Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Chico Carrasquel Foundation aims to aid at-risk youths in native Venezuela: Late Sox hero's pals swing for his dream

Chicago Tribune (Oscar Avila): VALENCIA, Venezuela
­ The kids who live here could use a hero. They live in shacks along the highway. Their neighbors are drug dealers, car-jackers and other bad folks who have turned parts of Venezuela into some of the bleakest environments for young people in Latin America.

For the volunteers trying to help the youths here, inspiration comes from a Venezuelan who became a national icon when he starred as a shortstop for the Chicago White Sox five decades ago. Alfonso "Chico" Carrasquel also inspired a retired Chicago business executive to guide the effort, four decades after he worked in Venezuela in the first group of Peace Corps volunteers. But as Venezuelan and American board members try to get the Chico Carrasquel Foundation off the ground, they have run into a roadblock in fundraising. Their best ambassador, Carrasquel himself, died in 2005.
  • "Regrettably, there is more insecurity, there are more risks for children than ever," said Elias Polo Jr., who runs the YMCA in Valencia and is on the foundation's board. "That is why every one of us is on a mission to make things better."
Carrasquel was a hero when Joe Jaycox was going to high school three blocks from Comiskey Park in the 1950s. Carrasquel always seemed humble to a fault, "with a smile better than Paul Newman's," Jaycox recalled. Carrasquel had made his debut for the Sox in 1950, eventually becoming the first Latin American to play in the All-Star Game. By the time the two men met, Carrasquel was living half the year in Chicago and suffering the debilitating effects of diabetes. Family members say he adored Chicago, despite his early missteps. His sister recalls a radio interviewer who asked Carrasquel how many children he had. Thinking the question was about his batting average, the shortstop replied, "Almost 300."

Jaycox thought of Carrasquel when he arrived in Venezuela in 1962 to help the YMCA establish its first branches here. Sent to Maracaibo with his trusty guitar, Jaycox would compose folk songs there and still keeps the nickname that dubbed him a local, "Maracucho Joe." But it was a chance meeting with Carrasquel in Chicago in 1996, when a mutual friend introduced them, that got the two men talking. How about helping youths in the country both men loved so much?

Jaycox's first task when formally organizing the foundation in 2005 was reaching out to other former Peace Corps volunteers and even old friends in Venezuela, including his old Spanish teacher and YMCA partner whom he hadn't seen in 40 years.

Carrasquel's death in 2005 shook the country -­ President Hugo Chavez called for two days of mourning. But it also sent the foundation off-kilter. While the group has completed the paperwork for a non-profit, it has raised less than $10,000. Carrasquel had offered to open his Rolodex and call an all-star team of Venezuelan ballplayers. Asked how the foundation could afford to compensate one star, Carrasquel had told Jaycox: "Don't worry. I'll buy him lunch."
"Of course, it would have been different with Chico here," Jaycox said. "But I don't ever use that as an excuse. It sounds like the reason we don't have money is that Chico died. No, we won't alibi. We'll find a way."
Hernan Romero, who heads the foundation's Venezuelan board, said US donors are reluctant to invest in a country viewed as having an anti-American government. But the need has exploded in Valencia and other planned foundation sites. A UNESCO study last year reported that 72 percent of Venezuelan children live in poverty, compared with 57 percent of Venezuelans overall. Males in their teens or 20s are victims of 88 percent of crimes.

This month, Foreign Affairs magazine named Caracas the most dangerous city in the world. With the youth population projected to rise 21 percent by 2020, Chavez has accelerated his "missions," a socialist model of state-provided social services for families.

Even with limited money, the foundation has achieved a few small successes, including partnering with the YMCA to bring high-achieving students for a visit to Chicago. The visit included an autograph session with Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuelan. "It was motivating, to work and study hard so we could participate in this experience," said Jesus Alvarado, 15, who went on the trip. Meanwhile, the board still hopes Carrasquel will open doors for youths like Jesus.

One of Venezuela's most respected names already graces a professional baseball stadium and a series of national sports awards. And Carrasquel's legacy lives on behind the iron security bars of a brick house in the San Jose neighborhood of Caracas.

There, two of Carrasaquel's sisters have created a three-story shrine to their brother in the house he bought the family after signing his first pro contract. But crime is so bad that they won't allow strangers to visit­a shame because the collection rivals a museum's. The shelves bulge with Sox trinkets. A poster of Carrasquel and his fellow all-stars includes autographs of Ted Williams and Yogi Berra. Pete Rose signed a photo: "To Chico, a great guy."

As with everyone on the foundation board, sister Emilia Carrasquel is motivated by love for him. "We are the ones who keep him alive, as if he were still here," she said. "That the person has gone is a tragedy. But if they have someone to testify for him, he is not forgotten."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment