The beginning and the end. The alpha and the omega. Old friends and new aquaintences. A steamy Saturday night in Caracas with a frigid Monday morning awaiting me in New York.
So we reach the end of this two-week chapter in VZ Baseball, a wonderful if arduous ride through the southern cone. My first and last stop is Estadio Universitario, administered by the Universidad Central de Venezuela. When it was built in 1952, it was part of a new-look sprawl called Ciudad Universitaria, a postmodern concrete assemblage envisioned and assembled between 1940 and 1960 by London-born architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva. In 2000, UNESCO deemed the entire complex a World Heritage Site.
To me, it’s a World Baseball Site. The excitement of the vendors selling everything from hot dogs to mystery-meat-on-a-stick to icy cups of beer, to the pesky revendadores (resellers) trying to hawk tickets, to the kids playing ball and the stray dogs rolling in the plaza, it’s an atmosphere that’s hard to beat.
I miscalculate tonight–the game starts at 6:30, and I have tickets by then, but my companion Maria Felicia works until 7:00 and we agreed to meet at 7:30, the more usual start time. By the time she gets here, we’re in the sixth inning.
The Leones are behind 1-0 when we get to our “VIP” seats behind home plate (I splurge for 275 Bs for the last game, or 2.75 if one were to take advantage of the ‘parallel market.’) But surprise–in front of a measly crowd watching the 7th- and 8th-best teams in the league– the Leones come to life in an error-filled frame and put across five runs.
Maria’s never been to a game before. I can’t even try to explain in English, let alone Spanish, what the hell is going on. Passed balls. Fielding and throwing errors. Force outs. Foul balls. Sacrifice flies. Luckily, she’s from Caracas and is satisfied that the Leones are winning. She feels that she has brought them luck, and who am I to disagree?
The final account is 6-2 for the home team, and if they didn’t win it really would have been a shame. As we prepare to leave, I see a small crowd gathered ’round a gentleman in the first row of our section.
Jesus “Chivita” Lezama is the oldest baseball fan in Venezuela, and each year the Leones give him a full uniform with his age as the number–this year, it’s 95. He’s been a fan since the league started in 1946, when the home team was Cervezeria Caracas. He still often stands on the mound, fully decked out in Leones pinstripes, with the red-blue-and-yellow national flag for Gloria al Bravo Pueblo. Chivita–the little goat, for his facial hair—is the man!
I can’t help but ask for a picture, after some of the kids (kid goats?) are done. He is entirely in his element, undisturbed by the constant requests. Everyone gets a hug and a photo. I shake his hand, tell him it’s a real honor, that I’ve come from New York to watch Venezuelan baseball.
He firmly grasps my two hands, and says in English, “I love you.” Like you could actually write a more storybook ending? He also poses with Maria Felicia and it’s hugs all around, an unbelievable ending to a rollercoaster ride.
Two weeks ago, I met Nestor Viloria, a 9-year-old Bravos fan. Tonight, it’s Chivito, 86 years older.
Batting DH for Leones is 40-year-old Bob Abreu in his last roundup; at shortstop for the Bravos of Margarita tonight is Bob’s Mets teammate Wilmer Flores, a 23-year-old trying to make it full-time in the bigs in 2015. Bob doesn’t play the field anymore; Wilmer makes a diving stop of a ground ball. The beginning, and the end.
First game I sat in the top row of the stadium, one of the cheapest tickets in the house. Tonight I’m some sort of VIP for a dollar extra. The alpha and the omega.
It’s an early game and quick finish so perhaps we can still grab a round at the Hotel Avila bar. Nelson Rockefeller built the joint in 1941, when Venezuela’s amateur team won a world title, the event which made young Jesus Lezama such a fan. Chivita, here’s to you. May you live to 105.