Zulia is all about the orange–from the burnt orange of the infield dirt at Estadio Luis Aparicio El Grande, to the Mobilnet and Gatorade advertising boards on the outfield fence, to the electric orange shoes of the home-team infield, every shade of anaranjado is represented. The ferris wheel at the fairgrounds behind the big scoreboard is of the same hue, and far off in the distance, across the great inland sea that is Lake Maracaibo, the refinery smokestacks spit an incandescent orange flame through the night.
Here VZbaseball finds pleasant surprises: the tickets are only 110 bolivares, or about $1.10 (if one were to exploit the parallel market). After stepping off the overnight Valencia bus into the oven of Maracaibo, I expect a hot afternoon, but our seats are in the shade, and there’s a cool breeze for most of the game.
And what a game it is.
Jose Pirela, the famed Black Eagle, (Aguila Negra) is a Bunyonesque folk hero in Zulia. Each time he’s announced….damas y caballeros….al tercer base….la aguila negra….Jo-se Pee–reh–lah! The crowd goes wild. He feeds off the attention. The New York Yankees directed Zulia to play him only in the infield, and he can use the practice. He boots one rolling (grounder), snares the next one-hopper deftly, double-clutches on a potential double-play ball, and saves his life by stabbing a liner that would have otherwise decapitated him. Hot corner, dude: are you ready to take over for A-Rod?
It’s a nice pitching duel between two crafty lefthanders, Robert Zarate of Aragua and Alex Torres for the Eagles. Three runners are picked off first. Come on, man. (Both leave in the fifth inning, Zarate still with a 0.00 ERA on the year, and a parade of subsequent relievers bring the final total to 15 pitchers.)
Freddy Galvis of Philadelphia Phillies phame is the Aguilas spring-loaded shortstop, a guy who just looks like an athlete. They call him “the Turk from Punto Fijo,” a rather ugly industrial port on the Paraguana peninsula, the northernmost point in Venezuela. The Turk is a smooth criminal in the field, robbing Aragua of some hits, and steals a run when Yangervis “maybe I am nervous” bobbles a rolling and Freddy never stops running from second, arriving home in a cloud of burnt orange.
This is the most fun game, for sure, I´ve attended. The gaita of Maracaibo dominates the sound system, its scratching, insistent rhythm proviking a hilarious dance routine from a barrel chested (to be kind) Maracucho in the next section. By the eighth inning, he’s taken his shirt off and thrown it to his neighbors. Thankfully, they return it.
Agui, the eagle mascot, is similarly loud and proud, a true representative of the city with his zaftig avian figure. He does a lascivious bump-and-grind routine to Joe Cocker’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On”–who knew that eagles wore thongs? I don’t want to know where he got that. Agui also officiates a sack race between innings.
In the top of the ninth, the Eagles bring in big Diego Moreno to close out a 2-1 lead. He strikes out pinch-hitter Eduardo Escobar, but Yankee prospect Ramon Flores hits the ass off the ball (I believe that´s the technical term) and, Bob’s your uncle, it’s a tie ballgame.
The Tigers, now fighting for a playoff spot since Luis Sojo’s cruel dismissal on Friday, put another run across in the top of the tenth on a pitch that bounces five feet in front of home plate, the third wild pitch of the game. Despite a rally which ends with Black Eagle Pirela sliding wildly into first base (don’t slide into first, dude!) and spiking his helmet upon making the final out, the Tigres survive a rather wild frame by MLBer Ronald Belisario. Big Ron copies many of the mannerisms of countryman Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, but lacks control (on the mound, at least).
Eight dixie cups of iced beer cost 240 bolivares (more than the two tickets). Another extra-inning thriller, another a capella anthem, well done. I now know most of the words to Gloria al Bravo Pueblo.