Spotlight On The Venezuelan Winter League’s French Connection

Yoimer Camacho, starter extraordinaire in France, is a set-up man in Caracas (Credit: B. Hauger)

The latest COVID-19 lockdown put an inglorious end to what had already been French baseball’s most frustrating year. And with Old Man Winter arriving in the coming days, the already trop long hiatus (groan!) will drag on for at least the next couple of months.

But in a galaxy not that far far away, in a place where the palm fronds sway in the warm Caribbean breeze, baseball season is just heating up. We’re talking about Venezuela and its LVPB — the Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional — an eight-team pro league with a proud tradition, tons of talent and, interestingly enough, quite a few connections to France.

Truth be told, these are not exactly the best of times for Venezuelan beisbol. Like everything else in the troubled, South American nation, the LVPB is suffering the ill effects of the Bolivarian Republic’s prolonged economic and political crisis.

Rather than kick off in October, as it used to, play didn’t begin this year until late November. Complicating matters was last year’s MLB announcement — on orders from the Trump administration — barring contracted players (including Venezuelan nationals) from participating in the LVBP.

The ban has since been lifted (for six of the league’s eight teams), but now, of course, the Venezuelan Winter League, as it’s also known, is struggling with a whole new challenge: the coronavirus pandemic.

All that aside, the nearly 75-year-old LVBP remains a national treasure. And for players like Ivan Acuña, who was born and raised in Venezuela but now stars for the Lions of Savigny-sur-Orge, just outside of Paris, it’s still a baseball Promised Land.

“For me and anyone else who’s from there, it’s like making it to the Major League in your country. That’s the best way to express it. It’s a dream come true, because it’s really tough to make it. Very very hard,” the 25-year-old catcher told Le Baseblog in a recent phone conversation.

‘Christmas and baseball’

Acuña’s chance to join the Venezuelan big league came last winter, when he earned a roster post with the Bravos, on the island of Margarita. As a backup catcher, he only appeared in 18 games, batting .216 with eight hits in 37 at-bats.

“It’s humbling,” he said of his experience in the Venezuelan Winter League. Keep in mind that just a few months before, in his first season in France’s semi-pro D1 league, Acuña hit a scorching .409, tops among players with at least 100 at-bats.

Acuña has found a home for himself in France’s D1 (Credit: B. Witte)

But playing in the LVBP was also the thrill of a lifetime for the versatile position player, who before moving to France, spent several year studying and playing ball in the United States.

“I enjoyed every minute of it,” Acuña added. “My whole family was going crazy. My wife was very excited. My parents — they’re in the U.S. — but they were watching every single game they could even though they knew I was a backup catcher.”

The Savigny player says he’d text his parents before games to warn them when he wasn’t slotted to play. They’d watch regardless, and in fact, Acuña explained, they’d probably have watched even if he weren’t in the league at all.

“Because, you know, it’s a cultural thing. It’s a traditional thing in Venezuela,” he said. “Once you get to November, December, it’s Christmas and baseball!”

A trio of Rouen alums

Acuña, who’s now living in France full time, didn’t return to the Venezuelan Winter League this season, in part because of all the COVID uncertainty. But there are a handful of other “French” players making their mark right now in the LVBP.

Kender Villegas, a former Toronto Blue Jays prospect who pitched for the perennial D1 champion Rouen Huskies in 2018 (8-0, 1.38 ERA), is back for his fourth straight season with the Bravos de Margarita. And power pitcher Yoimer Camacho, who joined the Huskies for their 2019 title run, currently plays for the Leones del Caracas.

As Rouen’s number-one starter last year, Camacho was lights out in his first D1 season, going a ridiculous 14-0 with a .073 ERA. With the Leones he plays a much different role: He’s their set-up reliever, used late in games, but successfully so. Right now he has a 2.31 ERA in 10 appearances.

Former Husky Junior Sosa is a hot hitter no matter the continent (Credit: B. Witte)

A third Rouen alum making a splash in Venezuela this season is outfielder Junior Sosa. Like so many of the Venezuelans who find their way to France, the Caracas native was a big fish in the D1’s relatively small baseball pond, hitting .390 with seven homeruns (tied for first in the league) and 31 RBIs (tied for second). But Sosa is also holding his own this season as a member of LVBP’s Tiburones de la Guaira. Right now he’s batting an impressive .362, with 17 hits in 14 games.

Back in the day

This is Sosa’s third stint with the Tiburones, a team, interestingly enough, that once featured an even bigger name in French baseball — albeit more than 35 years ago!

Bruce Bochy is best known for his tenure as skipper of the San Francisco Giants, winning three World Series titles in a span of just six years (2010, 2012, 2014). More recently, to the surprise of just about everyone in the baseball world, the French-born MLB legend agreed to manage Team France.

MLB fans may remember too that before he became a coach, Bochy was a player — with the Houston Astros, New York Mets and, in the mid 1980s, with the San Diego Padres. Less well known is that the major league catcher-turned-manger also played a few seasons in Venezuela, first with the Cardenales de Lara and later, in the winters of 1982-1983 and 1983-1984, as a member of the Tiburones.

Bochy’s numbers weren’t spectacular. With the Cardenales he batted just .203 in 21 games. He did a bit better in Guaira, batting .234 and .271 in his two seasons there. But either way, his winters down in Venezuela made for plenty of good memories.

Like Acuña, Bochy was also a backup catcher, and this past March, the two had a chance to meet and chat it up a bit. The occasion was an ill-fated qualifier tournament, in Tucson, Arizona, for the next World Baseball Classic (WBC). The pre-tournament training sessions were Bochy’s first as skipper of Les Bleus, and Acuña was one of 28 players selected for the team.

The prodigal son: Bochy, born in France, agreed last year to coach Les Bleus.

Sadly, the pandemic forced organizers to suspend the event on the eve of Team France’s opener, against Germany. In the days before that, however, the players at least had a chance to soak up some of Bochy’s infinite baseball wisdom. And for Acuña, it was also an opportunity to swap stories about the LVBP.

So what does Bochy remember from his time, all those years ago, in Venezuela? La cerveza, for one thing. “There was a kind of beer — with a white bear on the label,” the skipper, digging into the recesses of his memory, told Acuña.

Turns out the brand, Cerveza Polar, still exists, the Savigny star told Le Baseblog. “Yeah, it’s a typical Venezuelan beer,” he said, chuckling out loud.

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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