- One of my favorite baseball quotes of all time comes from the 1994 Disney movie Little Big League.
- In the film, Minnesota Twins outfielder Lonnie Ritter (Joseph Latimore) tells Lou Collins (Timothy Busfield) his thoughts on the team’s new 12-year-old kid manager…
- Lonnie Ritter:
“Kids today are amazing. I played winterball down in Venezuela, they had kids half his age, every one of them speaking Spanish. And that’s a hard language.”
- Lou Collins:
“They speak Spanish in Venezuela.”
- Lonnie Ritter:
“I know! That’s my point!”
- In my 12 seasons playing professional baseball, I never played winterball, until now. I always heard it was lots of fun, but also heard it was challenging. I wasn’t even sure if I was up to the task. I mean, I’ve only been out of the country twice in my life. (Canada doesn’t count) And, I don’t speak Spanish. Usually just end up saying “Sí” to every Spanish conversation I encounter.
“Where is winterball?” “When is winterball?” “Why play winterball?”
Winterball is played in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Australia. And the season is usually between early October and February. For some American players, winterball is just a way to make a few bucks. For others, it’s a way to get experience. Many simply want to stay in shape or get in shape for spring training. And then there’s my reason. A job.
After signing a contract with the Aguilas Del Zulia Baseball Team in Maricaibo, I was on a plane to Venezuela! (Well, actually the first flight was to Miami. And then the next one was to Aruba.) But then! I was on a plane to Venezuela!
Venezuela is nestled in a very unique spot. It’s 30 minutes behind Eastern Time Zone (ET) and 30 minutes ahead of Central Time Zone (CT). This oddity is responsible for some American players showing up for practice too early and others showing up late. And it wasn’t till I had reached Venezuela that I found out it is in fact NOT an island in the Caribbean. “Allegedly” it’s located in Northern South America. (must have slept through geography class) (sorry Miss Herndon) And “apparently” only a few meters away from the equator.
With not knowing what to expect, I brought skepticism and paranoia along with my luggage. When I arrived at my hotel room, I locked the door and put a chair in front of it. Then spent the better part of 7 hours watching The Bourne Trilogy. (in case something went down, I was gonna be ready) But soon my paranoia was gone. (I was also hungry)
Wherever destination baseball has taken me, I enjoy exploring. Walking the sidewalks in Venezuelan cities (carefully in Caracas), seeing the sights (statue of woman riding a tapir), discovering new food (arepas & cachapas), window shopping. Some teammates had a good laugh, when after an observation, I asked, “Who’s this ‘ABIERTO’ guy? And how does he own every store in this country?”
With the language barrier, it can be difficult to communicate and get information. Once I was ordering tequeños (cheese sticks the size of Pringle cans) from a vendor. I was shaking my head, pointing, grunting; I must’ve appeared like an ape at the zoo. My survey on why every place in Venezuela sold Vanilla Oreos was also a failure. I asked over a dozen locals, “Why are Vanilla Oreos more popular here than regular Oreos?” They all gave me the same answer…”Que?”
If you’ve read my blogs before, you know I love hot dogs. My first in Venezuela was from a street corner food cart on Isla de Margarita. And their version of the perro caliente is glorious! See, after they fix a hot dog with everything you want on it, they top it off with freshly crumpled Venezuelan potato chips! (works on burgers too and ice cream)
On Deck…“Winterball: The Fist Pump”
“Haywood swings and crushes this one toward South America. Tomlinson is gonna need a Visa to catch this one…“