Official disclaimer: tonight’s blog sponsored by Saint Brendan’s Irish Cream Liqueur of Derry, Ireland–my Christmas gift to myself. (Reminder: buy another bottle tomorrow).
Who’s my team? That is the quandary of every traveling or relocated sports fan. All parameters of family, place and local culture are torn asunder and you have to pick a new team. It can be traumatic or fun, depending on how seriously you take things. In Bolivia, when choosing sides in the La Paz soccer (football) derby between Bolivar and The Strongest, I chose the former on the strength of two things: they had cooler blue-and-white uniforms, and “The Strongest” is a dumb name for a team based in a Spanish-speaking country. When I started to follow English soccer (football) in the mid-1990’s, I chose Newcastle United. Why? Well, every English team has a sponsor on their jersey, and Newcastle’s at least was the local brewery who made Newcastle Brown Ale, a favorite of mine. When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in twenty years ago, I simply had to choose the Oakland A’s over the San Francisco Giants, obviously, because I lived in the EAST BAY, dude, and you had to wear that red-headed-stepchild badge with courage, man.
Before traveling to Venezuela, I gave the matter small consideration. Not deep thought, mind you. But upon arrival, and conversing with fans and other people, it struck me—they wanted me to choose a side. I’d ask them, “who’s your team?” and after they answered, they would ask me the same question!
So I started to think about it some more, on various bus rides and the like. Most people I talked to liked Magallanes, or Los Navagantes (technically translated, Magellan’s Navigators—what a name for a baseball team!). Even President Chavez is apparently an unapologetic Magallanes supporter. I can’t just jump in with the most popular team, though. It wouldn’t be my style. Like putting up a Cheryl Tiegs poster on your locker in high school—how freaking commonplace!
In the capital, of course, many people like the city team, Caracas. Los Leones—the Lions. I could go for that—hey, Tony Armas is a coach, and they’ve had players like Andres Galarraga, Omar Vizquel, and quite a few others. But I’m told by my friend, a local expert (and Magallanes fan) that the Caraquenos are real assholes—stuck up idiots, just like Yankees fans in New York (when he lived there, he cheered for the Mets). I cannot root for the Yankees of Venezuela—off the list.
I finally decide—there are only eight teams and this column could get long-winded and boring, if it hasn’t already. God Bless You Saint Brendan and your creamy elixir of milky whiskey!
My team is Los Tiburones of La Guaira (pronounced, La Why-Rah). The Sharks are the team closest to Caracas after Los Leones, and even share their stadium. Port cities like La Guaira have a certain gritty charm. But what the Tiburones have, in addition to a cool name and true grit, is a history of cool players. Here, Luis Aparicio played most of his winter ball when on leave from the White Sox, Orioles, and Red Sox. Here’s where Ozzie Guillen got his start, before eventually graduating to the Padres and White Sox. But, coolest of all, here’s where The Spaceman, Bill Lee, found second life after being blackballed out of Major League Baseball. Lee recounts in his memoir of arriving in Caracas and nearly passing out from the heat as soon as he stepped off the plane—surely something I can relate to. Lee is a one-off, a left-of-center character who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks of him—same as Ozzie Guillen.
So the cool factor wins me over to the Sharks, who have also been league champions seven times since their founding in 1962 (their first manager, naturally, was named Casanova). Other cool expats to don the Tiburones red-and-blue jersey: Luis Tiant, one of the great Cuban pitchers ever, and a cohort of Lee’s with the 70’s-era Red Sox; Rollie Fingers, possessor of the coolest handlebar mustache in the history of sport; and wild child Darryl Strawberry, who hit the longest home run in the history of Estadio Universitario in Caracas—some fans say it reached the Colombian border.
Lefties, wild-men, mustachioed bandoliers, runaway Cubans—the Sharks are *my* freaking team. When you’re a Shark, you’re a Shark all the way, and when I land at JFK Airport a week later, I’m wearing their colors. The customs dude, likely a Dominican, looks at me and goes, “La Guaira, huh?” And I say, yeah, that’s my team.