CARACAS, Venezuela -- Judging by the pair of sold-out weekend games here and the excitement that gripped the city, Major League Baseball should have its eye on the Venezuelan capital as a possible site for future expansion.
"I think it went better than we had a right to expect," said Paul Beeston, MLB's chief operating officer. "I think Major League Baseball would come back here in a second."
It was a whirlwind visit and didn't allow the teams much time to sightsee, but the Braves came away impressed nonetheless. The stadium setting is gorgeous, with cloud-ringed mountains looming over the outfield, and the fans are as knowledgeable about the game and its players as their North American counterparts.
In fact, the fans here are more boisterous and have more fun than fans in the States.
"Look at the passion and the excitement of these people," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. "It's good for our players and it's certainly good for baseball. This is one of the hot-bed countries of the world."
The first major league game played here since the Reds and Pirates in 1972 brought out festive spirits. Salsa music rocked the stadium for hours before the start of each game and bands played between innings, adding to a charged-up atmosphere that you normally don't find until the postseason in the States.
"There's a feeling here that you don't get in a regular season game," Beeston said. "The people here have made everyone feel special. It's been a great experience."
Andres Galarraga certainly won't forget his visit. The native son was greeted with deafening standing ovations when he was introduced before each game, serenaded with "Gato, Gato, Gato" before every at-bat and cheered every time he touched the ball.
During Saturday's pregame introductions, Andruw Jones turned to Galarraga and said wonderingly, "It's amazing how much these people love you."
Galarraga's eyes grew misty during introductions and again when the Venezuelan national anthem was played.
"That's the best (ovation) I've ever had," he said about Saturday's greeting. "My eyes were getting wet. Really, it's a great feeling, a great moment. I was waiting for (applause), but not like that."
REASON TO WORRY?
The Braves are saying all the right things about Bruce Chen, but privately they're concerned about the young left-hander. He hasn't had a good spring and Sunday's three-inning, five-run performance against the Devil Rays reaffirmed their fears.
"I've seen him a lot better," said manager Bobby Cox after watching Chen give up a pair of two-run homers to Jose Guillen and Fred McGriff.
Chen will be the fifth starter to start the season, but he won't remain there long if his effectiveness doesn't pick up. At the moment, however, the Braves don't have another starter to replace him in the rotation.
"I kept falling behind," Chen said. "I just have to work on my stuff."
Tampa Bay won 6-4.
Ozzie Guillen left the game following his second-inning at-bat after straining a muscle in his lower back. After showering, Guillen sat with Venezuela's First Lady, Marisabel de Chavez, in the stands. He's expected to be ready to play Tuesday. ...
Luis Rivera was scheduled to work two innings Sunday, but he jammed his knee in a hole on the mound while making a warmup pitch in the fourth and didn't face a hitter. The injury isn't serious, but it does slow down Rivera's push toward making the team. He's worked eight innings this spring and allowed just one run. ...
Kerry Ligtenberg emerged from Saturday night's scary moment with nothing more serious than a black eye and a scrape. He had made only six pitches when Quinton McCracken's grounder bounced off the right side of his face.
He left the game, but X-rays weren't needed and he plans to work in Tuesday's game, as scheduled.
"It honestly could have been a lot worse," he said. "I was just lucky it didn't hit me in the eye or nose. The thing that hurt the most is I felt really good throwing."
His outing was so brief, Ligtenberg never had a chance to throw anything but fastballs. He tried to talk club orthopedist Dr. Joe Chandler into returning to the mound Sunday afternoon, but Chandler doesn't want him pitching on consecutive days to protect his right elbow.
"It was almost like a wasted trip to me," Ligtenberg said. ...
John Rocker shrugged off Saturday night's ineffective performance, saying he had a similar outings last spring.
"I really haven't started feeling comfortable yet with being out there," he said. "I made some good pitches, it wasn't all bad. I'm just getting back to being comfortable throwing again."
Rocker blamed his wildness -- he walked three in two-thirds of an inning -- on a glitch in his mechanics and an ongoing search for his release point. He'll return to the mound Tuesday, accompany the team to Atlanta when it breaks camp in 10 days, then probably return to Florida and work in extended spring training until his suspension ends April 18.
"I'm still a month away until I'm in a game that means anything, so I'm not really worried," he said. ...
Chipper Jones was wearing a heated wrap Sunday morning to treat a strained oblique muscle on his right side. He suffered the injury about a week ago swinging in batting practice and he hasn't taken some time off to allow it to heal.
"I need swings," he said. "I stink right now. I'm the worst player on the field. I don't think I'm comfortable with either side."
Jones had a similar injury a couple of years ago and he fears it may bother him for awhile.
"It could be something that lingers for a long time," he said.
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