Location: Northern South America, bordering the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, between Colombia and Guyana
Size: 353,839 square miles; slightly more than twice the size of California
Population: 26 million
People: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arab, German, African, indigenous people
Language: Spanish, numerous indigenous dialects
Government: Federal republic
Capitol: Caracas (population: 5 million)
Baseball (and other interesting) notes
Most known for: Producing great shortstops; world's most beautiful women; lush mountain scenery; being associated with Simon Bolivar; lots of oil; lots of crime.
Quotable: "In about five years from now and if everything goes like it is now and politics have nothing to do with baseball in Venezuela, the country should be producing players just like [the] Dominican Republic," Andres Reiner, Houston Astros scout.
Famous national anthem verse: "Let's cry out aloud: Down with oppression! Faithful countrymen, your strength, Lies in your unity."
Baseball's Venezuela debut: Introduced by U.S. oil workers in teh 1920s.
Venezuela's baseball hotbeds: Almost all of the country is a baseball hotbed, but particularly near the cities of Caracas (the capitol), Valencia (home of the Venezuela Hall of Fame and numerous MLB academies), Maracaibo (oil territory), Maracay and Barquisimiento.
Approximate number of Venezuelan-born currently signed to MLB organizations: 800.
First Venezuelan-born to play MLB: Alejandro Carrasquel, born in Caracas, debuted with Washington Senators, 1939.
Notable current MLB exports: Miguel Cabrera (Maracay); Bobby Abreu (Aragua); Francisco Rodriguez and Omar Vizquel (Caracas), White Sox manager, first Venezuelan-born skipper in MLB and first to win World Series, Ozzie Guillen (Oculare Del Tuy), known as Oswaldo to Venezuelans, among many others.
Ones to watch in the future: There are many, but here are my picks: pitcher Felix Hernandez and infielder Jose Lopez (Seattle Mariners), pitcher Yusmeiro Perit (New York Mets), infielder Ronny Cedeno (Chicago Cubs), infielder Alex Romero (Minnesota Twins).
Hall of Famer and other greats: Luis Aparicio is the only Venezuelan in the U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame, while Dave Concepcion won four World Series rings with the "Big Red Machine" of the 1970s known as the Cincinnati Reds. Andres Galarraga is another beloved former player. Aparicio, known as "Little Looie," succeeded Alejandro's brother, Chico Carrasquel, as the White Sox's shortstop in 1956 and was American League Rookie of the Year. He spent 18 years in MLB, made 10 All-Star teams and won nine Gold Gloves.
Venezuela's baseball weather: tropical; hot, humid; more moderate in highlands.
Biggest sports competitors: None really, but bullfighting and soccer are also played.
Best baseball museum/most important shrine: Venezuela Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is the best museum I have visited, outside Cooperstown, even better than the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
Only in Venezuela: Did local baseball fans help grow baseball internationally. Venezuelan businessman Jesus Coreo had the idea behind the Interamerica Series, which preceded the Caribbean Series, which was the brainchild of Venezuelans Oscar Prieto and Pablo Morales. ... Do taxi drivers business cards feature the image of a baseball diamond.
Amateur and international competition
Approximate number of Venezuelans playing organized baseball: Unable to quantify.
Amateur highlights: Won the Little League World Series in 1994 and in 2000. Venezuela has won two (professional) Caribbean Series titles.
Biggest international rival: Dominican Republic (mainly in Caribbean Series).
Other important notes: Venezuelans, like Dominicans, can be signed by MLB teams at age 16. The Venezuela Summer League is similar to the Dominican Summer League where players begin participating from 16 years. Unlike in the Dominican, however, not every MLB club has an academy, and there are often "co-op" teams in the league. For example, in the past the Los Angeles Dodgers have been able to put 10 players on a "co-op" team they share in San Joaquin. Little Leaguers in Venezuela start at age 7.
