Two men were on and two were out at Wrigley Field when Cubs catcher Henry Blanco and his .146 batting average stepped to the plate Saturday as the potential winning run in the ninth inning, his team trailing the White Sox 5-3.
The most concerned Sox fan in the ballpark might have been Ozzie Guillen Jr.
According to Guillen Jr., the 20-year-old son of the Sox manager who hails from Venezuela, Blanco is to winter-ball catchers what Mike Piazza is to the major-league variety.
"Henry's the man back home in Venezuela," Guillen Jr. said of the captain of the Caracas Lions. "People wouldn't know it here, but he's huge, like a rock star."
Cubs fans were not chanting Blanco's name or demanding an encore after his final at-bat against the Sox.
Blanco grounded into a fielder's choice against closer Dustin Hermanson, ending a day that would be celebrated in Venezuelan sports bars with satellite television no matter the outcome.
"They're watching at home or keeping track on the Internet, no doubt about it," said Sox pitcher Freddy Garcia, a Caracas native. "It's a big deal back there."
A Garcia-vs.-Carlos Zambrano matchup might have been big enough to declare a baseball holiday in the South American country of 25 million where the sport is similar in some circles to a religion.
But Garcia started and won Friday, setting the stage for Zambrano to make it two Venezuelan pitching victories in a row.
An hour before the first pitch, Ozzie Guillen sought out Zambrano near the batting cage for an embrace and some private words in their native tongue. The body language made the message easy to interpret.
There would be no real losers, no matter what the box score might say. Not to Guillen and Zambrano, whose country ties bind them tight enough that no intracity rivalry can divide them.
"Ozzie and I are friends, but they have to do their job and I have to do my job," a disappointed Zambrano said after he threw seven innings of one-hit ball. "It's important we're both from Venezuela but you still want to make him lose."
Leaning on the Sox dugout before the game, Guillen Jr. used the word family in explaining the line between camaraderie and competition walked by his countrymen in the majors.
"In the off-season, my dad has these great dinner parties and a lot of the Venezuelan players come over: Bobby Abreu, Freddy [Garcia], [Ugueth] Urbina," Guillen Jr. said. "These guys started playing when my dad was still playing. So he's close with a lot of the Venezuelan guys in the majors, and that includes Carlos."
Ties that bind
Wearing a black White Sox warm-up jersey, Guillen Jr. displayed a yellow bracelet wrapped around his wrist to make his point. The rubber bangle depicted the Venezuelan flag, complete with seven stars representing the provinces that supported the country's independence in 1830.
It was the same bracelet Zambrano had on after the game at his postgame news conference.
"We want him to win every startexcept against us," Guillen Jr. said. "We support him like we do all the players from Venezuela over here."
That support may have waned recently for former Sox star Magglio Ordonez after a public war of words, but that's another story. This one explores the Chicago branch of the fraternity of 66 Venezuelan players who saw action in the major leagues last season.
So close are some major-leaguers from the South American nation that it was Ibis Guillen, Ozzie's wife, who first reached Detroit Tigers reliever Urbina on the phone last fall to inform him his mother had been kidnapped in Caracas. Urbina also is Ozzie Jr.'s godfather, but not the true godfather of Venezuelan baseball.
That would be former White Sox shortstop Chico Carrasquel, the third Venezuelan to play in the major leagues back in 1949, who still lives in Caracas. Failing health requires the 77-year-old Carrasquel to receive dialysis treatments three days a week, but his shadow still looms large over the players who followed the path he blazed.
"It was an honor to meet him and Luis [Aparicio]," Garcia said of another great Sox shortstop. "They helped open the door."
It can be a doorway out of danger. Horror stories such as the time Aparicio's daughter was shot during a carjacking in 2001 and injured badly enough that she died three years later create the perception of a crime-torn country. Tales such as the kidnapping of Urbina's mother make it seem closer to reality.
But locals love their baseball, so much so that Ordonez once coaxed two would-be carjackers into not robbing him by telling them who he was.
Game unites country
Baseball rules in Venezuela as dominantly as its heavy-handed government, unlike much of the rest of South America. Oil workers from the United States lured to the country in 1920s to drill for lucrative low-grade crude near Lake Maracaibo introduced the sport and eventually it grew into a national pastime.
Here, the game is the same but the culture often leaves transplants such as Zambrano seeking the comforts of home.
During a day off Thursday, for instance, Zambrano visited the Caracas Grill on North Clark Street where manager Maria Guirados says the Cubs pitcher is a regular. Zambrano showed up Thursday for a plate of pabellon (shredded beef, beans and rice) and glass of papelon (sugar cane lemonade).
"When he's here, he's just another guy from Venezuela," Guirados said.
The kind popping up in American dugouts more than ever.
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