CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — For years, Venezuela's baseball stadiums served as a sporting sanctuary where fans of all classes and political backgrounds set aside their differences to watch some of the nation's top major league players and forget about their mounting hardships.
But now, as the country's crisis deepens to unprecedented levels, some are beginning to wonder whether it's time to at least temporarily hang up the national pastime.
It's not going to happen.
Vice President Tareck El Aissami put an end to weeks of speculation by announcing Tuesday that the government had taken almost $10 million from the nation's fast-depleting foreign currency reserves to subsidize the winter league and help teams import foreign players that have been a staple since Pete Rose played for the Caracas Lions in the 1960s.
"The baseball season is guaranteed," said El Aissami, who added that he was acting on direct orders from President Nicolas Maduro to provide the league with the same level of funding it received last year. "Let it be a high quality spectacle."
In the past, such last-minute announcements were a cause of relief among the many hard-core fans of the eight professional teams in Venezuela. But after months of paralyzing protests against Maduro that left more than 120 people dead and hundreds more injured or jailed, few seem in the mood to celebrate.
Former New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Alfredo Pedrigue, who coached the Lions last season, in June called for the season to be scrapped out of respect for Venezuelans who "gave their life for liberty." Several other current Venezuelan major leaguers, including Detroit Tigers all-star Miguel Cabrera, have broken their traditional silence about wading into politics back home and criticized the situation in the country in well-publicized videos.
"After so many deaths, and so many shortages of medicine and food, it's embarrassing that the government says there's money to play baseball," 46-year-old Carmen Vargas said as she ironed clothes at her home in Caracas.
Venezuela's once highly-competitive baseball league has been in decline for years.
Attendance has fallen as triple-digit inflation has raised the price of tickets and beer, and some fans stay home for fear of getting assaulted returning home late from the stadium.
While many Venezuelan players in the U.S. return home for a few games each season, major league teams have shut down all their academies in the country and no longer send as many young prospects to face the pressure of batting and pitching in front of a roaring crowd. Indeed, one of the big questions surrounding this year's league is whether teams will be able to fill their quota of recruiting up to eight foreign players, which in the past was never an issue.
The best argument for playing ball may have nothing do with the sport at all: preserving jobs.
Reflecting the high levels of political violence and economic turmoil, Venezuela in June lost the right to host the 2018 Caribbean Series baseball tournament bringing together the best winter league teams from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
Jose Herrera, the vice president of Tiburones, or Sharks, from the city of La Guaira outside Caracas, said teams this year are making a super-human effort to make sure the season, which is set to begin in October, isn't disrupted. He compared the potential loss of baseball to the closure of all the nation's cinemas, or hair salons — something the country can scarcely afford amid a recession that has seen the economy shrink by more than 35 percent since 2014.
"It's not easy, there will be lots of sacrifices," Herrera said in a statement without saying how teams will tighten their belt. "But we want to fulfill our duty of keeping alive an economic activity on which 5,000 Venezuelan families depend."