Long before they established themselves in the big leagues and in some cases long after they retired, a group of talented Venezuelan ballplayers gathered for an informal baseball tournament in La Sabana, Venezuela, each year on the final week of December.
National League Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuña Jr., former big league pitcher Kelvim Escobar and St. Louis Cardinals slugger José Martinez are just a few of the regulars at this annual event.
Some of the players are active big leaguers. Others are former baseball stars. A few others haven’t even started their professional journeys. They all meet with one goal in mind: fun family time.
The game has been played for almost two decades. It’s called a caimanera, the term used in Venezuela to refer to an improvised baseball game among friends.
“This is a tradition that dates back many years, even before Ronald Jr’ was born,” said Ronald Acuña Sr. “This is a small town where most people are relatives. Several baseball players were born here, such as (Escobar family members) Ángel, Alcides, José, Edwin and Kelvim, as well as Vicente Campos and the Acuñas, just to mention a few.”
“I think baseball is part of our DNA.”
La Sabana is located 65 miles away from Caracas. It is one Venezuelan baseball’s best kept secrets. Usually compared to San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic, it is one of the seven towns that make up the Caruao parish. According to the last census in 2011, it has a population of 5,295 inhabitants.
Incredibly, La Sabana has seven big leaguers.
The annual tournament is played at Oscar Santiago Escobar stadium. Four teams participate. “La Clave” is a team comprised of several inhabitants of the community.
View this post on Instagram
“Los Primos” is made up by members of the Escobar family. “Team Abusador” belongs to Ronald Acuña Jr. and his brother Luis Ángel. “Los Martínez” is led by St. Louis Cardinals outfielder and first baseman José “Cafecito” Martínez, the son of the late former big leaguer Carlos Martinez.
In this year’s final game on Dec. 30, Team Abusador defeated Los Primos 10-1 behind a grand slam from Ronald Acuña, Jr.
“We are always the winners,” joked Ronald Acuña Jr. “Our purpose is to spend a great time with our relatives and friends. That’s what the activity really is about.”
When the games are over, all the players gather at the Andrés Eloy Blanco square in La Sabana to eat special soup, which is usually prepared by people from the community, including Leonelys Blanco, Acuña’s mother.
After that, they improvise a stage so that a musical group entertains all the attendants. On Dec. 30, 2017, they enjoyed a performance by Francisco Pacheco, one of the most popular folk singers in the country.
In 2018, they planned to invite former Puerto Rican big leaguer and salsa singer Rubén Sierra.
The caimanera is usually played one or two days before New Year’s. It all depends on whether the members of the different families have to play for their teams in the Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional, their national winter league.
Generally, the Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners at the Acuñas’ house is not very different from what the rest of their countrymen have: pan de jamón, he typical Venezuelan Christmas bread filled with ham, bacon, olives and raisins, pork roast and hallacas, which are also prepared by Leonelys.
After midnight, once everyone has hugged their loved ones all the families in the community, including the Acuñas and Escobars, go to the streets to gather with their neighbors.
“When I come to Venezuela, I try to spend time with my family and my friends in La Sabana,” Acuña said. “We are all very close, and that’s never going to change.”
Featured Image: Kiyoshi Ota / Getty Images Sport
Inset Image: Courtesy John Al Hawi
The post Ronald Acuña Jr. joins big league families for annual games in La Sabana appeared first on La Vida Baseball.