CARACAS, Venezuela -- Luis Valbuena was a teenager who loved playing baseball. He wasn't a shoo-in for catcher but had an enormous advantage in his favor: His brother, Carlos Chourio, worked as a trainer in the Mariners' academy in the small Venezuelan town of Aguirre.
"Luis was not big enough, and at that time, not strong enough," recalled Emilio Carrasquel, coordinator of Seattle's operations in Venezuela.
Aguirre is a town in the middle of this South American country, about 80 miles from the capital, Caracas. A relentless sun beats down for a good part of the year on the nearby mountains and in the valley that passes through the states of Aragua and Carabobo.
But heat is not the only thing you find in abundance in this central swath. You find baseball fields and, most of all, boys longing for the fulfillment of a dream shared by thousands of young Venezuelans: to be the next Luis Aparicio or Miguel Cabrera.
Valbuena was one of those boys. He was born in the remote state of Zulia, in Caja Seca, around 500 miles from Aguirre. But his love for baseball had a key ally: his brother, Carlos. It was through him that Valbuena came to the Mariners' academy and thanks to him that he got noticed.
"He didn't seem to be a natural fit," noted Carrasquel.
But there are perks to having someone in the right place at the right time. And above all, there are advantages to having an academy that develops players in your own country.
Valbuena wanted to stay in Aguirre, and the Mariners' coaching staff wanted to try him in other positions.
"The fact he was a lefty and had a lively bat caught our attention," Carrasquel added. "He was with us for a time and we had the idea to have him field grounders. He wasn't quick enough to be considered a natural infielder, but he caught on and we decided to give him a chance."
Valbuena seized the opportunity. It has been 13 years since he signed. After moving up through the minor leagues, reaching the majors with Seattle and playing for various teams, he is now a third baseman for the Astros. This season, his 19 home runs lead Houston.
"That's the advantage of having an academy in your country," emphasized Carrasquel. "You can watch players for 15 or 30 days, without signing them."
Valbuena, Magglio Ordóñez, even José Altuve and many others who didn't have the profile of future stars, were able to get their start in professional baseball thanks to this system.
More than 20 major league teams had built facilities in the country by 1999. They formed a network that linked small towns such as Aguirre, Ciudad Alianza, Guacara or Bejuma. Each year they rounded up hundreds of youngsters from Venezuela, as well as Central America, Colombia and Caribbean islands like Curacao. It was quite a boom, inspired by a man who immmigrated to Venezuela decades earlier.
FEELING AT HOME
Andrés Reiner was born in Hungary, and at the age of 10 crossed the Atlantic with his parents. He left behind a Europe in ruins from World War II and the Iron Curtain about to close. He also left behind friends, familiar places, customs. He had to learn a new language, live in a country without four distinct seasons, and eat different foods.
Reiner became Venezuelan, a jeweler by trade -- a working man. He also became a baseball man.
For years he traveled the country accompanying MLB scouts and executives, looking for the new David Concepción, Manny Trillo, Bo Díaz, Tony Armas. And the more he learned about the business, the more convinced he became that it needed a new approach.
“Venezuela isn't a little island; it's a huge country," he explained. "We had to change how we scouted for players."
Reiner was also convinced that signing young players and taking them directly to the minor league system wasn't the best idea either. Mothers and fathers often refused to be parted from their sons. And fond memories of their distant home country led many prospects to fizzle.
"Leaving your country is always a cultural shock," said Reiner. "I know, because I myself experienced it. Imagine you are 16 years old and you have to start a career in a new country, far from loved ones, surrounded by unfamiliar customs. It's a shock."
Reiner designed a plan to create a major league academy in Venezuela in order to address that flaw in the system. For almost five years, he tried to convince the Giants, the Pirates and the Astros, but with no success.
But an executive from Houston understood the project's perks.
“Bill Wood was a minor league director and loved the idea," recalled Reiner. "He said to me: 'When I reach a position where I can make decisions, we'll talk.' And in 1988, he was appointed president and general manager."
That's how the first major league academy in Venezuela came to be. It sparked a true revolution in this country's sports.
Other teams took notice and decided to tap into the pipeline. By 1997, there were so many baseball academies, they decided to create a circuit for developing new professionals and the Venezuelan Summer League was born.
BOOM AND DECLINE
In 1998, around 20 Venezuelans were playing in the MLB. In 2014, they numbered almost 100.
In those 16 years, Santana and Félix Hernández won three Cy Young Awards between them; Cabrera won the Triple Crown and was twice named MVP; Ordóñez, Altuve, Cabrera and Carlos González won six batting titles; García, Santana, Hernández and Aníbal Sánchez had the lowest ERA during seven different seasons; and Francisco Rodríguez smashed Bobby Thigpen's saves record.
Ordóñez, Altuve, Valbuena and many others would never have even signed if it weren't for the academies.
But the boom of the schools has dwindled in the past 15 years. Less than a quarter of the original teams still have a presence in the country. The Venezuelan Summer League is down to just four teams: the Phillies, Tigers, Cubs and Rays. A fifth team, the Twins, still has an academy but doesn't participate in the league.
"We are left vulnerable to what's happening in Venezuela, like everyone else," said a member of one of those teams who asked to remain anonymous. "We are also affected by insecurity and scarcity."
The land of Luis Aparicio suffers from the highest inflation rate in the world, at about 100 percent, according to independent economists (the Central Bank of Venezuela hasn't delivered its monthly figures since the end of 2014). The crime rate, especially murders in low-income areas, is among the highest on the planet.
Every day long lines form at supermarkets with people trying to buy basic grocery items, most of which are rationed and scarce. Rigid control over exchange rates makes it hard to buy imported products or even plane tickets. The national government said that all U.S. citizens must have a special visa to enter the country.
With all these factors, the Mariners announced they would move their operations to a new, modern and spacious academy in the Dominican Republic.
Jeff Zduriencik, Seattle's general manager, affirmed in a press release that the decision was made based on sporting and administrative reasons. Kim Ng, vice president for baseball operations with MLB, sent a memo to the 30 clubs asking them to refrain from any declaration that could be politically interpreted by any of the factions clashing in Venezuela.
"Our new facility is very comfortable for the players," acknowledged Carrasquel.
A former member of the Mariners' academy, however, said that the socioeconomic situation did play a role.
"In addition to insecurity," he said, "it became hard to get even the most basic foods. It isn't easy to buy flour in bulk, not to mention the amount of chicken and meat needed to feed 35 players every single day."
An academy participating in the Venezuelan Summer League had to have at least that number of players, served by around 10 coaches, trainers and clubhouse employees. The Mariners' academy created an additional 15 to 20 indirect jobs held by cooks, janitors, groundskeepers and others.
BETWEEN HOPE AND GLOOM
The remaining organizations show no signs of leaving.
"We have always believed in Venezuela," insisted a representative of the Rays who preferred to remain anonymous. "Our operations continue unchanged. We take each day as it comes, like any Venezuelan, but we get used to it.
"We are a low-budget team," he added. "We depend on our minor leagues, the Triple-A franchise and Summer League are equally important. Having an academy here gives you enormous advantages."
Carrasquel agrees. Although he is excited about the new facility in the Dominican, he feels heavy-hearted about having shut down operations in Venezuela, where only talent scouts have remained.
"They were 15 very successful years," he said. "I understand the team's reasons. But when I see the talent that continues to emerge, I think it's a shame we had to leave."
Josman Robles is one of the coaches at the Tigers' academy, which has recently produced major league players like Ángel Nesbitt, Hernán Pérez and Eugenio Suárez. He also stressed Detroit's determination to continue operating in the country.
"The human side is what's most important," he emphasized. "It's something we strive to reinforce at the academies. Yes, we train baseball players, but we also teach discipline, teamwork, responsibility. Those that don't manage to make baseball into a career will be equipped to be good citizens and help build the country in other ways."
Altuve dominated in national championships 10 years ago, but he was only 5-foot-4 and no scout wanted to sign him. The only scout who believed in him was Wolfgang Ramos, and with him, Pablo Torrealba, Omar López and Alfredo Pedrique.
They were all part of the Astros' player development system, and they were able to convince their bosses to give the tiny infielder a chance.
The rest is history. Altuve was signed with a small bonus, and thanks to Houston he was able to prove his worth at the Astros' academy in Guacara. Today, he is the defending major league batting champion and plays second base for the Astros.
He shares a spot in the lineup there with Valbuena. Both began their careers as long shots and in different places, but both are now are stars thanks to the opportunities they received.
The academies that remain in Venezuela hope to take advantage of the decrease in competition to find very talented players at low cost.
"And there is a lot of talent," stressed Carrasquel. "Loads of talent."
Ignacio Serrano is based in Caracas and covers Venezuelan baseball for ESPNDeportes.com