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A Country in Turmoil: Venezuelan MLB Players Finding it Impossible to Ignore Trouble at Home

The current political climate in Venezuela is impossible to ignore for MLB players. Photo Credit: David Hague
A Country in Turmoil: Venezuelan MLB Players Finding it Impossible to Ignore Trouble at Home

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part one of a multi-part series on the current political climate in Venezuela, and how it impacts players in the majors and minors. 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. We’ll get back to the non-important stuff next week, like lower level defensive improvements, or which pitchers are seeing more velocity this year. – Tim Williams

PITTSBURGH — If you look closely while watching Major League Baseball games this season, you might notice something different about the way some players are interacting with the opposition.

Perhaps more than the usual chatter at first base. An extended handshake here, a pat on the back there. Players meeting in the outfield during batting practice.

Those interactions are part of the routine of baseball, as old college teammates, former fellow farm hands and players traded to greener pastures reunite on the diamond.

This season, for many of those players, the common bond they share may not be a former franchise affiliation or even a friendship, just a passport.

There have been 103 players that are natives of Venezuela that have played in MLB games this season. That’s an average of just over three per team and is the third-most of any country, following the United States and the Dominican Republic.

That’s been the case in every season since 1992. In that time, many of baseball’s greats have hailed from Venezuela, from Andres Galarraga, Ozzie Guillen, and Omar Vizquel to Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez. How much longer it will remain the case is very much up in the air.

Venezuela is a country in turmoil.

***

In 2013, Nicolas Maduro became president of Venezuela following the death of revolutionary socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

Chavez oversaw a controversial part of Venezuela’s history as he turned record-high oil prices into social programs that helped the poor, while at the same time paving the way to economic troubles in the future. He also worked to remove rights from his political opponents, and re-wrote the Venezuelan constitution in his favor on several occasions, including in 2009 when he eliminated term limits, allowing him to stay in power as long as possible.

By 2014, that tide had turned, as a decline in the price of oil led to domestic unrest and food shortages that quickly led to protests. In 2015, Maduro’s party lost a midterm election and it appeared that his power would erode.

Instead, he took steps toward authoritarianism, which culminated with his party organizing a constitutional convention that stripped the power of the opposition assembly and caused the United States government to declare him a dictator.

Meanwhile, conditions in the country have worsened. Food shortages are rampant, as is violence. Protestors clash with police officers and militarized gangs that support the Maduro regime. The rates of kidnapping and murder have skyrocketed.

***

Some 2,200 miles to the north, Venezuelans on ball fields seek out one another for comfort, companionship, and perhaps most importantly, news.

Many players have family at home, some have wives and children. All have friends and other loved ones that they fear for. News can be hard to come by. The Associated Press pulled its reporter from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, early in August. Telephone service is spotty. Instead, news travels by word of mouth as one player shares his story with another.

For Francisco Cervelli, Jose Osuna, and Felipe Rivero, having three Venezuelans in the clubhouse can be both a gift and a blessing. They feel fortunate to be surrounded by countrymen in during such a pivotal time in their nation’s history.

At the same time, with so many outlets, the news never stops coming. It’s almost never good.

“It’s very tough,” Cervelli said. “(Detroit Tigers pitcher Edward) Mujica was talking the other day about how hard it is for him to come to the stadium and act like nothing is happening. It’s the same for me and it’s the same for the other guys. You focus when they say, ‘play ball.’ But all the other times, people are texting you, calling you, stuff in social media, so even if you want to get away from that, you can’t. It’s crazy.

“It’s helpful and at the same time, it’s not helpful. Because when I don’t have info, they get the info. You cannot have a day off from this. Every day, it’s something new. Every single day. When you think it’s done, it gets more complicated.”

Some players have avoided talking about the crisis in their homeland, instead choosing to focus on their major-league careers. The Pirates players, particularly veterans Cervelli and Rivero, have been more outspoken. Rivero has hung an upside-down Venezuelan flag from his locker in the clubhouse and written messages on his cap.

Cervelli has been perhaps the most outspoken of Venezuela’s baseball players, organizing a social media campaign in May and continuing to grant interviews on the subject to anyone that will listen despite the pain in his voice.

“I cannot just walk away,” he said. “I’m ready to help to rebuild the country. I think there’s a lot of good people here that can help to build it again to have what we used to have. … I want to be part of the rebuild and of the good thing. I don’t want to be part of the misery.”

***

Cervelli sees baseball as a unique opportunity. While oil is and will likely always be his country’s main export, the outsized importance of 103 baseball players to an American audience is an enormous asset to those that want to bring the crisis to the forefront of the public consciousness of this country. He’s seen firsthand how baseball has made that possible.

“It’s because of us,” he explained. “They see some of the guys with stickers here (on their face). They ask questions. Some of the people don’t know what’s going on, but they’re getting more involved, because this is serious. The other day in the local newspaper, the front page was Venezuela. When do you see that?”

But that change has come with a price. Cervelli hasn’t been home since 2015. It’s been even longer for Rivero. Their public protests have made it impossible to safely return.

“It’s been two years and I’m not going back,” Cervelli said.

That hasn’t made the job of being a major-league baseball player any easier. Cervelli isn’t making any excuses, but it’s hard to see his country decimated on the news and then confront his .249 batting average as if it was a serious issue.

“We signed when we were 16, 17,” Rivero said. “We went through a lot. To see the country the way it is right now, it’s pretty tough right now on all of us.”

***
For Osuna, just 24, the unrest at home is a much more pressing issue baseball-wise. He’s spent the last three winters playing for Margarita in the Venezuelan Winter League. It’s experience that he credits for developing him into a big-league ready ballplayer.

In 2015-16, he put up a .914 OPS while facing a combination of major-league and high-minors pitching to put himself on the map as a legit prospect. Last winter, he used his time to springboard into Spring Training and his MLB debut this year.

“It’s really good to come into Spring Training in a good position and trying to get ready a little bit faster. You don’t get here not having played baseball in five months. It’s helped me a lot. … I think it’s probably the same level (as Triple-A), but there’s just a little bit more knowing all the fans and everything. It’s more like the big leagues. I think it’s the closest thing.”

Osuna had planned on returning to Venezuela to play this winter, but now, his plans are up in the air while he waits to hear what things will be like at home.

“There’s a lot of problems over there,” he said. “We don’t know yet. If something changes over there, maybe I can play. I don’t know. I want to play, but if they are having the kinds of problems over there, I don’t think anyone will want to play. It would be hard. It’s dangerous over there right now. Not everyone wants to make a road trip when you don’t know if somebody wants to kill you.”

While the younger Osuna can clearly see the benefits of playing on a big stage, the older players are more conscious of the risk factors.

“I’m not playing because of the situation there,” Rivero said. “I don’t know if the other older guys are going to play, but I’m sure I’m not going to play.”

Cervelli was even more forceful.

“We can’t have winter league,” he said. “There’s no way.”

But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t thought about it. The winter league has stadiums full of fans adoring the country’s heroes who had returned from the long MLB season, and still cared enough for the fans at home to play another 60 games. They play mostly for pride and for the love of the game, and that is a Venezuelan tradition that Cervelli would like to see again some day.

But for now, that remains a dream.

“I’ll go back to my country when the government is down and the president is out,” Cervelli said. “That’s it. That’s the only way. It’s a shame.”

  • Brian Z

    Great article and I’ll be sharing it with several friends.
    Quick question though, can the Pirates prohibit any of their players from playing winter ball in Venezuela? Or heck any country for that matter, I’d assume as an employee of the team, the team could control certain aspects of their life especially if taking a couple months off will benefit the team down the road. Even if there wasn’t turmoil, I don’t want Rivero to throw another 30 innings (or however many it would be) and I’d rather have Cervelli resting his body so it can hold up to a full season.

    • John Dreker

      Yes, there is a thing called the “Extreme Fatigue” list, where an MLB team can put players on the list so they aren’t allowed to play winter ball for at least the first two months. In December, the team/player can ask for permission to play. The Pirates usually put a few players on the list each year.

      It’s also a way to get players like Alen Hanson, Angel Sanchez and Elias Diaz Arizona Fall League time in the last few years. Players from those countries aren’t allowed to player in the AFL if winter league is an option. Putting them on the Extreme Fatigue list makes it not an option, thus making them eligible to play in the AFL.

      • Brian Z

        once again, I thank you for enlightening me to yet another thing that I did not know existed.

      • TonyV

        Wondering how you are to extremely fatigued to play winter ball but not to fatigued to play in the AFL? :)

        • John Dreker

          The explanation they use is that winter ball is out of their control, where someone like Osuna goes there and gets 300+ plate appearances including playoffs, while everything in the AFL is a controlled setting by the individual teams.

          No position players play every game in the AFL and the pitchers are limited to four innings for starters, while anyone sent there is relief comes with a pitch count number not to pass and they are on a schedule to go every 3-4 days. I’ve seen winter teams use relievers three days in a row plenty of times.

  • Biagio

    Frankie we love you!!!! I hope Maduro gets run over by a coal truck!!!!!

  • Matthew R

    Thanks for covering this. It’s a big deal.

  • Scott K

    My heart breaks for the people of Venezuela. Further proof the biggest liars and thieves are in politics.

    The people of Venezuela have to feel helpless and hopeless right now. And I’m sure the one’s here in America playing baseball feel guilty for having abundance when their fellow countrymen are fighting for table scraps. Not to mention afraid for their family and friends stuck living in the hell hole their country has become.

    I can only hope the people rise up and fight to rid the country of those in power and restore their government back to its rightful owner, the people.

    God Bless the people of Venezuela!

  • piraddict

    The situation in Venezuela is a human tragedy. The socialists gained power there 20 years ago and have transformed what was once the richest country in Latin America, and one of the richest in the world, into an economic basket case along with instituting an iron fist suppression of political freedom. Police are rewarded for meritorious service by gifts of toilet paper, because you can’t obtain it in the stores. You can find food or medicines there either. Not that this is the first such instance in the last century. The legacy of socialism over the last century in the USSR, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Eritrea and various Eastern European countries should be enough to discredit socialism in the minds of thinking people. But you will never see the facts revealed in the American media, or taught in American schools. There are many (ranging in a broad scale of outright violence from Alt Left radicals to mainstream politicians like Bernie) in America that promote socialism as a good idea/system. They want to bring Venezuela here. Is that really a good idea?

    • Scott K

      Not to mention Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power pitching a socialist form of government.

      I will say helping the poor is a noble cause, but it’s best left to churches and other organizations not on it for personal gain.

      • Randy W

        Unfortunately, churches are often in it for gain, helping you on one end & recruiting you on the other. Some charities are barely better. We as a species are continually failing each other. Millions of people worldwide have inadequate healthcare, millions of Americans can’t afford it (and it’s no wonder, with the billions of dollars UPMC and Highmark spend on advertising). Millions are starving, even though we grow enough of food to feed everybody. Democratic socialism is definitely NOT the same socialism many are citing in these comments, and there are examples of countries in which it works well. Capitalism has its merits, to be sure, but the biggest downside is the unchecked greed it creates. What’s the cost of greed? Well, there’s indisputable scientific evidence that we are trashing our environment almost beyond repair by pumping greenhouse gasses into it, yet we have dozens of politicians and reporters denying it’s even an issue. Why? Because it might reduce billionaires to mere millionaires.

        • piraddict

          Tim’s reference below claims there are no countries that have implemented Democratic Socialism, though Hugo Chavez claimed he was implementing it in Venezuela. The Wikipedia reference also says that Democratic Socialist are committed to the redistribution of wealth and power and the social (government) ownership of major industries. The denial of the rights of private property underlies these two principles, and this disrespect of individual liberty and the right to own property is what has lead to the 100 percent failure rate of Socialist countries.

          • Randy W

            Not true. Denmark, Sweden and I think a few other countries in Scandanavia are Democratic socialist counties, quite successfully, I believe.

            • They are all falling apart, except for Norway which guards its borders like a fortress and severely limits immigration.

              • Randy W

                I’d say the citizens of those countries would say the same thing about the USA.

                • Possibly, but due to the same creeping policies.

                • Scott Kliesen

                  We guard our borders like a fortress? Your joking, right?

            • piraddict

              Denmark, Sweden and the other Scandanavian honor private property rights and have private ownership of business. They don’t qualify as Democratic Socialist countries. Words and their definitions matter. Just because the Scandanavian countries are democracies that practice high taxation and state controlled medical services doesn”‘t make them Democratic Socialist countries.

              • Randy W

                Indeed definitions do matter, and Democratic socialism by definition is a mixed bag with varying degrees of “extremity”, for lack of a better word. They do, in part, qualify. Thanks for pointing that out.

            • Scott K

              Denmark has a tax rate of 60.2% last year on income of $55,000. If this is your idea of “quite successful ” Democrat Socialism, than you and I have much different ideas about what success looks like Randy.

