The Latin Link: Are the Colorado Rockies Hugo’s team?

Childhood amigos Carlos Gonzalez (left) and Jonathan Herrera are two of the five Venezuelan players on the Colorado Rockies. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Carlos Gonzalez and Jonathan Herrera were childhood amigos. Pitching sensation Jhoulys Chacin has been even better than advertised. Throw in versatile infielder Jose Lopez, plus veteran reliever Rafael Betancourt , and what do you have in common? All five are Colorado Rockies and come from Venezuela.

Most people probably know that Venezuelan players have been pipelined into the major leagues for decades. The South American country is known for its famous shortstops, with Luis Aparicio, Dave Concepcion and Omar Vizquel leading the way. And most current teams have plenty of Venezuelan representation. You’ve got Vizquel with the White Sox, Johan Santana and Francisco Rodriguez with the New York Mets, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez with the Detroit Tigers, Martin Prado with the Atlanta Braves and Freddy Garcia with the New York Yankees. Put those guys together and you would be on your way to building an all-star lineup.

The Rockies, though, have the best accumulation of young Venezuelan talent. Gonzalez, Herrera and Lopez are all in their mid-20s, and Chacin is still a baby. So, could it be that Venezuela’s controversial president,  Hugo Chavez, a self-proclaimed baseball “junkie,” is a closet Rockies fan? Knowing that it’s not wise to mix sports with politics, nobody wished to speculate on that question. But there is lots of patriotism.

“Every year, the Rockies home opener should be a national holiday back home,” quips Chacin.

Yeah, right. But while that celebration is still on hold, maybe Colorado should just be called, Team Latin America. All totaled, the Rockies have 11 foreign-Hispanic players on the 25-man squad, including star pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa. Rockies coach, Vinny Castilla, who practically bleeds purple, is proud of how the team has transformed.

“I love this club,” says Castilla, probably the best position player ever to come out of Mexico. “CarGo (Gonzalez) is just a puppy and he could hit 40 home runs.”

Down on the farm, at least a dozen Latino prospects are being carefully groomed for “the show.” The Rockies’ number two prospect, catcher Wilin Rosario from the Dominican Republic, is projected to make the varsity next season and compete for a starting gig. Rosario’s countrymen, right-handed pitcher Juan Nicasio and shortstop Hector Gomez, will likely get September call-ups. But with Troy Tulowitzki signed through 2020, Gomez could be a possible blue-chip trade pawn. Then there’s another Venezuelan, Edgmer Escalona, a young right-handed pitcher who made his debut with the Rockies last season.

Colorado currently ranks 11th in major league attendance, and Denver and its suburbs have a growing Hispanic population. Don’t get me wrong. Rockies patrons idolize their super stars like Tulowitzki and Todd Helton. But it’s the avalanche of Latino players who keep the team hovering near the top of the National League West, led by the Venezuelans.

For now, then, give President Chavez the bragging rights. But don’t expect the Monfort ownership to extend him an invitation to Coors Field anytime soon.

CACAHUETES (aka, peanuts … great for munching at the ol’ ballpark)

Detroit’s Cabrera, a Venezuelan icon, has been doing well since he quit stashing pints of Jim Beam in his car and locker. He’s currently near the top of the American League in home runs and RBIs,  and the Tigers are red hot. Concerned for Miguel’s well-being, the team hired former major league journeyman Raul Gonzalez to act as a chaperon,  mainly on road trips. … Look for the struggling Yankees to promote Jesus Montero, on a  batting tear, to be the new backup catcher, and dangle Francisco Cervelli, Ramon Pena and a pitching prospect as trade bait. … The Braves’ Prado was a happy camper subbing at third base while Chipper Jones was injured. After a slow start at the plate, Prado raised his batting average over 30 points in the last three weeks. … Venezuela’s President Chavez isn’t the only head of state with baseball smarts. The Castro brothers of Cuba and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega are all huge fans of the game, and “pelota” is always a major topic of discussion during summits and regional events. This, of course, leaves out fellow comrade Evo Morales of Bolivia, since baseball isn’t played in his country. (Damn, I forgot about that sports and politics rule!)

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