JUPITER -- As the manager of Venezuela's World Baseball Classic tournament team former major leaguer Luis Sojo said he often got early morning phone calls from his country's president Hugo Chavez.
"He was a man of baseball," Sojo said Tuesday night, less than an hour after Chavez passed away following a battle with cancer. "He was always aware of the team and who was on it. He was the first call I got in the morning during the tournaments in 2006 and 2009. He lived for baseball.
"It's always sad when someone dies. He was a human being, a president, a man who battled a lot for his life. He asked his family for peace. We're in a tough situation in our country right now. God has [Chavez] now."
The Venezuelan national team, in town to play the Marlins in an exhibition game Tuesday and the Cardinals Wednesday afternoon, requested a moment of silence before the first pitch of Tuesday's game. But we've been told MLB turned them down. The Venezuelan national flag stood at half staff for several minutes while the team took batting practice at Roger Dean Stadium. But it was eventually returned to full staff.
A spokesman for the Venezuelan team told reporters Hector Rodriguez, the country's minister of sports, relayed the following message to the baseball team before the game: "Please tell the guys to concentrate on sports and leave the political stuff out."
Two Venezuelan players are expected to speak with reporters after tonight's game.
As for this year's star-studded Venezuelan team, which lost in the semifinals of the WBC tournament in 2009, Sojo said: "This group of guys -- they want to win. They know what to do to get that goal. In our meetings we see guys, it’s all about winning. There's nothing else. I would say it’s a great team. But on paper it doesn’t mean anything. You’ve got to perform on the field. We've got the guys who know how to play the game."
Former Marlins pitcher Carlos Zambrano, who pitched for Fish in 2012, is starting Tuesday's game. He pitched for Sojo in the Venezuelan Winter League team and led his team to a title. Zambrano remains a free agent.
"He looks so good right now, he's in good shape," Sojo said. "He's very professional. There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to get a contract after the classic."
Venezuela faces a powerful Dominican Republic team Thursday night in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Venezuelans and Dominicans are expected to emerge from Pool C, which also features Puerto Rico and Spain. If Venezuela advances it would play at Marlins Park next week.
"No doubt," Sojo said of having a home field advantage in Miami. "It happened in 2009. We played USA in Miami twice. There is a lot of Venezuelans, a lot of Cuban community there and no doubt [the USA] would be the visiting team."