Baseball Has Grown in Bogotá, Colombia, Thanks to Venezuelan Migrants

Baseball is not popular in Colombia. Except on the Caribbean coast, soccer dominates. In Bogotá, the capital, many know very little about “béisbol.” And the city has only two public baseball fields.

But swing by Hermes Barros Cabas baseball stadium on any weekend, and it doesn’t feel that way. On a recent Sunday, five groups of children dressed in their team uniforms filled every corner of the main field.

Coaches threw batting practice, while children snagged ground balls or pop flies. Parents shouted words of encouragement or instruction. The smell of coffee and fried snacks wafted behind the bleachers.

Most of the people there, though, weren’t Colombian.

The vast majority of the 500 players in the Bogotá baseball league are from neighboring Venezuela, where baseball is the most popular sport. As Venezuelans often say, it’s in their blood.

“No matter what country I went to, I’d bring my umpiring equipment,” said the league’s head umpire, Pastor Colmenares, 50. When he left Venezuela for Colombia in search of higher paying work in 2017, Mr. Colmenares’s only suitcase was filled with his baseball gear.

Venezuela’s economic collapse and political repression has created the largest refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere, and no country in Latin America has seen a bigger influx of Venezuelan migrants than Colombia (an estimated 2.9 million in a country of 52 million). And no Colombian city has been a more popular destination than Bogotá (an estimated 600,000 in a city of nearly 8 million).

For many Venezuelans, whose lives were upended in their homeland, they are now facing an uncertain future — and, in some cases, they have been met with a hostile reception by Colombians. For them, the league offers a measure of refuge.

“To me, it means hope,” said Félix Ortega, 51, a software consultant who moved to Colombia from Venezuela in 2018, and whose sons, Sebastián, 13, and Rodrigo, 8, play in the league.

“My kids maintain that contact with our culture,’’ he continued. “But it’s also a meeting place for all of us. It’s like having a piece of Venezuela here.”

The league, in various forms, has been around since 1945 and was mostly made up of Colombians. But that changed in recent years, as more Venezuelans arrived.

“We’ve opened the door for them,” said the league’s president, José Francisco Martínez Petro, who is Colombian, adding that the newcomers bring established baseball know-how and have raised the league’s level.

Of the amateur league’s nine clubs, each of which fields multiple teams across different age groups, starting at 3 years old, there is one that is distinctly Venezuelan: the Leones. Unlike other teams that are named after Major League Baseball clubs in the United States, the Leones are a nod to the most successful Venezuelan professional team, which not every Venezuelan in Bogotá was a fan of back home.

“Once you’re here, it doesn’t matter,” said Gabriel Arcos, a systems engineer who grew up cheering for a Leones’ rival in Venezuela and moved to Bogotá in 2016. “Maybe you don’t like the Leones of Caracas, but like I always say, these are the Leones of Bogotá.”

Four years ago, when Iraida Acosta took over as president of the Leones, she said there were only six Venezuelan children. Now, she said, most of its 64 players are Venezuelan.

Ms. Acosta, 54, said that in 2017, she and her 9-year-old son left their Venezuelan hometown near the Caribbean coast to visit her husband, who had come to Bogotá six months earlier to find work. They ended up staying because the economic opportunities were better.

Still, it wasn’t easy.

“The culture, although being brother countries, is totally different,” she said, adding later, “I cried a lot when I came here.”

When Ms. Acosta rode Bogotá’s public buses, she said she avoided speaking so people wouldn’t hear her accent. She said people would use a disrespectful term for Venezuelans in Colombia and mutter, “Go back to your country.”

She discovered the baseball league on Facebook, enrolled her son and found a community. She became friends with the Colombians who were running the Leones club, and they turned it over to her when family health complications arose.

Other Colombians Ms. Acosta met through baseball have made her feel welcome. The sport, she said, has provided a common ground.

“Without all of the immigration — forced or desired or whatever — we wouldn’t have the quality here that we have now in players and coaches,” said Hernán Vasquez, 36, a Colombian who is an assistant Leones coach and whose 7-year-old son plays in the league.

Mr. Vasquez, who joked that he is now Venezuelan by association given how many he spends time with, is angered that many Colombians have singled out Venezuelans as the source of their country’s problems, like rising crime rates.

“The majority — 99 percent of the Venezuelans that I know — are professionals who came to work,” he said.

Mr. Colmenares left Barquisimeto, a city in northwestern Venezuela, six years ago because he said his three jobs — metal worker, umpire and occasionally construction worker — still didn’t provide enough money to adequately feed his family. “When I arrived, my skin was practically stuck to my bones,” he said.

At first, Mr. Colmenares said he struggled to find a job, going from business to business, offering to do anything. “There was a lot of us looking for work,” he said. “You’d see a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re Venezuelan. No, no, no, we don’t want anything to do with the Venezuelans.’”

After finally finding work as a metal worker, Mr. Colmenares slowly built a life in Bogotá. His wife and daughter later joined him in Colombia, while another daughter and his son live in Chile. (He hasn’t met his 6-year old granddaughter who was born in Chile.)

Mr. Colmenares also found his footing in his true passion: umpiring. When he joined the league, he said only one other umpire was Venezuelan. Today, 11 of the 12 are.

“The league represents everything for me,” he said through tears. “After my family, it’s umpiring.”

Others have found a similar haven. When Mr. Arcos left Caracas seven years ago because of dwindling opportunities, he arrived in Bogotá by himself. He started working, found an apartment, and his wife and 4-year-old son arrived three months later.

They spent their first New Year’s in the city alone. For over two years, they mostly stayed home or explored Bogotá on their own.

But one day, en route to play soccer with co-workers, Mr. Arcos came upon the league’s baseball field and signed up his son the following week. His family was soon spending every weekend there. Guests for their children’s birthday parties all come from the league.

“It completely changed our lives,” Mr. Arcos, 34, said.

Still, baseball hasn’t been quite the same as back home. Parents have complained that the competition for their children isn’t as good as in Venezuela. The league cannot always field a team for national tournaments, officials said, because Colombian baseball federation rules cap the number of foreign players at 20 percent of a roster.

And unlike in Venezuela where baseball fields are everywhere, the Bogotá league’s stadium is in the center of the traffic-clogged city, and reaching it can take more than an hour each way.

When Suleibi Romero Gonzalez cannot get her son Darvish, 11, to practice or games because she is busy running her Venezuelan restaurant, she and another mother take turns taking their children to the field.

Ms. Romero, 37, a separated mother of three, came to Bogotá alone in 2017, and then brought her family. She and her husband at the time both loved baseball and wanted their oldest son to continue playing.

“It’s beneficial because it’s the same group he’s been playing with since they were 5 years old,” she said.

Even as many Venezuelans leave Colombia for the United States, the baseball league remains a nexus for the Venezuelan diaspora. Ms. Acosta said families who haven’t even left Venezuela yet reach out regularly on social media.

The messages, she said, typically say, “‘Hi, I need information. I’m coming to Colombia soon and I want my son to register to play over there.’”