There’s an old baseball adage – un dicho, as they say in Spanish – that gets thrown around a lot in places like Cuba and Venezuela: La pelota es redonda pero viene en caja cuadrada.
The ball is round but comes in a square box. That’s the literal translation. But what the expression really means is that in baseball, anything can happen – a costly wild pitch; a two-out home run; a ninth-inning rally. The outcome is never guaranteed. Expect the unexpected, in other words.
But it’s not just on the field that things take unpredictable twists and turns. Baseball careers can also be full of surprises, especially when new opportunities involve a change not just of cities, but of countries, continents, language…
That’s precisely what happened last year for pitcher Wilce Nieves, the person, incidentally, who taught me the pelota es redonda expression. From his native Venezuela, the 29-year-old righthander boarded a plane and made his way, sight unseen, to La Rochelle, on the French coast.
It was a leap of faith, but one that paid dividends for all parties involved. And in the coming weeks, Nieves will be making the trip all over again, much to the delight of his coaches and teammates on the Boucaniers, who finished sixth last season in France’s 11-team D1 league.
“The goal is to win, and to give La Rochelle a championship,” he says. “That’s the goal. That was the goal [last year] too. It didn’t happen. But we accomplished a lot of good things as a team, and it’s clear this group can do even better.”
Signed at 17
Nieves hails from the city of San Fernando de Apure, in the Venezuelan interior – tierra llanera, he explains. The plains region. And it was there that he first picked up a bat and ball and where, in his early teens and guided by a cousin, he gained entry into a baseball academy in the much larger city of Maracaibo.
“They had the impression that I could go further in baseball,” Nieves says of the coaches who ran the academy. And they were right, because in 2009, at the age of 17, the young pelotero caught the attention of major league scouts and was offered an opportunity to sign a professional contract with the Chicago White Sox.
“I remember it well,” Nieves recalls. “Not the day I actually signed, but the day they told me they would take me. It started as just a normal day for me. I was at practice, and the scout saw me and said he wanted to see me pitch a bullpen. And then, at the end of the day, he got in touch with my agent and said they wanted to sign me.”
That had been the teenager’s goal, the thing he’d worked so hard to accomplish. And yet, the signing still took him by surprise.
“It was so exciting. It really was,” Nieves explains. “I called my mom and dad. ‘Congratulations, son. You accomplished your goal,’ they told me. ‘De aqui pa’lante el monte es oregano.’”
That was another expression, a common one in the Venezuelan campo, apparently, that Nieves taught me. “From here on out, the mountain is all oregano,” meaning that the hardest part is done; now’s when the fun begins.
Lions and Tigers
The young prospect did have fun. But pro ball also came with a new set of trials and tribulations. With the White Sox, Nieves traveled to the Dominican Republic, where in three seasons of rookie ball he posted an overall record of 12-10.
Nevertheless, he failed to advance to the next level. He never had a chance to play in the minor leagues in the United States, in other words, and in 2012, Nieves was cut from the organization.
The Tampa Bay Rays signed him next, allowing the pitcher to play one more season at the rookie level, this time in Venezuela, but in 2013, they too decided to let him go.
That’s the thing about professional baseball. It’s cutthroat. The competition is rude.
Nieves didn’t want to give up, though, and so he kept grinding. He pitched in the Liga Nacional Bolivariana, a Venezuelan league for non-affiliated players, and in the country’s pro league too, the LVBP, putting in time with a number of different teams, including the Leones del Caracas, where Rouen Huskies ace Yoimer Camacho starred this past season.
Eventually those opportunities dried up as well, and in 2020, having spent a year already without playing, Nieves began wondering if he could perhaps find a team to join in Europe. That’s when he received a welcome message from La Rochelle pitcher and fellow Venezuelan Rayner Oliveres, a former Kansas City Royals prospect who’d played with Nieves on the Caribes de Anzoátegui team in the LVPB.
“When Rayner wrote to see if I’d be interesting in coming to La Rochelle, I just said ‘yes’ right away, without hesitation! Because it’s what I’d wanted,” Nieves recalls. “I’d been thinking for a while about going to Europe – to anywhere: Spain, Italy, France… I wanted to come.”
Back with the Boucaniers
But that plan too came with a serious bump in the road: the COVID pandemic, which brought much of the world to a sudden standstill and ultimately led French baseball’s governing body, the FFBS, to cancel the 2020 season outright.
Suddenly, baseball wasn’t the priority. “Part of me felt really sad at first, because I wanted to play. I’d already spent a year without playing. But then I realized just how serious things were, that [the coronavirus outbreak] was a global thing,” he explains.
“And so from there the objective was just to stay healthy, to be with my parents. I was worried too about my siblings, who are in Peru. But fortunately, everyone was okay – thank God!”
The Boucaniers let Nieves know that the offer to play in France would still be there for the 2021 season, and so early last summer, the Venezuelan finally made the trip over. It was his first time in Europe, and the experience very much lived up to his expectations.
The level of play in the D1 was a bit better, perhaps, than he anticipated. Nieves won some and lost some, finishing with a 6-5 record, an ERA of 3.41, and a team-best 96 strikeouts. He also had a chance to step into the batter’s box a few times, going four-for-nine (.444) with two RBIs and a run scored.
Nieves bonded, he says, with his teammates – despite a language barrier with the French and American players. “Baseball is universal, and so even if it’s just with gestures, you end up understanding each other,” he explains.
Little wonder then that the talented pitcher is thrilled to be returning to the Boucaniers for the 2022 season.
“I really enjoyed myself,” he says of his D1 debut. “I enjoyed every game, every inning that I pitched. I really enjoyed the city too. La Rochelle? It’s amazing. Day or night, La Rochelle is just next-level.”