FORT MYERS, FLA. – Bill Smith was in charge of setting up a training academy for the Twins that opened in Bejuma, Venezuela, in 1995. There was a clubhouse and dormitory added in 2000.
This helped put the Twins in better stead in competing for teenage baseball talent in Venezuela than then was the case in the Dominican Republic.
Hugo Chavez had once tried to lead a military coup in Venezuela. Then, in 1998, he was elected as president, and brought a Communist autocracy to the country. Eventually, the economy collapsed and Venezuela became a more dangerous place.
Kidnapping became an industry. Major league players had to worry about family members back home. Then-Washington catcher Wilson Ramos, a former Twins top prospect, was kidnapped and found three days later in November 2011.
Amid the chaos, major league teams began to abandon Venezuelan facilities. The Twins were the last team to vacate, formally departing Bejuma at the end of 2016.
Fred Guerrero, the Twins’ Latin American scouting coordinator, said: “The ballpark is still in use in Bejuma. There are tryouts there for talented young players. There are good baseball people to recommend players.”
Those people used to be called “bird dog scouts” — trusted observers of the game in selected areas. “We’ll have a couple of scouts look at the player,” Guerrero said.
Here’s what is amazing: Teenage Venezuelans of interest are now sent to Cartagena, Colombia, for full evaluation — meaning, the land of Pablo Escobar is now seen as a more stable environment for baseball camps than exists in Venezuela.
Once a Venezuelan player is signed, the goal is to send him from Cartagena to a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic — such as the outstanding facility that the Twins and Phillies opened a year ago.
Why the detour to Cartagena? Travel between Venezuela and Colombia is routine. Visas and other paperwork are required for a baseball team to employ a 16-year-old in the Dominican.
“There are still many players in Venezuela,” Guerrero said. “Finding them, signing them and eventually getting them to Fort Myers — to start the climb to the majors — is more complicated.”
Deep thoughts from the Fort:
• Prediction: If Miguel Sano avoids suspension from MLB for #metoo accusation made by a photographer, he will be on disabled list when season starts.
• Nick Burdi, J.T. Chargois and Jake Reed were the future of Twins bullpen three years ago. Burdi and Chargois are gone; Reed will be in Class AAA Rochester.
• Ryan Pressly, 29, could lose out to Alan Busenitz for a bullpen spot. Pressly is another live arm another MLB team would jump on.