Originally created 09/15/99

Venezuela goes to bat for Aparicio



CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelans want one of their own on major league baseball's Team of the Century -- Luis Aparicio.

Led by President Hugo Chavez, a big baseball fan, the country is waging a last-minute write-in campaign to get the former Chicago White Sox shortstop on the team.

"I didn't expect so much enthusiasm over this," Aparicio told The Associated Press, acknowledging that current Venezuelan stars Andres Galarraga and Omar Vizquel have always been bigger favorites at home.

"I've never doubted the affection of the people, but the Venezuelan fan is real tough," he said.

Aparicio, who won nine Gold Gloves and was an excellent base stealer, played on the 1959 White Sox team that made it to the World Series.

In 1984, he became the third Latin American elected to the Hall of Fame following Roberto Clemente of Puerto Rico and Juan Marichal of the Dominican Republic.

Yet for years, many in his home country weren't all that impressed. They remembered Aparicio as someone with a modest batting average while playing on mediocre teams in Venezuela's winter league.

Last week, Chavez, who threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game this year, cast his vote for Aparicio and urged his countrymen to follow his lead.

"I'm making a call to all Venezuelans to vote for Aparicio," said Chavez, who voted on a laptop computer set up on a baseball field near the presidential palace.

"There's still time to help with your votes for this compatriot who has been a true glory for us, for Latin America and for the entire world," Chavez said.

There isn't much time though, with voting to end in less than a week. In results released Tuesday, Aparicio was in sixth place among shortstops with 121,535 votes. Cal Ripken Jr., with 640,995 votes, leads the group in which the top two will be selected to the team.

Venezuelans aren't discouraged, however. They think they can fill the gap with a flurry of write-in votes. Local newspapers and TV stations also have been urging Venezuelans to get out the vote.

"Aparicio already did his part with his performance in the major leagues. Now with the magic of the Internet we have made the strength of Venezuelans known," said Cecilia Briceno, a college student in Caracas.

Since the Gold Glove was created in 1957, Venezuelan shortstops have dominated. Aparicio was the first winner, and he was followed by Cincinnati's Dave Concepcion, who won five times in the 1970s. Vizquel of the Cleveland Indians has won the AL Gold Glove the last six years.

Aparicio played for the White Sox, the Baltimore Orioles and the Boston Red Sox in an 18-year career that ended in 1973.

His lifetime average was only .262, but he scored 1,335 runs and drove in another 791. He also led the AL in stolen bases for nine straight years from his rookie season in 1956 through 1964. His 506 career steals puts him in 30th place.

That wasn't enough to overcome Venezuelans' memories of his performances at home. In 13 winter league seasons, Aparicio hit .247 and never played on either of the two most popular teams.

He knows that's a big reason he was never a big star there, but he's touched by the belated support.

"It's beautiful to feel this support and above all to know that I was nominated and that my name appears among so many baseball greats," he said.