CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans are celebrating their homegrown baseball heroes as a record contingent of players from the country heads into the World Series with the Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants.
Nine Venezuelans, including five with the Giants, will feature in the series starting on Wednesday, the most ever.
"It's the first time, but it had to happen one day. All the time there are more and better Venezuelan players in the major leagues," said Alberto Mendoza, who was among dozens of fans at a restaurant in Caracas celebrating the Giants' clinching win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series on Monday night. "Venezuela is a power in baseball."
Fans in Caracas cheered the Giants with shouts and toasting glasses of beer, in large part because the game's star was one of their own, Marco Scutaro, the veteran second baseman who was named the most valuable player of the series.
While the Giants embraced and jumped for joy on the rain-drenched infield, a Venezuelan flag was unfurled and held up by Scutaro's wife as he received his trophy.
Photos of Scutaro celebrating in the downpour were published on the front pages of Venezuelan newspapers. The sports daily Meridiano ran the headline "Venezuela Grows Giant."
Venezuelans playing for the Tigers are led by Triple Crown-winner Miguel Cabrera.
"It's a great year for Venezuela. Our flag is flying high. 2012 is a historic year," said Jose Manuel Blanco, a university student who was wearing a jersey for the Navegantes del Magallanes, the Venezuelan team where Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval plays in the offseason.
He noted that this season Venezuelans have achieved various baseball feats. In addition to Cabrera's stellar batting record, Felix Hernandez pitched a perfect game for the Seattle Mariners and the New York Mets' Johan Santana pitched a no-hitter.
Scutaro is the third Venezuelan to win the most valuable player in a major league championship series, following Jesus "Manny" Trillo of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980 and Eduardo Perez of the Braves in 1999.
Julio Venegas, a woodworker in Caracas, said his favorite team has always been the Yankees but he enjoys watching any major league team when Venezuelans are playing.
"I'd like the Tigers to win," Venegas said, adding that Cabrera deserves to be named the most valuable player of the year.
Many of Venezuela's players in the major leagues dedicate offseason time to their teams in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League. Cabrera plays for the Aragua Tigers, Scutaro for the Caracas Lions and Giants' outfielder Gregor Blanco for the La Guaira Sharks.
Baseball has long been the most popular sport in Venezuela, sharing that passion with other Caribbean countries such as the Dominican Republic and Cuba. While the Dominican Republic boasts the most foreign players in U.S. Major League Baseball, the number of Venezuelan players has doubled since 2000 and this season reached 95, the highest in history.
Rivalries are also strong in the Venezuelan league, with games pitting the Navegantes against the Lions often drawing especially large crowds.
Games feature firework displays, Venezuelan snacks such as arepas — corn cakes filled with meat, chicken or cheese — and plenty of beer and whisky.
As for the World Series, Venezuelans appear divided, with many simply proud to have so many of their own headlining the series.
The Venezuelans playing for the Tigers and the Giants came up through a well-organized system of youth leagues in the country, where major league scouts often identify standouts as soon as they hit their teens.
The big contingent from Venezuela will give young players a motivational boost, said Manuel Suniaga, who played decades ago as a teenager and now sells hot sandwiches from a stand in downtown Caracas.
He said Scutaro's hitting streak has been especially thrilling because it shows that a player who might not have Cabrera's slugging numbers can still pull off a superior performance if he pours in enough spirit.
"The Giants are inspired. In the end that can give them a better chance," said Suniaga, adding that he won't miss a single game.
Jorge Rueda can be reached at: http://twitter.com/jorgeruedaap
Ian James can be reached at: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap