CARACAS, Venezuela -- When Caracas' Gregor Blanco hit a game-tying, ninth-inning, two-out home run off Francisco Rodriguez in Game 4 of last season's Venezuelan baseball finals, Blanco gestured toward the Magallanes dugout as he rounded the bases. After Blanco arrived at home plate, catcher Robinson Chirinos got in Blanco's face.
It wasn't just that the benches emptied. National police, armed with machine guns, came on the field. Attack dogs began barking. Fans reached through the screen behind home plate to try to punch Magallanes security men.
"It," Magallanes pitcher Eric Junge recalled as he described the scene, "was awesome."
Welcome to Magallanes-Caracas, the greatest rivalry in sports.
Forget Duke-North Carolina, Red Sox-Yankees, Alabama-Auburn, Giants-Dodgers, Redskins-Cowboys or Michigan-Ohio State.
They don't measure up to the Navagantes and the Leones, the two most popular and historically successful teams in Venezuela.
"It's special, man," said Andrés Galarraga, the five-time major-league All-Star and 13-year star for Caracas.
"No matter how good Caracas is doing or Magallanes is doing, as soon as they play against each other, oh my God, it's like the World Series."
Said former Yankees pitcher Chad Gaudin, who played for Magallanes in 2005-06, "It's bigger than Boston and the Yankees. It's that much. It's that loud, that intensity."
Imagine the passed-down hatred of Red Sox-Yankees, plus the shared birthplace of Dodgers-Giants, plus the evenly split crowd and alcohol-fueled noise of Florida-Georgia (at least, when it was the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party), plus the tight quarters and rabid fans of a Duke-North Carolina game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, plus the season-defining possibilities of Alabama-Auburn or Michigan-Ohio State, plus the championship legacies of Celtics-Lakers.
Then, most importantly, add a Latin passion not found in any U.S. venue.
"Baseball in the Caribbean, fans are different," said Mets ace Johan Santana, who pitched four seasons for Magallanes in his younger days. "They really get into it. They're wild. It is fun."
Said Junge: "I'm being serious: this is the best game in baseball. Maybe you can argue Boston-New York, but (in Magallanes-Caracas) they want to kill each other. It's intense. It's awesome."
Los Eternos Rivales have been playing each other since before Venezuela had a professional league.
The Navagantes del Magallanes -- navigators of Magellan, for the 16th-century Portugese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the first to sail around South America from the Atlantic to the Pacific -- were founded in Caracas in 1917 as an amateur team.
Their archrivals were the Royal Criollos, the "royal natives." In 1946, that team took the name of the brewery that purchased it, Cervecería Caracas. The brewery sold the team in 1952, and it was renamed the Leones (lions).
According to Rubén Mijares -- a longtime journalist, Venezuelan baseball historian and former general manager of Magallanes -- the (perhaps apocryphal) reason behind the sale of the team was that the half of the country that rooted for Magallanes refused to drink the beer, and that was hurting business.
The professional league started in 1946 with four teams. Caracas and Magallanes shared Estadio Universitario in Caracas until the 1969-70 season, when Magallanes moved to Valencia, about 70 miles West.
Former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston played for Magallanes before and after the move.
"Magallanes is loved like the old Cowboys used to be loved, as far as 'America's Team,' " he said. "Magallanes is kind of Venezuela's team. And Caracas is a close second."
So while Caracas actually has two teams closer geographically -- Tigres de Aragua (in Maracay) and Tiburones de La Guaria (the Sharks, who share the stadium in Caracas) -- Magallanes is definitely its top rival.
"You poll 100 people on the street," Rodriguez said, "and you ask, 'What team do you root for?' I would say, 50 say Caracas and 50 say Magallanes. Anywhere."
And as the most popular teams, Caracas and Magallanes have the deepest pockets and can afford the most stars, including imports.
In the mid-1970s, Jim Rice, Dave Parker, Don Baylor and Mitchell Page played for Magallanes' "black power" teams. The 1964-65 Caracas team featured Ken Harrelson, Vic Davalillo, Cesar Tovar and Pete Rose.
Caracas has won 17 league titles and Magallanes 10. The other franchises have combined for 35. One study showed 40 percent of Venezuelan fans support Magallanes and 32 percent are for Caracas. That leaves 28 percent for the other six clubs.
