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Baseball talent flows like oil in Venezuela

Baseball talent flows like oil in Venezuela

MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) On a ragged baseball diamond, its grass tall and infield dirt pockmarked, nearly 200 boys practice for hours every day. Many of them are inspired by the example of Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, who learned the game on this very field.

The baseball school in the poor neighborhood where Cabrera grew up is one of many across Venezuela, a web for training young ballplayers that has made the country an emerging power in Major League Baseball.

A record nine Venezuelans are on the rosters of the Tigers and the San Francisco Giants in this year's World Series. And the players have been giving Venezuelans plenty to cheer about with feats like Pablo Sandoval's three-homer game and Gregor Blanco's diving catches in left field for the Giants.

Baseball has long been Venezuela's top sport and a national passion, producing such greats as Dave Concepcion and Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio. But it has blossomed like never before the past decade and sent ever larger contingents to the major leagues from a large and well-organized system of youth leagues and baseball schools.

On this season's opening-day rosters, the 66 Venezuelans were second only to the 95 from the Dominican Republic for foreign-born players. For the World Series, the nine Venezuelans, nine Dominicans and two Puerto Ricans on the two teams produced a record 20 foreign-born players for the championship, surpassing the previous high of 16.

The Giants have five Venezuelans: Sandoval, Blanco, Marco Scutaro, Jose Mijares and Hector Sanchez. The Tigers have four: Anibal Sanchez, Avisail Garcia, Omar Infante and Cabrera - who this season became the first player since 1967 to win the Triple Crown, leading the majors in in average, home runs and RBIs.

Young fans in Venezuela have been watching the World Series with excitement. Often, they root for hometown heroes, and at the baseball school in Maracay, nearly everyone is behind Cabrera and the Tigers.

Cabrera comes from a family steeped in baseball. His mother, Gregoria, played 12 years on Venezuela's national softball team. Uncle Jose Torres runs the baseball school training kids as young as 3 at David Torres Stadium. The field is named for Torres' late brother, who was Cabrera's first mentor.

``The kids dream of playing in the major leagues, and their parents want to plant their children in this field hoping that seed might become the next Miguel Cabrera,'' Torres said.

One of them is 11-year-old Adriangel Torres, a nephew of the coach and a cousin of Cabrera.

``My dream is also to be a major leaguer and bat like he does,'' Adriangel said. When the boy went to bat, he knocked a ball into the outfield and exclaimed: ``You see! I'm strong like Miguel, too!''

Such enthusiasm among players and their families has created a generation-after-generation baseball culture that for many is a central part of Venezuelans' national identity. In other South American countries, soccer is No. 1. In Venezuela, as in the Caribbean countries of Cuba and the Dominican Republic, baseball is king.

Many believe the sport has been played in Venezuela since before 1900, when some Venezuelans who had studied in the United States apparently brought home balls, bats and gloves. Baseball's popularity grew in the 1920s, promoted by American oil workers who brought along their love of the sport.

In 1939, Alejandro Carrasquel became the first Venezuelan to play in the major leagues, for the Washington Senators. He has been followed by the likes of Aparicio, Chico Carrasquel, Andres Galarraga and Omar Vizquel.

While Venezuelans are proud of the major leaguers, their deepest loyalties lie with the eight teams in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, among them the Leones (Lions), Tigres (Tigers) and Tiburones (Sharks).

Those who have gone off to the major leagues feel the local tug, too. Cabrera, Sandoval and others have come back in the offseason to play at home, even though their better-paying U.S. teams often discourage it because of the chance of injury.

In 2010, Sandoval didn't want to miss the seventh and decisive game in a key series for his local team, the Navegantes, and he flew in at the last minute, rushing by helicopter from Caracas to the city of Valencia. He got a hit, but his team still lost 7-2 to the rival Leones.

Venezuelan games are festive affairs where entire families cheer in team jerseys and hats, and where beer and whisky flow freely in the stands.

The sport is so ingrained in Venezuelan society that it has slipped into the language of daily conversation. People say ``pitch here'' if they want a buddy to kick in some money, or ``you've got a three-two count'' to indicate a person is on the verge of either success or failure.

The fanaticism extends to the country's leagues for children and teenagers, which have thousands of teams with an estimated 130,000 kids from ages 3 to 19. One of the main leagues is called ``Criollitos,'' meaning little Venezuelans.

Dilia Barrios sits in the stands at Maracay, watching her 4-year-old grandson practice. She says the network of youth programs is a ``creation of coaches, of mothers, fathers, grandparents and other relatives of the boys, who for the love of baseball cooperate with money and dedicate a lot of time, without receiving anything, in order to make this something great.''

Many towns have locally run baseball schools, with coaches typically working for little money and parents paying a monthly fee.

