SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – On the streets at home in Venezuela, the people still say nice things to Luis Sojo. There, in the open, he's still their Loo-ie, the kid from Barquisimeto with the bad body and wonderful hands who'd grown up to be a big leaguer, a New York Yankee and a World Series champion.
Oh, every once in a while he'll get, "C'mon, we can be better than this," but otherwise the discourse is polite enough, respectful enough and sane enough. For most of his life he'd represented baseball and his country with proficiency and dignity. So there would be no reason to believe seven years ago that the World Baseball Classic would cost Sojo his relationship with so many in Venezuela.
"For me," said Andres Galarraga, who hit the most major-league home runs (399) of any Venezuelan player, "Luis Sojo is baseball, especially in Venezuela."
In his third and likely last term as Venezuela's field manager, Sojo is routinely booed in the ballparks of Venezuela, or in ballparks where Venezuelans are present. He is regularly skewered in the sports columns of Venezuelan newspapers.
This is what happens when, with first base open, you pitch to David Ortiz in the ninth inning of a one-run game against the Dominican Republic, as Sojo did in 2006. The Dominicans eliminated Venezuela in the second round.
Days later, during one village's annual burning of Judas ceremony, an Easter-time religious rite popular in Venezuela, heaved onto the pyre was an effigy of Luis Sojo.
Just the winter before, Sojo, who'd played two decades for the Cardenales de Lara, became the sixth player ever with 1,000 hits in the Venezuelan winter league. He'd been lauded with standing ovations, as much, perhaps, for his dedication to Venezuelan baseball as for his lunging proficiency with the bat. Along came the next winter, which followed the WBC washout by eight months, and in the very same ballpark Sojo was ridiculed as the man who could not win the classic.
Sojo returned to lead Venezuela's WBC club in 2009, won five of six games in rounds one and two, then was eliminated before the championship game. Boos returned, more forceful. This is what happens when you start Carlos Silva over Felix Hernandez against South Korea in the semifinals, as Sojo did in 2009. The Koreans eliminated Venezuela in a rout.
During the tournaments, Sojo began receiving twice daily, mostly supportive phone calls from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, Chavez would call to ask about the team, its morale, the next challenge. Only once, Sojo said, did Chavez question his in-game strategy, and that was to suggest Francisco Rodriguez perhaps should have pitched in the third inning of a 2009 game against the U.S. K-Rod, of course, was Sojo's closer. Sojo met Chavez only once in person, and that was a brief introduction, but the relationship rubbed some Venezuelans wrong.
So this has become the baseball life of Luis Sojo, favorite son turned – in the minds of many in Venezuela – inept manager.
"Venezuela is hard," Galarraga said. "It's like New York."
It matters little that Sojo just this winter guided Navegantes del Magallanes to a Venezuelan title. More telling at home, he took that team (or what remained of it when most players left to prepare for spring training) to the Caribbean World Series and lost four of six games.
Sojo tries to understand. Venezuela lost badly Thursday night to the Dominican Republic and he seemed to know what was coming. He must beat Puerto Rico on Saturday and Spain on Sunday for any chance at redemption, and even that could be fleeting. The baseball fans of his country have taken an oddly-constructed and timed tournament and turned it into a referendum on Luis Sojo the baseball man. He might never adequately answer for pitching to David Ortiz (Moises Alou was on deck) or giving the ball to Carlos Silva (he was pitching better than Felix Hernandez), and it seems to have washed out four decades of devotion.
"Well," Sojo says with a smile, "when I was a player they loved me. When I come home in 2006 they started hating me. But I'm still a nice guy. I look at it that way."
Though in the past he has lashed out at what he believed to be unfair criticism of his team and decisions, Sojo gets where that comes from.
"The people have so much passion for this game in Venezuela, and every time that you step on the field it's all about winning games," he says. "In Venezuela, they don't come to the game to watch a group of guys perform; they come to the ballpark to see your team win. That's why they get so emotional, so frustrated.
"And after that, hey, what people think about you, it's not that important because you've got a job to do. My job is to represent my country, do the best I can to make those people happy. Unfortunately, you win and lose. When you win, you are a hero. When you lose, they're not going to like you. Trust me."
He laughed at that, but without much enthusiasm. He most certainly wishes to make Venezuelans proud of their baseball and of him. He returned to the tournament to give it one more shot, and the Dominicans were better. Much better. If the Venezuelans go home losers again, the players will shoulder the disappointment, but the manager will carry the responsibility.
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Sojo says that's the way it is, the way it should be. He wants to win. He's given away his reputation in pursuit of it. Maybe he wishes the people of Venezuela would see it the same way.
"I love baseball," he says, "and I want to do something special for my country."
Even now. Especially now.
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