Contact information: Venezuela Baseball Federation
Avenida Urdaneta, Animas a Platanal, Edificio Las Marías, piso 4, Oficina 401, Caracas
Tel: (+58-212) 564 2316; (+58-212) 563 5919
Fax: (+58-212) 563 5919; (+58-212) 564 2316
Venezuela Winter League
Overview: The Venezuela Winter League features a 62-game schedule with eight teams participating and usually begins in October, with the regular season ending in late December. The teams are split into two divisions. The top two teams in each division, plus a wild-card team, meet in a 16-game round robin. The top two finishers meet in best-of-seven series for the league championship, with the winner advancing to the Caribbean Series that also features the best winter-league team in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Mexico. The majority of players participating in the winter league are top-level prospects or fringe major leaguers. The designated hitter is employed. Each Venezuelan team can have seven non-Venezuelan-born players on its regular-season roster. Some teams also feature non-Venezuelan-born managers and coaches. Some teams have "loose" affiliations with major-league clubs if one of the coaches is on the coaching staff of the big-league club. Many of the teams are skippered or have members of its coaching staff with ties to MLB or minor-league clubs. For example, in 2004-2005, Pete Mackanin was on the coaching staff of Maracaibo's Eagles. Later in 2005, he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates following the dismissal of Lloyd McClendon; Phil Regan, a former MLB pitcher who also managed in MLB (1995, Baltimore), was the pitching coach for the Lara Cardinals in 2004-2005, and tried to help John Rocker regain his form before Rocker eventually retired later in 2005.
League Web site: www.lvbp.com.
Teams and the cities that host them: Caracas Lions; Caracas' La Guaira Sharks; Aguirre Pastora (no Web site); Valencia's Navigators; Puerto La Cruz's Oriente Caribes; Maracay's Tigers, hometown of former Red Dave Concepcion; Barquisimiento's Lara Cardinals; Maracaibo's Zulia Eagles.
Minor league: Many other young Venezuelan players play in the "Parallela Liga," a minor league. This is not to be confused with Venezuelan Summer League, similar to the Dominican Summer League, which features about 10 teams. Those games usually take place with little fanfare at the main ballpark of a Major League Baseball Venezuelan Academy such as Aguirre (Mariners); Cagua (Reds); Alizanza City (Red Sox); Tronconero (Mets); Tronconero (Phillies); Twins (Bejuma) and Astros (Valencia), among others.
Most successful franchise: Valencia Magallenes have won two Caribbean Series titles.
Biggest rivalry: Caracas Leones and Valencia Magallenes is like Red Sox-Yankees. It's crazy!
Big-name participants (current/most recent): Bobby Abreu (Caracas Lions); Francisco Rodriguez (La Guaira Sharks); Miguel Cabrera (Maracay Tigers).
Additional famous MLB alums: Roberto Clemente; Pete Rose; Barry Bonds (Valencia); Greg Maddux (Zulia Eagles); Jeff Kent (Lara Cardinals); Ozzie Guillen (La Guaira); many others.
MLB talent-level comparison: Triple-A (on a good day); Double-A (on a bad day).
Free-agent policy: Players sign for one season and trades are few and far between.
Best ballparks: As a group, Venezuela's winter league ballparks are the best venues in Latin America, and almost all overlook a mountain range. They feature grass fields similar to U.S. ballparks. Among the best ballparks is University Stadium in Caracas. If you go to any of ballpark, dress casually, go with a friend and do not wear jewelry or carry a lot of money. In addition to Caracas, Maracay and Puerto La Cruz are great places to enjoy a ballgame.
Ballpark food and drink: A Polar Ice with some arepas (balls of corn dough filled with meat or cheese) or fried plantain strips, parrilla (meat marinated and cooked on a charcoal grill).
Ballpark atmosphere: This isn't Grandma's Night at the ballpark. Be prepared to get wet, especially if you dare sit in the bleachers during a game between the Caracas Lions and Magallenes Navigators, a rivalry equal to Yankees-Red Sox. Whenever a run scores for the home team in this rivalry, beer is tossed into the air. Also be prepared for a beer shower right after the last out. Vendors walk the aisles selling whistles, blow horns and -- lots of beer. Beer is sold out of tubs of ice and it's sometimes tossed at umpires or players who fall into disfavor. Latin music is blasted on the P.A. system not just between innings, but also between at-bats. The atmosphere in one word is raucous. There is no such thing as the sound of silence. Fans sing, whistle, dance and yell obscenities. And they can't stand losing. The fans will let a pitcher or any player know if their performance is not up to par. Venezuelans are some of the most vocal I have ever observed.
Wildest entertainers: Female dancers. Between innings, beautiful Venezuelan women in skin-tight outfits dance for the crowd. Often, there on a stage beyond the outfield fences.
Venezuelan speak: Few public address announcers are more emphatic than the Venezuelans. When a well-known player is introduced in front of his hometown fans, it's done so to fire up the crowd, with particular emphasis on players names ending with "fan" or "fon." In Puerto La Cruz, its hometown boy "Omar Infannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnte!!!!!!!!!!!" In Valencia, its Edgardo Alfonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnso!!!!!!!!
Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com. He has a Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com.