"You could go 0-5 during the week against everybody else," said Indians manager Manny Acta, a Dominican who managed Caracas in 2000-01, "but if you beat Caracas or you beat Magallanes, the fans are happy. Because they know that the bragging rights are there.
"It's a big game. Those games are circled on the calendar. It's two seasons over there. It's Caracas-Magallanes and then the rest of the games."
FanHouse's Ed Price discusses the passion, power and noise of Magallanes-Caracas.
Phil Regan, the former big-league pitcher, pitching coach and manager, has managed both Caracas and Magallanes, among other Venezuelan teams. He was fired as La Guaria manager earlier this season and was ready to return to the U.S. when Magallanes approached him to be its pitching coach.
His first game back in a Navegantes uniform was against the Leones.
"When you're with another club," Regan said, "you really long for that rivalry."
Last month, a night before hosting Caracas, Magallanes played the Bravos de Margarita. The bleachers were virtually empty, the grandstand about three-quarters full.
The next night, people were shoulder-to-shoulder in every row of the bleachers, or gradas. Thanks to counterfeit tickets and other crashers, Estadio José Bernardo Pérez was packed beyond its listed capacity of 14,850.
"Every time Caracas and Magallanes play, the whole country's paralyzed," Santana said. "Everybody wants to watch what's going on."
Said Al Pedrique, the Astros bench coach who has played and managed for Magallanes: "You can feel it from 9 o'clock in the morning, when people come to get tickets. And by 10 o'clock they're all gone. ... You're walking down the street and people say to you, 'You've got to beat Caracas tonight. If you lose you're going to get fired.'"
|Navegantes del Magallanes||Team Name||Leones del Caracas|
|Estadio José Bernardo Pérez||Stadium||Estadio Universitario|
|1950-51, '55, '70, '77, '79, '94, '96-97, 2002||Championships||1953, '57, '62, '64, '67-68, '73, '78, '80-82, '87-88, '90, '95, 2006, '10|
|Edgardo Alfonzo, Richard Hidalgo, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, Pablo Sandoval, Elvis Andrus||Famous Venezuelan Alums||Chico Carrasquel, Vic Davalillo, Tony Armas, Andres Galarraga, Omar Vizquel, Bobby Abreu|
Peter Greenberg, a New York-based agent who represents a number of Venezuelans (including Santana), said he always tries to see at least one Magallanes-Caracas game whenever he travels to Venezuela. And no matter how many clients he has on both teams, if he doesn't request tickets well in advance, even the players can't help him get a seat.
Tickets in the gradas (literally, the terraces) for a Magallanes home game cost 30 Bolivars -- $7 at the official exchange rate and $4 at the black-market rate. Factor in beer, food and transportation, and considering that the minimum wage is 1,200 Bolivars ($280) a month, it's no wonder that many fans save their money and go to the park only to see Magallanes-Caracas.
The ballpark is a good place to forget, for a while, about how tough things have become under the regime of Hugo Chávez (although when outfielder Endy Chávez comes up for Magallanes, fans chant, "Endy, si! Chávez, no!").
"Venezuelans eat, sleep and breathe baseball," Gaudin said.
Playing in Caracas turns up the intensity another notch, with larger crowds that are more evenly divided between Leones and Navegantes fans. And because 11,000 of the 20,723 seats at Estadio Universitario are in the bleachers, there's a higher percentage of rabid fans. (Imagine what 27,000 "bleacher creatures" at Yankee Stadium could do for the intensity level in the Bronx.)
There's also the frequent playing of a lion's roar at high volume over the P.A. Pedrique said the first time Jeff Tam -- the former big-league right-hander who pitched for Magallanes -- heard the roar in 1996, he hit the deck and yelled, "Oh (expletive), what's that?"
Before one Magallanes game at Caracas this season, scalpers were getting 700 Bolivars for the best seats (face value 170 Bolivars) and 150 Bolivars for the bleachers (face value 25 Bolivars). Announced attendance was 20,696, and those who couldn't get in lingered in the plaza outside the park, where an impromptu food court and souvenir mall had popped up. In addition to the usual stadium security, there were 55 policemen inside the park and 100 outside.
"There's a different intensity," Regan said, "because the fans are different. The fans are pretty -- pretty fanatical."
After all, the Spanish word for fan is fanático.
