Venezuelan Baseball Players Love Their Chaotic Country From Afar


The Rockies’ Gonzalez said he felt the same way about his visit before the 2016 season.

“It’s sad because here in the U.S., it’s calm and you can walk around,” said Gonzalez, who lives in Windermere, Fla. and is playing for Venezuela in the W.B.C. “In my own country, it’s different. It’s another world. It’s an unsafe world.”

Hector Rondon, a reliever for the Chicago Cubs and another member of the W.B.C. team, said he would like to obtain permanent residency in the United States for the safety of his family, which includes two young daughters.

“I love my country, but I need to stay here for the stability for my kids, their school, the food, medicine,” he said.

And yet despite the crime, the corruption, the shortages of food and the intense standoff between Maduro’s loyalists and his opponents, Venezuela remains fertile ground for baseball, with more than 500 prospects signed by major league teams in the last two years.

The first Venezuelan-born player to break into the major leagues was pitcher Alex Carrasquel with the Washington Senators in 1939. Luis Aparicio, the first Venezuelan elected into the Hall of Fame, played from 1956 to 1973, but the explosion of Venezuelans in the major leagues did not begin until the 1990s.

According to Baseball Reference, 358 Venezuelan players have appeared in the major leagues, trailing only the Dominican Republic’s 669 for the most players from any country outside the United States. In 2016, 102 players born in Venezuela appeared on major league rosters.

The Houston Astros opened the first academy to develop young Venezuelan players in 1989, and in the middle of the last decade, 13 major league teams had a presence in Venezuela. The country seemed ready to overtake the Dominican Republic as the biggest pipeline of foreign talent to the major leagues.

But that assessment changed as Venezuela fell into disarray. Major league teams began shuttering their academies, and only the Cubs, the Rays, the Detroit Tigers and the Philadelphia Phillies remain.

“There’s plenty of talent,” said Johnny DiPuglia, who heads international operations for the Nationals, who have never had an academy in Venezuela.

“But you worry about sending the kids home,” he added. “There is a shortage of food. They don’t go out at night because it’s dangerous. They don’t have the means of going where they want to go work out because we don’t have academies.”

Even though the number of academies has fallen, scouting continues.

“While some clubs have altered their presence in Venezuela, the majority continue to regularly travel there for scouting purposes,” said Michael Teevan, a spokesman for Major League Baseball. “We continue to monitor developments in the country in the interest of advising clubs and players appropriately.”

Jon Daniels, the general manager of the Texas Rangers, said there was a time when, because of an M.L.B. advisory, he did not allow his American scouts to travel to Venezuela and relied only on Venezuelan scouts.

Photo

Cleveland Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco in a spring training game last month. He has stayed away from Venezuela for years.

Credit
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

DiPuglia said he used to scout in Venezuela monthly but now goes a handful of times a year, relying instead on other scouts. He rarely ventures away from the hotel or stadium.

The Seattle Mariners closed their academy in 2015, the most recent closure. The team had built a $7 million academy in the Dominican and decided it was better to send their Venezuelan players there to train, said Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners’ general manager at the time.

“A lot of it was logistics,” Zduriencik said. “But everybody is aware of anything going on in Venezuela.”

The Tigers, who have a significant contingent of Venezuelan players, still have their academy in Venezuela, and Al Avila, the Tigers’ general manager, said he did not urge his players to avoid the country in the off-season.

“That’s their personal situation, as far as where they want to live and the security they get,” Avila said.

The Tigers’ first-base coach, Omar Vizquel, was a longtime fixture at shortstop in the major leagues and is the manager of the Venezuelan team in the W.B.C. During the off-season, Vizquel said, he stays in touch with first baseman Miguel Cabrera and designated hitter Victor Martinez, both Florida residents who play for the Tigers and the W.B.C. team, about their safety when they return to Venezuela.

“We all talk about what could happen and tell each other to be careful,” said Vizquel, who often visits Caracas, his hometown. “Among us Venezuelans, there’s a lot of shared experience and we talk about it.’’

Some players have tried to make a difference. Last fall, Carrasco’s charity collected medical supplies — in addition to school and baseball equipment — to send to Venezuela. Lobaton would love one day to live in his native country again and host baseball clinics for children, as he has seen American teammates do when they return to their hometowns in the off-season.

“I have faith, like all Venezuelans, that things will change,” he said.

And for now, the Venezuelans on the W.B.C. team will try to win the championship for a country they love — but often from a distance.

Correction: March 11, 2017

An earlier version of a picture caption in this story incorrectly attributed a quote. “I have faith, like all Venezuelans, that things will change,” was said by Jose Lobaton, not Carlos Carrasco.

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