MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) — As he watches over dozens of children training on the field where his nephew learned the game, Miguel Cabrera's uncle is proud of the news that the Detroit Tigers slugger has netted the richest contract in history of any U.S. sport.
Like the rest of the neighborhood, he regards it as affirmation of the greatness always destined for "Miguelito," the local boy who would sneak back onto this very field after he was supposed to be home.
The field didn't look as sharp as it does now that Cabrera paid to have it redone. He's got enough money to spruce up as many fields as he wants now, after signing a $292 million 10-year deal with the Tigers.
"We saw it coming," said Jose Torres, who took over this baseball academy following the death of his brother David, who began teaching Cabrera to hit and field when the 2-time AL MVP was four years old. "He's destined to be in the Hall of Fame."
Cabrera's parents moved to a more affluent Maracay neighborhood after their son received a $1.8 million signing bonus from the Florida Marlins in 1999 at the age of 16. But the rest of his family continues live in the narrow streets and sun-bleached buildings of this community at the foot of a mountain an hour and a half west of Caracas. His uncles have moved in next to Cabrera's grandmother in the family house, creating a five-house family compound of sorts around a shared patio.
When Cabrera comes back to visit he travels with bodyguards and a police escort. The threat of kidnapping is very real. Cabrera's family cited the example of Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, who was abducted in 2011 at gunpoint outside his family's home in nearby Valencia. He was rescued two days later after a nationwide manhunt.
"The bodyguards stay outside and it's one of the few times we close the door," Cabrera's aunt Bertha Torres said.
But Cabrera still returns, even as inflation soars, the currency plummets and the murder rate has risen to among the highest in the world. Protesters have been taking to the streets for seven weeks to draw attention to these woes, sometimes getting into violent clashes with police and pro-government militias.
Residents of this neighborhood say the superstar is a model for local youth, who must navigate a more treacherous path than he did. They remember Cabrera as a child who only put down the bat to study, and stayed home most nights.
"He's like an angel for the children. Each time he comes to the neighborhood, we welcome him joyously like a brother. He's done things that no one else has done— not the mayor, not the governor," said Frederick Guevara, a longtime resident who watches over cars that park at the stadium on game days.
His enormous payday was the talk of the town. With so much bleakness in the country, residents relished the chance to take a day to celebrate one of their own. He is famous here for not just the salary, but his skills on the field. He won the Triple Crown in 2012, the last two AL MVP awards, and is among seven players in history to hit at least .320 with 365 homers and 1,260 RBIs.
"It gives me chills just thinking about it," said Jesus Alberto Villa.
A Venezuelan making minimum wage, $6,228 a year at the official exchange rate, would have to work 46,885 years to earn what Cabrera will pick up in just 10 with his new contract.
Unlike many Latin American countries, where soccer is king, baseball is the national obsession in Venezuela, cutting across classes and political ideologies. Cabrera was born into a family particularly wrapped up in the sport. His uncle Jose played professionally with the local Tigres de Aragua team, and his mother Gregoria was a member of the national softball team for 12 years.
"He's erased from his life the things that could cause him to fail," his uncle Jose said, referring to a pair of publicized drinking incidents in the U.S. that ended with Cabrera in jail.
"It gives us great pride to have someone like him in the family and the neighborhood. Miguel is the pride and cherished child of the neighborhood, the state and all of Venezuela."
Hannah Dreier contributed to this report from Caracas.