EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a multi-part series on the current political climate in Venezuela, and how it impacts players in the majors and minors. Part one can be found here. We’ve been working on this story for about a month, asking players, coaches, and front office members about the situation to get a well-rounded story. Normally our articles are behind a pay wall, but this series will be free. That’s because of the seriousness of this topic, compared to our normal stuff about pitching adjustments or swing mechanics, which ultimately don’t matter outside of entertainment purposes.
The situation in Venezuela is a serious issue, and we wanted to give it serious coverage to help raise awareness, continuing the goal of players from Venezuela. Since the article is free, anyone can read it, which means we’re asking that you share this series (the next parts are coming this week) to help raise awareness on the topic. – Tim Williams
Brian Peloza and Sean McCool combined for reporting and writing for this article.
INDIANAPOLIS and ALTOONA, Pa. — On any given day, a player might bring his son into the Victory Field clubhouse.
Indianapolis Indians players will sit in the dugout with their families to watch postgame fireworks, while some will play catch with their son on the field.
After a game, the players walk down a tunnel and have two ways to leave the stadium: through, or past, a family waiting room.
Elias Diaz doesn’t have any specific reason to stop.
All of the catcher’s family — mother, daughter, sister, and brother — are still in Venezuela with no immediate way to leave for the United States. The country is in turmoil under the leadership of Nicolas Maduro, who the United States has labeled a dictator. Violence and food shortages are commonplace.
Diaz gets constant reminders about not having his family with him here in the United States, when looking anywhere inside the stadium. A glance into the crowd shows families enjoying a game, while teammates have their families waiting for them after games.
“It’s frustrating because if you have your family here, you don’t worry about anything,” Diaz said. “It’s good when you see every player has his family here, but tough because you can’t.”
A lot of players will have concerns about where their future career trajectory is headed or how the first day of school went for their kids.
Diaz and several other minor league players in the Pirates organization have deeper concerns: Are all of their family members alive? Has someone been kidnapped? Do they have enough food?
“I call my mom and say, ‘How is everything?’” Diaz said. “They don’t tell me a lot of things because they don’t want me to worry about things. She says, ‘If we tell you something, you’ll be worrying about it and it will affect your game.’”
Players try to focus and not let the turmoil back home affect their play, but that’s asking an awful lot of them.
“It’s hard for Venezuela players to come and play baseball knowing your country isn’t in a good situation right now,” Elvis Escobar, an outfielder with Double-A Altoona from La Guaira, Venezuela, said to Sean McCool. “I don’t know if we’ll play winter ball this year. I hope yes, but I’m just thinking about my family. A lot of people died. It’s really hard for us.”
In some instances, the struggles these players hear about are tempered considering how many people have lost their lives. Escobar said five people close to him have been killed, including one friend in recent weeks.
“A guy that grew up with me everyday since we were like 3 years old, he passed away,” Escobar said. “He was in the streets asking for a better life and got shot. That’s bad. That’s really, really bad.”
The players from Venezuela provide hope for their families. They can send back basic items such as food and clothing to family and friends back home.
“A lot of people from Venezuela living here will buy food and send it to Venezuela because it’s really hard to find food there,” Tomas Morales, a catcher with Altoona from Rio Salado, said to Sean McCool.
Escobar has been helping 30-40 people back home, but he has help from a brother who is in the minor leagues, and several cousins, including Alcides Escobar, who plays with the Kansas City Royals in the major leagues.
“Everyday when I wake up, I have messages from Venezuela asking for food, clothes, for everything,” Escobar said. “That’s everyday. It’s hard to get out there and play and keep thinking about that everyday.”
The group of family members have sent boxes of food and clothing items to family members back home, in hopes of keeping them afloat and on the path to a better life. Escobar has been helping since he arrived in February for Spring Training.
“We get food or shoes for our little cousins who are trying to get signed to play professional baseball,” Escobar said. “Everything that we can send, we do that.”
All of these players would like to bring their families to the United States, but several obstacles stand in their way. Financial reasons are a big one since, with the exception of Diaz, these players are not on the 40-man roster.
But there is one other big problem: getting a visa to travel to the U.S.
“It’s difficult because we have to get a visa, and right now, Venezuela and the United States’ relationship is bad, so that’s why it’s tough to get a visa,” Diaz said.
Jose Osuna’s parents tried to get a visa, but were declined, said Diaz, who added the Pirates were going to help him by writing a letter to the embassy.
And Diaz has plans to apply for U.S. residency next year, which might help make it easier to get his family out of Venezuela. His family is more than eight hours away from Caracas, so they are not in as much danger as others closer to Caracas.
“But it’s still dangerous,” Diaz said. “We worry about it because we don’t know what is going to happen, or what the government is going to do in the next couple of months.”
And there’s one problem for Diaz: “We don’t know if we can go to Venezuela and then leave.”
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli emphatically said he was not going back to Venezuela anytime soon, while Jose Osuna and Felipe Rivero were not certain.
All of the minor league players from Venezuela would be able to stay at Pirate City in Florida during the offseason, but there’s one problem: that doesn’t allow them to be with their families.
So, despite his concerns, Diaz is going back to Maracaibo, Venezuela this offseason. He doesn’t really have a choice.
“I’ll go back because everybody is there,” Diaz said. “And I love my country, so I’ll go back.”
Morales plans to go home and hopes to play for Leonos Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League, assuming that season occurs this season, which is anything but certain.
Escobar also plans on returning home to play in winter league, but if that doesn’t occur he’ll play elsewhere, such as Mexico or in the Dominican. At bare minimum, he’ll return home for a little while to visit with family.
Diaz will play in a different country’s winter league if the Venezuelan league doesn’t occur this season. He can make that work, but it won’t be the same.
“We like to play in our country, because we love the game and we love our country,” Diaz said. “We prepared there. We learned. In the past, we would play with a lot of big leaguers which helps you get ready for Spring Training.”
The concerns likely aren’t going to end anytime soon. These players might not see their families that much during the offseason if the Venezuelan Winter League does not occur, forcing them to play in a different country.
In the meantime, they’ll try to focus on their play on the field as best they can. Phones will be checked often for updates, as they hope their home country returns to the normal state they remember from the past.