Tigers Cabrera, VMart at center of Detroit-to-Venezuela connection

Detroit sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez are just two of the prominent current Tiger players who were born in Venezuela.

After winning baseball’s first triple crown in more than four decades, Miguel Cabrera has greased the wheels for an eventual trip to Cooperstown. But before he gets there he’ll enjoy an extended stay in Detroit first, but with the comforts surrounding him, Motown seems a lot like his native home.

Cabby is just one of many recent Venezuelan ballplayers to make Motown his home in the U.S.A. Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez, and current Tiger DH Victor Martinez also hail from the Latin American nation. Pitcher Anibal Sanchez, second baseman Omar Infante, and outfielder Avisail Garcia (dubbed “Mini-Miggy” by fans and teammates because of his resemblance to Cabrera) were born there too. Though there are no direct flights from DTW to CCS (Caracas, the capital of Venezuala) the Venezuela-to-Detroit connection is quickly becoming something to take notice of.

Baseball finally integrated in 1949 when Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but before that a handful of Latin ballplayers toiled in the big leagues. Many of them were light-skinned, a dastardly physical requirement that seemed to appease the prejudice of Major League Baseball. Initially, American scouts were attracted almost exclusively to Venezuela’s wealth of great defensive infielders. The White Sox signed shortstop Chico Carrasquel, a wizard with the glove, in the late 1940s, and after great success with him, the Sox brought in the great Luis Aparicio, another shortstop known for his great range and strong arm. Outside of a few players like Vic Davalillo and Cesar Tovar (outfielders), for 20 years most Venezuelans in the big leagues were infielders, punctuated by Davey Concepcion, the All-Star shortstop for the Big Red Machine in the 1970s.

The Pittsburgh Pirates signed a skinny 17-year old named Tony Armas in the mid-1970s, and he eventually grew into a strong, home run hitting outfielder with the Oakland A’s, the first slugger from Venezuela. A few years later, Andres Galarraga burst on the scene, and by the time he started to launch home runs out of National League ballparks with regularity, scouts were scouring Latin America for ballplayers. Since then, Venezuelan players have flooded into the majors.

Guillen and Ordonez were key contributors to the 2006 Tigers team that won the pennant. Prior to that, Venezuelan pitcher Ugueth Urbina was briefly Detroit’s closer, and later, Cumaná, Venezuela native Armando Galarraga (no relation to Andres) pitched an infamous “non-perfect perfect game” for the Tigs in 2010.

Cabrera hails from Maracay, just a short distance from the capital of Caracas, and after only 10 seasons he’s already just the second Venezuelan-born player to surpass 300 homers. In his sights is Galarraga, who belted 399 homers. Cabrera seems certain to pass Bobby Abreu’s record for most extra-base hits by a Venezuelan, and he already has the highest batting average of any player born in that South American nation – at .318 through the ’12 season.

Victor Martinez was born in Ciudad Bolivar, one of the primary commercial centers of Venezuela’s central Orinoco Basin region. Five years older than Cabrera, VMart’s path to the big leagues took a bit longer, but he’s been very successful as well, posting a .303 batting average in 10 seasons. 2013 will be his third season in Detroit, though he missed all of 2012 with an injury. The switch-hitter gives Cabrera and Prince Fielder protection in the middle of the Tiger lineup. Their shared culture helps the club too.

“The clubhouse feels like a home to me,” Cabrera has said, referring to the many Venezuelan players on the Tigers.

Like teammates Cabrera and Martinez, second baseman Infante comes from a Venezuelan city (Puerto la Cruz on the eastern ocean coast of the country). He was reunited with the Tigers in the middle of the ’12 season when he was acquired in a deal from the Miami Marlins. Sanchez also came over in that deal, making it a Venezuelan two-for-one. The right-handed pitcher, who inked a long-term deal with Detroit in the off-season, was also born on Maracay, not far from where baby boy Miguel Cabrera was born. Garcia, who will still technically be a rookie this season, was born in the southern city of Anaco in the province of Anzoategui.

With Cabrera, Martinez, Infante, Sanchez, and Garcia  in uniform, the Tiger clubhouse will have a Venezuelan flair once again this season. The clubhouse attendants might want to work on their recipe for arepas (a popular traditional Venezuelan breakfast treat made from cornmeal, cheese, and plantains) to make the Venezuelan Tigers feel at home.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.