Samba Bands and Flying Beer
More than anything, a Magallanes-Caracas game -- especially in Caracas -- is LOUD.
"You can imagine filing 20,000 people into a stadium and it sounds like 500,000," said Mets catcher Josh Thole, who played for Caracas in 2009-10. "So loud. Nine straight innings, it doesn't matter who's winning, who's losing. People playing horns, samba bands, people marching around the stands with flags."
It's the kind of noise level -- so loud that individual cheers are indistinguishable and it becomes one blast -- that appears in a major-league park only in the postseason, if at all. A regular-season Magallanes at Caracas game produces a decibel level that hasn't been heard in a big-league park since, perhaps, Yankee Stadium shook after Scott Brosius' ninth-inning homer in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series.
"We don't have the 40, 50 thousand fans (in Venezuela) we have (in New York)," Rodriguez said. "But those 15, 20 (thousand), they make more noise."
Because both teams have a national following, every time they play, the fans are split. And that means no matter what happens, a sizable portion of the crowd cheers.
"The fans make the rivalry," said Edgardo Alfonzo, the former big-leaguer in his 15th season with Magallanes. "They really push you.
"First pitch to last pitch, no matter what the score is, they will cheer."
As in the U.S., there is prompting via the public-address system or video board. But for the most part, it's not necessary.
"People here have a really good understanding of the game, situations and everything," said Josh Kroeger, who has played in the Diamondbacks, Phillies, Cubs and White Sox systems and stars for Caracas in the winters.
"Just to see the people there, they're so intense and so into the game," Gaudin said. "Every single person is watching the game. Nobody's going to get popcorn."
Pulling for a result, fans will chant, "Jon-ron!" (home run) or "Pon-che!" (strikeout) for an entire at-bat.
Ever hear that in the U.S.?
"We love it," Rodriguez said, "because the fans get into it."
Big plays are celebrated by flinging beer cups, and not empty ones.
"It's a different atmosphere," Acta said. "I think everybody who comes to the game is prepared to get soaked with beer and embrace the environment."
As the game reaches the later innings, large chunks of empty seats appear in the middle rows of the bleachers; fans move higher or lower to avoid being doused in beer (or, worse, urine).
When the final out is made, the bleacherites sprint to the exits, to avoid that final downpour from the upper rows.
A Passion for Baseball
Alcohol isn't just thrown; it's consumed, too. Whiskey, as well as beer, is sold by vendors in the stands.
Add in the salsa music, the Thunderstix, the waving flags, and "it's a big party for the fans," as Endy Chávez said.
Sometimes an out-of-control one, the tales say, with fires lit in the stands or brawls between opposing fans.
"It was worse," said Damaso Blanco, the Giants infielder of the 1970s who broadcasts Magallanes games. "Nowadays the people act better."
In his four years with Boston, Tony Armas played in 49 Red Sox-Yankees games. Now the hitting coach for Carcacas, he said, "Over here it's different, because they go crazy when these two teams play."
How crazy can it get? Junge said he has been sworn at by 7-year-olds.
"They say anything to a player," said Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who played for Magallanes. "When you do bad, you do well, they yell at you."
And at each other.
"I know this for a fact, because I have friends who have done this," Regan said. "They bring two hats to the ballpark. And if Caracas wins, they put the Caracas hat on. But if Magallanes wins, they put on the Magallanes hat. Because they don't want the people to get on them so bad."
Acta recalls when Melvin Mora came to bat for Magallanes in Valencia, the home fans would chant "Mel-vin! Mel-vin!" And if he made an out, the Caracas fans would point to their crotches and chant "Mel-vin! Mel-vin!"
The teams don't mind tweaking each other, either.
Caracas this season waited until Nov. 23 -- the 34th game of a 63-game regular season -- to hand out its championship rings from 2009-10. Because that was a home game against Magallanes.
All this could happen only in Latin America, where passion reaches heights unknown up north.
"Partially it's because it is their national sport, in a way that baseball is not our national sport," said Milton Jamail, a consultant for the Rays and former University of Texas professor who has written books on baseball in Cuba and Venezuela. "It's one of our national sports.
"The passion stems from it being part of their national identity. I think it starts there."
Jamail said 1,000 fans at a game for 14-year-olds in Venezuela are louder than a Double-A crowd in the U.S.
"The passion for anything," Junge said, "the dancing, the music, the drinking, the women -- this country is dialed up."
A Reason to Play
Junge, a 33-year-old right-hander from Rye, N.Y., by way of Bucknell University, has pitched in the majors with the 2002-03 Phillies, for five other organizations and in Japan and Korea. He came to Venezuela for the first time last winter, and the rivalry got in his blood.
He's not alone. Sandoval played for Magallanes last winter until the Giants asked him to shut it down partway through the semifinals (a five-team, 16-game round robin after the bottom three of the eight teams are dropped).
In the finals, Magallanes was in position to take a commanding 3-1 before K-Rod's meltdown. The Navegantes still went home with a 3-2 lead, but when the series went to a deciding seventh game, Sandoval begged the Giants to let him play.
Granted permission, Sandoval flew from the U.S. to Caracas, took a helicopter to Valencia and got a police escort to the stadium in time to bat third for the Navegantes.
"You want to play for one of those teams," Sandoval said last summer. "Nothing like those two teams."
Sandoval went 1-for-4 as Magallanes lost the game, and, for the first time in three finals meetings with Caracas, the series.
The drama of that series dialed up the rivalry even further, especially among players.
"It's the only reason I came down here," Junge said. "I wanted to come back. I wanted to beat them. I don't like them."
Others wanted to come back too. Bobby Abreu, who last played for Caracas in 2004-05 (except for one game in '08), wanted to play this winter but was told not to by the Angels. Mora was rumored to want to re-join Magallanes after a five-year absence, although the team apparently didn't meet his financial demands.
Another rumor held that Rodriguez got permission from the Mets to play in last year's playoffs by offering to pay his own insurance premium.
Caracas manager Dave Hudgens, who was just hired as the Mets hitting coach, said when veteran players join the team midseason, they always try to make their debut in the rivalry.
"The players, they all want to play that day (of Magallanes-Caracas)," Pedrique said. "If they're not playing, they mope. They complain. You can see some of the guys go will through the motions in (batting practice). I'd say, 'Fellas, you never know, I might need you in the fifth, sixth inning, the seventh inning. You never know.' (They'd say,) 'How can you bench me? I've got to play. It's Caracas.' They don't like that at all."
'200 Percent Rush of Adrenaline'
During the World Series, Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus said playing for Magallanes against Caracas "was a big key to me, for me being here in the postseason and the World Series."
Hudgens said there is "more pressure" in a regular-season Magallanes-Caracas game than in a major-league postseason game.
"Every game is like a playoff game," Hudgens said. "That's how important it is to the players and the people."
Anything else practically feels like a scrimmage once you have played in Magallanes-Caracas.
"It's like a Game 7, all the time," said Boston's Marco Scutaro, who has played six seasons for Caracas.
"You can lose against the other teams, get beat -- no big deal," Pedrique said. "If you beat Caracas, you won the World Series. (As the manager, I would think,) 'It's only one game. We've still got to win the others.' But for the Magallanes people to lose to Caracas, they hate it. And vice versa."
Rodriguez normally pitches for La Guaria. But he has been borrowed for the postseason by Caracas (2005 and '06) and Magallanes (2010).
"It's intense," he said of Magallanes-Caracas. "A 200 percent rush of adrenaline.
"The pressure. As a young guy, if you play in a type of game like that, and you perform the way you're supposed to and you handle the pressure, (when) you come in to the big leagues, it's like you're playing a regular game. I don't think the pressure's going to bother you at all."
Rodriguez, a rookie hero in the 2002 postseason, said the pressure of Magallanes-Caracas is close to that of the World Series, "and you know how important the World Series is."
Acta called Magallanes-Caracas "a must-see event."
Said Acta: "I know Red Sox and Yankees is a great event over here, but I think the only advantage over a Caracas-Magallanes game is the amount of people. But the energy and stuff, it's even greater over there. Even if you only have 20-25,000 people. It's something I couldn't even describe to my friends. I told them you need to take a flight over here and see it."
So, yeah, we have the Iron Bowl and Tobacco Road. But we have nothing like Magallanes vs. Caracas.
Even jaded ballplayers can feel it.
"I've had players come down here and play in these games," Regan said, "and they've said, 'You know, all of a sudden baseball's fun again, playing in these games.'"