korea’s his best chance, I’d guess.’’