To view Carlos Daniel Cardenas’ life as a tragedy would be missing the point. It’s not how long you live, but how much.
To live only 20 years, but to fulfil one’s passion–that truly is living. In Carlos Daniel’s name the Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fame was founded in 2002, just eight years after his death from muscular dystrophy.
The entire history of the sport in this Caribbean outpost is covered over three levels and nine rooms, including a dozen life-size lockers containing bric-a-brac from Carrasquel (Alejandro, the first criollo to play in the US) to Cabrera (Miguel, the greatest of them all, in my opinion).
The classy Andres Galarraga portrait gallery highlights all Latino stars, from Cepeda to Carew to Dihigo to….Aparicio. An entire wall panel features a leaping, youthful Omar Vizquel, a baby Leon of Caracas, finishing a double play.
There’s a picture of Carrasquel with Joe DiMaggio just moments before the former’s 1939 debut,
alongside archival snaps of legendary Negro League players who came here before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the US: Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella. The “Black Power” movement of the 1960s and 70s extended to the Magallanes Poder Negro lineup: Dave Parker (one of three players to hit over .400 here), Mitchell Page, Jim Holt.
Pete Rose, after his 1963 Rookie of the Year season, was actually sent to Leones to learn to pivot better on the double play (some 8 ROY honorees have played here before or after their award including Tommy “Agge”; a local journalist lamented last week that this will no longer happen in the mega-salary era.)
So much to learn, so many legends, major and minor: Luis Tiant went 6-0 for Lara one season with 75 strikeouts and Bo Belinsky struck out 156 in 156 innings, still a league record. Bobby Bonds played one so-so season at age 21 in 1986 for Magallanes; Darryl Strawberry’s one and only season as South American home run king came as a Tiburon in 1983.
Vic “Vitico” (‘Little Vic’ was 5´7″, 150 lbs) Davalillo played 30 seasons here; blog fave Luis Sojo 21–all for Lara. Jim Lonborg preceded his 20-win Cy Young season for the ´67 Impossible Dream Bosox with a 1.86 ERA in Venezuela; Elio Chacon, a footnote in Major League history with the Mets and Reds, is considered one of the all-time greats in his homeland.
A replica press box on the museum’s second level features a UPI wire machine and typewriters of various vintage; an ESPN microphone and scattered coffee cups complete the tableau. At the uppermost echelon are the 60+ bronze statuettes of all inductees, bookended by Luis (Aparicio, 2002 inductee; Sojo, 2012). The class of 2013 is yet to be bronzed.
Physical specimens of all types played here, from massive Cecil Fielder, who nearly broke the single-season HR record with 19, to Walt “No Neck” Williams, to little Al Bumbry, who was magnificent over three VZ campaigns. Remarkable individual marks were set by North Americans: John Griffith stole home three times in one 1962 game, and Lew Krausse K’d 21 in a 9-inning game in ’65.
A present-day exhibit shows that even now, players on the MLB margin make an impact here. Mitch Lively was Pitcher of the Year last season, Robinson Chirinos (Texas) tied the round-robin HR mark with 4 and Bob Abreu prepped for his 2014 MLB swan song with a Comeback Player of the Year season in Caracas.
The first baseball “stand” was constructed in Caracas in 1895, a mere seven months after the sport’s introduction. Albert Cherry, an Englishman, umpired the first game and various visitors brought innovations (for example, the Puerto Ricans introduced spiked shoes [go ahead, make a joke] and scorecards).
Introduced and influenced from abroad, beisbol (la pelota) remains an all-consuming national past-time in Venezuela, regardless of regime change. Talk to anyone on the street, in a taxi, in a restaurant, and you’ll find out who they support, immediately (politically and baseball-wise).
The passion remains unabated to this day, and is aptly captured in the life led by Carlos Daniel Cardenas. His old desk and PC are part of the exhibition, but while your heart may catch when you see the empty wheelchair, remember how he lived.
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