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Chavez Throws Out Pitch on Election

July 31, 2000

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ The southpaw took the mound in the tropical sun, red-faced under his warm-up suit. The first pitch was wide. The second almost hit the batter.

But he didn’t sweat it. A relief pitcher was not an option. Besides, he was getting re-elected.

President Hugo Chavez celebrated election day Sunday _ in which Venezuelans re-elected him to a six-year term _ by voting early and then heading out to the baseball diamond, where he went six innings with a team made up mainly of his presidential guard.

``One of the places where I feel happiest, absolutely happy, is in the baseball stadium,″ he said between innings.

Signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans, Chavez often seemed more the sports celebrity that was his childhood dream than the president he has become.

But he seems to have made a good career move: After holding the opposing team scoreless and scoring two runs himself in three innings of softball _ winning 10-0 _ they switched to hardball and Chavez’s team lost 5-1 in three more innings.

Members of the opposing team made clear there was no favoritism.

``We’ve always played and it’s always relaxed. It’s friendly and there’s no pressure,″ said Gen. Hector David Reyes Quevedo, a Chavez aide.

Moments later, the general went down swinging as Chavez gave a broad grin.

Chavez didn’t do badly at the plate.

In the second inning, he knocked a blooper into right field, advanced to third on a double and scored on an inside-the-park home run.

In the third, a grounder past the first-base line drove in two runs. Chavez advanced to second on one hit, and scored on another.

Chavez, wearing the warm-up jacket of the Venezuelan national team, baseball pants and brand-new cleats, chatted on a cellphone and signed autographs between innings. Several hundred fans screamed ``Chavez! Chavez!″ from behind the chain-link fence.

``It’s exciting to see the president here,″ said fan Justo Bustamante. ``It’s incredible how close he is to people on the streets. He sets a good example for kids by playing baseball.″

Chavez, 46, has long considered himself as much a baseball player as a politician. As a boy he dreamed of making it to the pros, but joined the army instead. Since he was inaugurated as president in 1999, he hasn’t strayed far from the mound.

During a trip to Japan in October, Chavez threw around a ball with Roberto Petagine, a Venezuelan playing in Japan’s pro leagues.

The following month during a trip to Cuba, he took on a team of old-timers managed by Fidel Castro, who subbed in young stars and beat the Venezuelans 5-4.

Teammate Nelson Montanez, an official with the presidential guard, said Chavez never worries about the scoreboard.

``Win or lose,″ he said, ``he still wins.″

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