If it wasn’t for an injury, Hugo Chavez might have pitched at Yankee Stadium instead of becoming Venezuela’s divisive and often derided president.
Chavez, who died Tuesday after a year-long battle with cancer at age 58, made no attempt to hide his passion for America’s pastime despite his acrimonious relationship with America itself.
In a 2009 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Chavez said he joined the military at age 17 to play baseball, but an injury cut short his career.
“It was my dream,” Chavez said, according to SB Nation. “I would have preferred, personally, to do that. However, things do not decide what they are going to do. … I became a soldier, then Venezuela just shattered — but I am still the young baseball player who wanted to play in the Yankee Stadium.”
Chavez’s upbringing was modest, living with his grandmother because his parents struggled with seven children.
He enrolled in military school and played baseball, idolizing a Isaías (Látigo) Chávez, who was also a pitcher but who wasn’t related.
Chavez is said to have dreamed of playing for the San Francisco Giants.
He often called the Venezuelan national team manager, Luis Sojo, to discuss tactics with the team playing at the World Baseball Classic tournament.
"He was a man of baseball," Sojo told the Miami Herald ahead of a game Tuesday night. "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.”
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The team asked for a moment of silence before the game, but was apparently denied by tournament organizers. Flags flew at half-staff for a short period before Venezuela’s exhibition game against the Miami Marlins, but were flying at full-staff when the game began.
The players were told “to concentrate on sports and leave the political stuff out.”
It wasn’t just baseball, either. He instituted several measures to encourage participation in sports, The Economist said.
Chavez spent $800 million on stadiums for the Copa America soccer tournament, established a sports ministry and required companies to give employees 90 minutes per week to exercise.
One percent of profit from Venezuela’s most successful companies goes to a sports fund. Yet, baseball was his favorite.
In one of his final public remarks before traveling to Cuba for cancer treatment, Chavez rejoiced at the Venezuelan contingent at the 2012 World Series.
Nine players between the San Fran Giants and Detroit Tigers hailed from the South American country, even suggesting that President Obama might have to relinquish control of the Fall Classic.
"What would the major leagues do if Venezuela didn't exist? They'd get bored," Chavez said, The Associated Press reported.
"I think the next World Series, Obama, you're going to have to play it here in Venezuela, because it's Venezuelans all over the place."
Yet, he tried to ally himself with Obama when it came to baseball’s removal from the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee removed baseball and softball from the 2012 London Olympics, and Chavez said leaders from across the Americas should unite to have baseball returned to the Summer Games.
"Let's go Obama, together," Chavez said. "Alliances can be made, Fidel (Castro), Raul (Castro), Obama and Chavez to fight for baseball and softball."
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