As the manager of Venezuela’s World Baseball Classic team, former major leaguer Luis Sojo got to know late president Hugo Chavez well over the years.
“He was a man of baseball,” Sojo said a couple of hours before his team faced the Marlins in an exhibition game at Roger Dean Stadium. “He was always aware of the team and who was on it. He was the first call I got in the morning during the tournaments in 2006 and 2009. He lived for baseball.
“It’s always sad when someone dies. He was a human being, a president, a man who battled a lot for his life. He asked his family for peace. We’re in a tough situation in our country right now. God has [Chavez] now.”
The Venezuelan national team, which lost to the Marlins 6-5 on Tuesday and will play the Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon before heading to Puerto Rico for WBC tournament pool play, requested a moment of silence and that the country’s flag be placed at half staff before Tuesday’s game in honor of their late president.
But after consulting with Major League Baseball officials, a Marlins spokesman said a joint decision was made not to do so because “there wasn’t enough time to honor the request.” The Venezuelan national flag stood at half staff for several minutes while the team took batting practice Tuesday. But the flag was eventually returned to full staff.
A spokesman for the Venezuelan team told reporters the country’s minister of sports, Hector Rodriguez, relayed the following message to the team before Tuesday’s game: “Please tell the guys to concentrate on sports and leave the political stuff out.”
With a starting lineup featuring seven All-Stars, two Gold Glove winners, the reigning National League Championship Series MVP and a Triple Crown winner, Venezuela provided starter and former Marlins pitcher Carlos Zambrano a quick 3-0 lead in the top of the first.
Miguel Cabrera smashed a two-run double to center field, then scored on Carlos Gonzalez’s single to left field. Marlins starter Wade LeBlanc, who gave up seven hits, two walks and two earned runs in 2 2/3 innings, said of Venezuela: “That’s like a lineup you draw up on [video games].”
After the Marlins rallied with three runs off Rays left-hander Alex Torres in the fifth — including two on a bases-loaded double by Juan Pierre, Venezuela regained the lead in the seventh when Cabrera smashed a two-out, two-run home run to left off Jordan Smith. But down 5-4 entering the ninth, Chris Coghlan came through with his fourth hit of the game before Bryan Petersen tripled home two runs with a shot to left field off Ronald Belisario.
Venezuela, which lost in the semifinals of the WBC in 2009, faces a powerful Dominican Republic team Thursday night in San Juan. The Venezuelans and Dominicans are expected to emerge from Pool C, which also features Puerto Rico and Spain. If Venezuela advances, it would play at Marlins Park next week.
“This group of guys — they want to win,” Sojo said. “They know what to do to get that goal. In our meetings we see guys, it’s all about winning. There’s nothing else. I would say it’s a great team. But on paper it doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to perform on the field.”
Zambrano, who went 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA in 132 1/3 innings last season, gave up two hits with a walk and two strikeouts over two innings. Zambrano, who pitched for Sojo and led his team to the Venezuelan Winter League title, remains a free agent.
“He looks so good right now, he’s in good shape,” Sojo said. “He’s very professional. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to get a contract after the classic.”
Henderson Alvarez, acquired by the Marlins in the November trade with the Blue Jays, pitched a scoreless inning of relief for Venezuela after Zambrano left. Sojo said Alvarez will pitch in relief of Zambrano again in the second game of pool play Saturday in Puerto Rico.
A crowd of 2,719 featuring plenty of Venezuelan supporters were on hand for Tuesday’s exhibition. Sojo expects much larger pro-Venezuelan crowds at Marlins Park should the team advance.
“No doubt,” Sojo said of having a home field advantage in Miami. “It happened in 2009. We played USA in Miami twice. There is a lot of Venezuelans, a lot of Cuban community there and no doubt [the U.S.] would be the visiting team.”