MLB bans players from Venezuelan Winter League

Sports
Tony DeFrancesco, Anthony DeFrancesco

FILE – In this Nov. 27, 2013, photo, Anthony DeFrancesco, center, son of Tiburones head coach Tony DeFrancesco, left, practices his baseball swing as his father speaks with a player prior to a baseball game against rival Leones, at Estadio Universitario in Caracas, Venezuela. Major League Baseball is banning players from participating in the Venezuelan Winter League in one of the first public repercussions of new U.S. economic sanctions against the Venezuelan government. MLB said Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, it is in contact with the U.S. government to determine how to proceed under the new sanctions against President Nicolás Maduro’s administration and at least temporarily suspending involvement in the league. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball is banning players from participating in the Venezuelan Winter League in one of the first public repercussions of new U.S. economic sanctions against the Venezuelan government.

MLB said Thursday it is in contact with the U.S. government to determine how to proceed under the new sanctions against President Nicolás Maduro’s administration and at least temporarily suspending involvement in the league.

The Venezuelan Winter League is one many that major league players use to hone their skills in the offseason.

“MLB will fully adhere to the policies implemented by our government,” MLB announced in a statement.

President Donald Trump’s administration issued a broad ban blocking companies and individuals from doing business with Maduro’s socialist government earlier this month, putting the nation on a short list of U.S. adversaries — including Cuba, North Korea and Iran — targeted with such aggressive financial measures.

The Wall Street Journal reported that MLB’s decision also applies to minor league players, but it won’t prevent Venezuelan players from returning home during the offseason.

Venezuela has long served as an important incubator for big league talent, but in recent years the relationship has steadily deteriorated amid a political crisis and economic contraction far worse than the Great Depression. MLB teams have shut down their academies in Venezuela and no longer send scouts.

Teams of young, aspiring Venezuelan baseball players now regularly rely on Venezuelan MLB stars to help finance trips to compete in championships.

Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, known as PDVSA, has been a major sponsor of the nation’s professional baseball league. The Trump administration also sanctioned PDVSA earlier this year as part of a continuing effort to starve the Maduro administration of cash and support opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

The Venezuelan league did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Back in the heyday of Venezuela’s oil-fueled economic boom in the 1960s, Pete Rose wore a Caracas Leones jersey right after his rookie season. American players continued to flock to the league up until recent years, attracted by the opportunity to play with talented teams before packed stadiums full of enthusiastic fans.

Security issues, six-digit hyperinflation, growing flight cancellations and a simmering political standoff have lured fewer, though Venezuelans have remained steadfast in their passion for the American pastime.

At an event celebrating PDVSA’s sponsorship last year, Venezuelan league president Juan Jose Avila praised the government for helping launch a new season of “the national sport that each Venezuelan carries in his heart.”

It’s not the first time politics has interfered with baseball during the Trump administration. Earlier this year, the Treasury Department moved to reverse an Obama administration decision allowing Cuban baseball players to sign contracts directly with MLB organizations.

The Obama policy allowed the major leagues to pay the Cuban Baseball Federation a release fee equal to 25% of each Cuban player’s signing bonus. U.S. law prohibits virtually all payments to the Cuban government under the 60-year embargo, but MLB argued the Cuban baseball league was not formally part of the state.

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