        • Your entire paragraph is chock full of inaccurate propaganda and flat out lies spewed incessantly by the left. Europe is falling apart due to your socialist light policies. Socialism light leads to socialism, which inevitably leads to communist totalitarianism. Please, for all of us, take the time to educate yourself beyond media and Bernie talking points. God Bless Venezuela and God Bless America.

          • Randy W

            Yes, because FOX News has the most accurate information…my bad.

            • I never said anything about Fox news. Nice try. Climate change…smh. The climate has ALWAYS changed. We cannot control that but go ahead and donate your $$$$ to the ripoff artists who make millions, live in homes the size of hotels and scream around in carbon spewing jets. I won’t. Plants love carbon, by the way, did you know that’s what they exist on? We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I’m back to lamenting the Pirates sorry team, something we can ALL agree on.

        • Scott K

          Say what you will about churches and charities, but there is one undisputable difference between them and government efforts. Churches and charities distribute only money freely given by others and not a penny more. Government mandates who gives and how much under the threat of fines, penalties and incarceration, and routinely gives much more than was raised causing us to pay interest while leaving our children with debt to service.

          • PieRat

            They do it more efficiently also, and it doesn’t go to feeding the armies instead of the people it was intended for,

        • DDO729

          Looking back at your comments I see why you are such a nut case. You bash Churches all while showing you worship at the church of environmentalism. To be in that church it takes more faith than any religion. Many times they break every rule of science to politicize the topic. Considering it’s your religion, I’m not going to change your mind.

    • There’s a big difference between Democratic socialism and the examples of socialism you’re describing/the example in Venezuela. I’m not a Bernie guy, but I saw a lot of confusion over this in the primaries, where people confused his ideas with some of those same communist countries you mention.

      • Scott Kliesen

        Have to call BS on this one, Tim. Socialism packaged in Christmas paper and a pretty bow is still Socialism.

        There is no value in FREE. You of all people should understand this concept. You own a thriving business that charges for content similar to what others provide at no charge. Why?

        I’ll tell you why, you have self-employed hustle. You work harder and demand more of your staff than others to provide value to your customers.

      • piraddict

        Per the last paragraph in the section under Democratic Socialism in the Wikipedia reference you cite to Scott below, Hugo Chavez claimed that Democratic Socialism was integral to the Bolivarian form of Socialism he was implementing in Venezuela. So no, there is no difference between Democratic Socialism and what has happened in Venezuela.

      • Ken

        Democratic socialism is an oxymoron. You can only have one. Socialism has proven over and over that it is a failed idea. And to fully implement it requires a good deal of dictatorship.

  • David McCloud

    cant believe your opening this can of worms. Well Donald Trump is right with Cervelli when he said on friday he was considering military action in Venezuela….Cervelli and Trump…….lets look at a little background to Trump and Cervelli………http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/US-Has-Budgeted-49M-for-Venezuelan-Right-Wing-Since-2009-20170517-0018.html we (USA) have help create this mess…….

      • David McCloud

        I do not suppport either side. Lets just say the government in power is doing a bad job., so lets be clear about the other side as well. Did the USA give money to the opposition? yes a fact. Did they purchase the majority of newspapers in Venezuela ? yes a fact. Did ExxonMobil ask the US govt to overthrow the govt? yes thats a fact. So to tell the troubles of the ballplayers is fine, but when Cervelli calls for the overthrow of the govt, or its replacement he is stating his political preference. Mine…….or my preference? Stay out of other people’s business, the US govt should not be here to help ExxonMobil or our Racist in Chief Trump who said that a military option is on the table ……….Ask Cervelli how he feels about that.

        • You were doing OK until the last sentence, which exposed your bias. I do agree that deep state gets us into all kinds of messes we shouldn’t be involved with. Good day.

  • NMR

    So can Alan continue posting these articles or are you political geniuses going to continue with your half-assed Facebook rants?

    Great work, Alan. Please keep them coming.

    • PieRat

      There’s 50 opinions on whether Nutting is cheap or not. It’s good to get this information. It must be hard to play with the level of focus they need at this level everyday.

    • Part 2 tomorrow.

  • PieRat

    I’m glad you’re bringing it to our attention. The mainstream media barely mentions the hardships they’re going through. Their people voted for change. What does Cirvelli say we can do to help his country.

  • Micbg77

    It must be heartbreaking for these players. Thank you for bringing this to light.

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