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Baseball becomes a shelter for Venezuelan children in soccer-mad Peru

Baseball coach Franklin Lopez shows young Venezuelan migrants how to throw a ball during a baseball practice session in a public park in the Comas area, on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, Thursday, May 2, 2024. Immigrants, mainly Venezuelans, have opened five baseball academies in Peru's capital. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

By FRANKLIN BRICE√’O Associated Press

LIMA, Peru (AP) — The crack of bat on ball and the sight of Venezuelan children running the bases on the soccer field turned baseball diamond on the outskirts of Peru’s capital are watched with confusion by locals accustomed to soccer.

The questioning looks don’t deter the young Venezuelans for whom baseball reinforces a strong bond with their embattled homeland. And there is no shortage of players with more than 1 million Venezuelans estimated to live in Lima, a city of about 10 million people.

Immigrants, mainly Venezuelans, have opened five baseball academies in Peru’s capital. One of them is the Astros, located on the northern edge of Lima and coached by Venezuelan Franklin L√≥pez.

L√≥pez believes his team had to leave one field in San Juan de Luringancho, Peru’s most populous district, because neighbors didn’t want the Venezuelans using it. When they arrived every Tuesday and Thursday to practice they would find the field mired in mud.

L√≥pez doesn’t hide from his players that the road ahead of them will be bumpy if they want to play baseball in a soccer-mad country where the sport is virtually unknown.

“Here we improve by suffering,” the coach told his players as they wiped the sweat off their faces during a training session.

Of the more than 7 million Venezuelans who have left their homeland during the complex crisis that has marked President Nicol√°s Maduro’s 11-year presidency, more than 1.5 million went to neighboring Peru, most arriving after 2017 when then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski said they were “welcome” and would be paid for their work.

The migrants brought with them a passion for baseball, a sport in which Venezuela is a world powerhouse sending many players to U.S. Major League Baseball.

As the Venezuelan kids practiced baseball in Lima, many locals had no idea what they were doing.

“What is this sport?” a girl asked as she saw the youngsters playing. Her mother answered: “It comes from another country.”

Baseball is not the sport of choice in Peru, which has produced soccer players like Teofilo Cubillas, Claudio Pizarro and Paolo Guerrero, and it was a top contender in women’s volleyball tournaments four decades ago.

But the passion for baseball burns among immigrants to Peru.

“There’s something in my heart that likes baseball,” said 8-year-old Dylams Y√©pez during a recent practice.

Born in the Caribbean city of Puerto La Cruz, he said his best memories of Venezuela are of sunny mornings with his father Ra√ļl teaching him how to throw rocks into the sea like baseballs. The boy arrived in Lima two years ago and found the Astros shortly later.

His father, a taxi driver and leukemia survivor, bought him a baseball glove online because he couldn’t find any in local stores.

Venezuelan Deremi Becerra, 10, is clear why he likes baseball.

“My father liked this sport,” Deremi said in his living room, which features two baseballs, a baseball cap, a picture of his father and small flags of Venezuela and Peru. His father died of COVID-19 in Lima three years ago.

Deremi’s grandmother Bertha Gonz√°lez, 62, takes him to practice and watches him play from the stands, as she remembers watching Venezuelan baseball teams with her late son.

“We bought a couple of beers, fried bananas and started watching the matches,” she said. “I cheer for Los Tiburones de la Guaira, my son supported the Leones del Caracas just like my grandson.”

Different Venezuelan accents can be heard as family members of the young Venezuelan players watch the action. The children compete in a league created in April by the five baseball academies. Each child pays $24 per month to be on the team, which are named after MLB teams or Venezuelan clubs.

In a recent game, the team coached by López, and named after the Houston Astros, faced off against the Cachorros, who were dressed in the Chicago Cubs red, blue and white uniform.

The diamond lines and bases had been marked on the soccer field earlier by Roberto S√°nchez, a baseball umpire and a motorbike messenger, and Rigoberto Roso, a food app rider.

“The idea is for us to play at a good level, not just for fun,” said Roso.

“Let’s go my pitcher! Let’s go my catcher! Don’t let him see it, don’t let him see it, don’t let him see it!” sang a group of mothers in support of their children playing on the field.

One father adjusted his son’s belt, while another gave instructions to his.

“Do you see these moms and dads?” S√°nchez said as he put his sunglasses on. “Without them, without their memories, without their joy … baseball would be finished” here.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb