Earlier this year, the New York Times christened New York’s Citi Field “Venezuela North,” not because of the suffocating summer heat, but because, at the time, Los Mets had five Venezuelans on the roster. If they all made it to opening day, it would be the largest contingent of Venezuelans in Mets history. They did. Four Venezuelans start for Los Mets today, including pitcher Hugo Chávez.
Inning One: A Tale of Two Latinos
Oops, I meant Venezuelan Johan Santana, one of the best pitchers in the majors. Like Chávez, the Venezuelan president, he’s been having an up-and-down year, but he comes into the game riding a string of 16 scoreless innings.
Puerto Rican Jonathan Sanchez takes the mound for the Giants. He’s having a similar year, but his inconsistency is much more consistent. With Sanchez comes backup Eli Whiteside. Unlike the other Giants in the starting rotation, Sanchez does not switch to Buster Posey, who, it bears repeating, has been as sensational a catcher as a hitter. But Sanchez feels more comfortable with his own southern Sancho Panza, and puts Los Mets down in order.
The Giants rapped out 12 hits last night and scored eight runs. With Freddy Sanchez and Aubrey Huff hitting back-to-back singles off Santana, Posey, playing first base tonight, comes to the plate. He catches up with a 90-mph fastball, hitting it far enough into right field that Santana’s scoreless streak comes to an an end. Giants 1-0.
Inning Two: Navegantes Duel by the Bay
No one wants to say “The Panda is back!” Despite his hits over the past three games, we want to see him get a multiple base hit from the right side. Then we can exhale; then we can say our long night of the “Sandoval slump” is over.
Back home, Sandoval and Santana were teammates on Navegantes Magallanes, one of Venezuela’s most popular teams, and the personal favorite of Hugo Chávez.
Santana throws three consecutive fastballs. Before elbow surgery last year, Santana threw a fastball at 95 mph. Against Sandoval he clocks in at 89 and 90. This “Panda” rarely appears in the same sentence as “patience at the plate,” but Sandoval takes the first two pitches before fouling off a third. If Santana is surprised he doesn’t show it. He throws another fastball and Sandoval, from the right side, hits a double into the gap between right and center. The Panda is back!
But he never makes it back home. Instead, from second he watches his compañero Santana zip nine consecutive strikes past Giant hitters.
Inning Three: Beisbol and the Bolivarian Dream
Unlike San Francisco, where baseball’s popularity has fallen behind ultimate frisbee, in Venezuela there is no other god, not even oil. Some say the U.S. “exported” baseball to Latin America. Others consider it a form of cultural imperialism. Not so, says the self-styled socialist Hugo Chávez. “We in Caracas freed baseball — our Caribbean baseball,” he says, and the Venezuelan variety is “among the best in the world.”
Before Chávez’s Bolivarian dream of a united Latin America, he had a simpler and more prosaic dream. He wanted to be a pitcher for “your” San Francisco Giants. He never made it to Candlestick, but he did throw out the first pitch to open the 1999 Mets’ season in Shea Stadium.
Inning Four: A Different Game
Even though Jonathan Sanchez keeps pace with Johan Santana, he doesn’t look as dominant. A walk and a double tied the game in the third, and now, facing David Wright, Sanchez has trouble locating the strike zone. He finds it, but Wright finds him and delivers the ball into the left-field bleachers. Los Mets have their first lead of the series, 2-1.
Inning Five: They’re Taking Our Jobs
Ever since Omar Minaya took over the reins as Mets GM in 2004, the team has made a big splash in the Latino market by signing big-name free agents Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana, among many others. This year, as in most of Minaya’s years, the Mets lead the league in Latinos on the roster, leading to the very controversial perception that Minaya favors Latinos. Mets management and Mets bloggers dispute this perception, noting that in six years, Minaya has acquired 62 Latinos and 64 non-Latinos. What Mets bloggers don’t seem to realize is that parity itself represents an astounding historic shift.
Twenty years ago, 70 percent of all major leaguers were white. Given their ability, their passion, their hunger and their price, more Latinos are entering, and more will soon be playing, in the “Grandes Ligas.” And once the Cuban embargo lifts, more than the “face” of major league baseball will change.
Inning Seven: Pitching Records
Sanchez leaves after seven innings, having thrown 96 pitches, 66 strikes. Santana finishes seven with 101 pitches, 69 strikes. Both issued just one walk and struck out five.
According to the St. James version of the Baseball Bible, Hugo Chávez is the only pitcher to have struck out both Sammy Sosa and Fidel Castro. An asterisk notes that the umpire issued Castro a walk. Generally a good sport, Chávez noted darkly at the time: “The umpire is the umpire.”
Inning Nine: Justice is Blind
In the bottom half of the ninth inning, the Giants trail 3-1. Santana has been replaced by Venezuelan fastballer Francisco Rodriguez (“K-Rod”). The first Giant to greet him is his countryman Pablo Sandoval. The Panda draws a walk, a feat maybe even more impressive than his double in the first. He moves to second after Uribe singles. Pinch-hitting Travis Ishakawa ties the game with a single to center. Andres Torres doubles, but Ishakawa has to hold at third. The next batter, Freddy Sanchez, hits a bouncing grounder to David Wright at third, who can see Ishakawa heading home. Wright fields the ball cleanly but hurries his throw, leaving it high and wide. Ishakawa easily slides under catcher Henry Blanco (also Venezuelan), and the game is over! Giants win!
What?! Plate umpire Phil Cuzzi calls Ishakawa out. The ballpark explodes. Replay after replay shows Ishakawa safe.
Los Mets get a run in the tenth to win 4-3. Everyone wants to string up the umpire (curiously none more than Henry Blanco),but the Giants take their cue from another Venezuelan who got robbed of a perfect game by a bad call. How do you overcome a disappointing loss like this one? “I don’t think about it,” says Travis Ishakawa. Human error? No big deal if you’re a Panda: it’s just “part of the game.”