The big jump of Venezuelans playing in the U.S. started in the 1990s. The Houston Astros set up a training camp in Venezuela to work with young players, and about a dozen major league teams followed with their own academies.

``From those first academies came players like (pitcher Johan) Santana and many others,'' said Luis Sojo, a former New York Yankee who manages Venezuela's team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

Most of the major league academies have since moved to the Dominican Republic, in part because of the higher costs and crime rates in Venezuela.

Still, four big league academies remain, with ties to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Colorado Rockies and the Detroit Tigers. Venezuela, meanwhile, has its own strengthened baseball schools and academies.

Venezuelan achievements in the major leagues this season go beyond the World Series. In addition to Cabrera's Triple Crown, Felix Hernandez pitched a perfect game for the Seattle Mariners and Santana pitched a no-hitter for the New York Mets. As the Giants triumphed in the National League, hot-hitting Scutaro became the third Venezuelan to be honored as the most valuable player in a major league championship series.

As the World Series began, one Venezuelan TV announcer proclaimed it ``the show of the Venezuelans.''

``I hope this is the first of many times that we're going to see so many Venezuelans in the World Series,'' said Carlos Vivas, a fan of Sandoval's local team. ``There are many great players still waiting for an opportunity.''

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Associated Press writer Ian James contributed to this report.

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Jorge Rueda on Twitter:http://twitter.com/jorgeruedaap

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Who could win the Conn Smythe Trophy?

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Who could win the Conn Smythe Trophy?

The Stanley Cup is not the only trophy that will be awarded at the end of the Stanley Cup Final series between the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights. The Conn Smythe will also be given to the player deemed the most valuable to his team during the playoffs.

Who will that player be?

It's not hard to figure out who the frontrunner is right now. Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't just been the best goalie in the playoffs, he's been the best player with a dominant postseason in which he has posted a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. He has been so dominant, he could win it even if Vegas loses the series.

See the top contenders for the Conn Smythe heading into the Stanley Cup Final here.

The last player from the losing team to win the Conn Smythe was Jean-Sebastian Giguere from the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003.

But what about the Caps?

Alex Ovechkin is the leader of Washington and has been absolutely dominant throughout the postseason. He even scored the series-clinching goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Surprisingly, however, Ovechkin does not lead the team in points through the playoffs. Evgeny Kuznetsov holds that edge with 24 points to Ovechkin's 22.

Will their offensive dominance propel them to win the Cup and the Conn Smythe? Will a different player emerge as the hero of the series?

See the top contenders for the Conn Smythe heading into the Stanley Cup Final here.

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

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Need to Know: A closer look at Alex Smith's contract with the Redskins

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Need to Know: A closer look at Alex Smith's contract with the Redskins

Here is what you need to know on this Saturday, May 26, 17 days before the Washington Redskins start minicamp.  

Note: I am vacationing in the Outer Banks this week. In this space, I’ll be presenting some of the most popular posts of the last few months. I hope you enjoy these “best of” presentations and I’ll see you folks when I get back. 

Contract makes Alex Smith a Redskins for at least three seasons

This post was originally published on March 19. 

When the Redskins traded for Alex Smith on January 30, news also broke that he had agreed to a four-year extension with Washington in addition to the one year left on his contract with the Chiefs. While we got some top-line numbers on the deal, we have gone since then without any details. 

Until now. 

The details show a deal that has a slightly higher cap hit in 2018 than was on his original Chiefs contract and the numbers rise gradually over the life of the deal, which runs through 2022. 

Smith got a $27 million signing bonus and his salaries for 2018 ($13 million) and 2019 ($15 million) also are fully guaranteed at signing making the total $55 million (information via Over the Cap, which got data from a report by Albert Breer). 

But there I another $16 million that is guaranteed for all practical purposes. On the fifth day of the 2019 league year, his 2020 salary of $16 million becomes fully guaranteed. He almost assuredly will get to the point where that money will become guaranteed since the Redskins are not going to cut him after one year having invested $55 million in him. So the total guarantees come to $71 million. 

His 2021 salary is $19 million and it goes up to $21 million in 2022. There have been reports of some incentives available to Smith but since we have no details we’ll set those aside for now. 

The cap hits on the contract are as follows: 

2018: $18.4 million
2019: $20.0 million
2020: $21.4 million
2021: $24.4 million
2022: $26.4 million

The Redskins can realistically move on from Smith after 2020. There would be net cap savings of $13 million in 2021 and $21 million in 2022. 

The first impression of the deal is that the Redskins did not move on from Kirk Cousins because they didn’t want to guarantee a lot of money to a quarterback. The total practical guarantee of $71 million is second only to Cousins’ $82.5 million. It should be noted that Cousins’ deal runs for three years and Smith’s contract is for five. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler