By Hugh Bronstein
CARACAS (Reuters) - Young baseball players from poor families in Venezuela are not getting the nourishment needed to realize their dream of playing professionally in the United States, as acute food shortages close off one of the few remaining avenues out of poverty in the recession-hit country.
Venezuela is home to superstar players, including Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera and the Houston Astros' diminutive but mighty second baseman, Jose Altuve.
With a record 76 Venezuelan nationals playing on Major League Baseball (MLB) teams at the start of this season, the country's agent-operated baseball academies are expected to keep steering high-performing prospects to big league scouts.
But the country's food shortages are taking a toll, as malnourished kids from low-income families are denied entry to academies that have become the only way to guarantee the kind of diet needed to build a world-class player.
Agents and scouts say the live-in baseball schools are already drawing from a smaller pool of talent because children from poor families are not strong enough by age 13 to compete for admission against their better-fed peers.
"We are seeing a 35 percent decrease in daily protein intake among players between the ages of 10 to 15," said Dr. Arnaldo Machado, a Caracas-based medical advisor to the Detroit Tigers. "And the nutritional situation is much worse for children six years old and younger."
Millions of Venezuelans have been struggling to eat properly in recent years amid triple-digit inflation and acute shortages of staples, including beef, milk and flour. President Nicolas Maduro blames a U.S.-led "economic war" though critics say his policies are the cause of the economic and social mess.
There are about 100 substantial, privately-owned baseball academies in Venezuela, which is MLB's second-most represented country after the Dominican Republic and well ahead of longtime regional powerhouse, Cuba.
Kids fortunate enough to get into the schools are fed six times a day, learn English, and take classes in anatomy and physiology. They are even tended to by psychologists to ensure they are prepared for when and if they sign with a big league team.
The divide between this kind of development and that of kids too weak to get into the academies is widening. And so is the pressure on parents to get their boys into strong enough shape by age 12 to be granted admission.
"Sometimes we don't eat so that he can," said Carolina Tovar as she watched her seven-year-old son Jesus Cordoba playing in a local league game in a rundown neighborhood in Caracas.
She wants Jesus, who has been playing ball since age four, to enter an academy when he is 12 or 13.
"A kilo of meat costs a week's salary," Tovar said. "We work extra hours and we've had to invent ways of making more money. In my case, I sell cakes with cheese and I run a lottery for families in the neighborhood so my son does not want for food."
It has become a common story in Venezuela's low-income barrios which have been hardest hit by four years of deep recession in the socialist-run economy.
Surveys conducted last October by Catholic non-profit organization Caritas in poor sectors of Venezuela's four most populous states found that 48 percent of children younger than five were malnourished. By April of this year, that figure had risen to 56 percent.
"Each day it's harder. Every day food is more expensive," said Maite Escalona, mother of Aiberth Tovar, a seven-year-old catcher who started playing when he was three-and-half and says he wants to join the St. Louis Cardinals someday.
"This is the only country in the world where it's sad when you get a raise, because you know it means that the cost of living has just gone up five times as much," Escalona said.
'LESS PHYSICAL STRENGTH'
Due to the stagnant economy and rampant crime, only four MLB teams - the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Rays, Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers - still operate training facilities in Venezuela, down from 18 clubs in 2000.
"Ninety-five percent of the kids at my academy come from families that can't afford to give them three meals a day with protein," said Kander Depablos, head of a baseball academy outside the city of Valencia. Fifteen children live at his facility.
The depth of the crisis dawned on him when his players stopped wanting to go home to their families on the weekends, Depablos said.
"I realized what was happening when we would weigh them on Monday and see that they lost two kilograms over the weekend," he said.
When a prospect signs with a team at age 16, he then goes to that team's advanced training center in the Dominican Republic before getting a chance to play in the U.S. minor leagues and hopefully the big leagues.
"There are fewer players to choose from because there is less physical strength in the country," said Jose "Yoyo" Salas, an agent who heads the Puro Baseball Academy in Caracas, which is currently home to nine young players.
Lack of food is also bad news for atypical players who have always had a harder time getting recruited, and who now face nutrition problems as well.
The obvious case is Jose Altuve, the reigning American League batting champion who has become the inspirational face of the Houston Astros. Even well fed, he stopped growing at 5 feet 6 inches (1.68 meters) tall.
From the city of Maracay, the base-stealing dynamo grew up so poor he had to bum baseballs from the local minor league team so he could practice with his dad.
At the other end of the spectrum is Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, who at 6 feet 4 (1.93 m), projects the image of the classic slugger he is.
"Everybody wants to sign Miguel Cabrera, but few people were willing to sign Jose Altuve. He was not on the A-list of prospects when he was 15. He did not get special treatment, but he got his nutrition anyway because there was enough food in the country," said Johan Ocanto, head of the ABAR academy in Caracas, which houses 18 young players.
"If Altuve was a 15-year-old prospect now, he wouldn't have a chance," Ocanto said.
(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein, additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; editing by Andrew Cawthorne and G Crosse)