Sports Don’t Get Much Better Than The Venezuelan Baseball Final
9:58 AM EST on February 1, 2023
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, there was only one local sports team worth a damn. Leones del Caracas are essentially the New York Yankees of Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional (LVBP), minus the annoying fans (fans of other teams might disagree with that last part). Their historical roster of players reads like a who's who of Venezuelan stars: Andrés Galarraga, Bobby Abreu, and Omar Vizquel (huge yikes!) all suited up for Leones. (So did Pete Rose, for that matter.) Based out of the capital and the biggest city in the country, Leones had won 20 league titles since coming into being in 1942. Like the Yankees, Leones were also in a bit of a title drought: Heading into this year's Gran Final for the LVBP crown, Leones hadn't won a title since 2010, and the fans were restless and hopeful for number 21, in equal count.
Standing in Leones' way this season was none other than local rivals Tiburones de La Guaira, the Mets of this situation, if the Mets played in the same stadium as the Yankees. Tiburones were always horrible in my childhood, and they haven't won a title since 1986. (Like I said, the Mets!) Still, though, the coastal team finished third in the regular season, then second in the post-season round robin that sorts out the finalists; Leones finished first, setting up a Gran Final in the capital region. After the two teams split the opening four games of the series, Caracas won Game 5 on Saturday night, thanks to a grand slam from former minor leaguer Gabriel Noriega.
That set up Monday night's Game 6, with Caracas hosting La Guaira with a chance to clinch the title as the nominal home team. It wouldn't be too easy, though, as Tiburones did not go away quietly, twice taking the lead before Caracas tied it at 6-6 in the bottom of the seventh. The next two innings passed without a run, so into extra innings they went, where the 10th was similarly scoreless.
In the bottom of the 11th, Colorado Rockies minor leaguer (and former Detroit Tigers infielder) Harold Castro took a 2-0 pitch and blasted it straight down the right field line. Even Castro didn't know if the ball was going out, standing at home plate while it slowly but surely crept its way just over the wall and just inside the foul pole to give Leones the win, the title, and the first walk-off title-winning home run in Venezuelan baseball history:
If Castro's celebration seems over-the-top, well, it's not; he just won the damn title for a team starved for championships. There's context here, though, and it involves Ronald Acuña Jr. The Atlanta Braves superstar played for Tiburones in the Gran Final, and he celebrated a deep home run in Game 2 with aplomb:
Caracas fans were already pissed at Acuña, thanks to his decision—made in conjunction with the Braves, something Acuña complained about earlier this month—to not play for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic this coming spring. Though he played last season for Atlanta, there's still a lingering worry about the leg injury he suffered in 2021, so skipping the WBC seems like a reasonable choice. The combination of that decision and his celebration, though, sparked an altercation between his family and Caracas fans in the stands:
Acuña eventually pulled out of Game 2 and the series, before announcing his retirement from Venezuelan winter league baseball. Acuña also got into with former Marlins shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who had said the Braves star could not handle the pressure of playing in Venezuela. Acuña went in on him, saying that "when people talk about the best shortstops from Venezuela, nobody mentions you, your numbers don't impress, and now you use my name to be relevant." Jesus, man, don't murder him!
After that incident, the celebrations between the two teams in the Gran Final became more and more outlandish and confrontational. With his series-clinching home run, Castro topped them all, not because of the antics but because of the moment; him launching his helmet at the mound—Tiburones pitcher Johan Belisario was already off the field—and stomping his way to third base was a perfect exclamation point on a contentious series between these two teams.
The drama between them, and especially between the fans and the players, won't end here: With the win, Leones qualified to represent Venezuela in the Serie del Caribe, held every year between the champions of Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Curaçao, and Cuba. This year's Serie is being held in Venezuela, at both the new Caracas stadium and the Estadio Fórum in La Guaira, where Tiburones have played when not sharing the Estadio Universitario in the capital. You can bet that La Guaira fans at any Venezuela games held in the Fórum will have some words for Castro and the rest of the Leones. The question is whether anyone on Caracas will care after lifting the coveted 21st trophy in such cinematic fashion.
Soccer et cetera blogger. Don't ask him to stop saying "Pool Boys," he never will.
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