By Giner Garcia and John Manuel
January 31, 2003
The prolonged civil unrest in Venezuela forced the cancellation of the nation's 2002-2003 winter league, but Major League Baseball officials do not expect it to keep any Venezuelans off the field in 2003.
When the American Embassy announced it would close operations in Venezuela on Jan. 20, all the Venezuelans players who had to report to spring training in February had a firm deadline to complete their visa paperwork. However, MLB officials and the 30 organizations worked with the State Department to get players processed.
An MLB spokesman said close to 400 Venezuelan players needed visas, and about 220 were processed. The rest of the players would have to get to the Dominican Republic, where MLB and the State Department have long worked together to get visas for players, to be processed. The additional Dominican visa process was expected to start in mid-February and last into March.
For the Venezuelans who did get their visas on time, it wasn't easy.
“I tried to get my visa by the normal process, but I could not,” said Twins lefthander Johan Santana, who lives in Tovar, a small city about 10 hours from the capital of Caracas. “After that the Minnesota assistant general manager (Bill Smith) called me and told me I could go to the Embassy in January 10th or 16th. I went on the 16th and I got it.”
Some players who live far away from Caracas had problems getting to the embassy. Venezuela's severe political crisis, with a national strike that started Dec. 2, makes it very difficult to get gas, even though the nation is one of the world's top oil producers. The inability of workers to get to the U.S. embassy is what forced it to shut down Jan. 20.
MLB and the embassy worked out a system that gave each organization two days to gets players processed.
“Major League Baseball has been very helpful working with all the clubs and the embassy to make this happen,” said Smith, who coordinates the Twins' Venezuelan academies. “We were able to get our three big league players (Luis Rivas, Juan Rincon and Johan Santana) processed.
“We've got 18 minor leaguers who still need to get their visas, and they're going to have to go the Dominican Republic. It's not ideal, but we appreciate the opportunity. The other option is to leave them there, and nobody wants to do that.”
Smith said the Twins and other organizations were waiting on MLB to set up a similar system in the Dominican. “It's going to be an obvious strain on the Dominican consulate, but MLB has worked very hard for the clubs,” Smith said. “It has really helped to have one unified approach to work on this.”