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.”