'My Country Is Misery:' The MLB Stars Who Are Too Scared to Go Back Home

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterAugust 1, 2017

Rockies right fielder Carlos Gonzalez says he's afraid of returning to Venezuela:  "[It's like] they're living in a war. I won't go there."
Rockies right fielder Carlos Gonzalez says he's afraid of returning to Venezuela: "[It's like] they're living in a war. I won't go there."Associated Press

After a trying first half of the season, Carlos Gonzalez just wanted to relax with his family during the All-Star break in July. But as he sat around the pool at his house in Florida, the topic no Venezuelan can avoid kept coming up.

"Venezuelans, we only talk about politics now," the Colorado Rockies right fielder said a week or so later. "There doesn't go one day that we don't say anything about a political issue. That's it. If you see someone from Venezuela, it's the first thing that comes up."

The conversations aren't easy, because what has gone on in their homeland this year hasn't been easy. The marches and battles in the streets are a constant in their lives, no matter their views on the underlying issues and even though they have the safety of distance.

There's a physical distance, because they're here and the troubles are there. But mentally and emotionally, the troubles are never far away.

"It's really tough," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who regularly visited Venezuela in past offseasons, said he won't be making the trip this winter.

"I love going there every offseason, but I always tell my wife that I would never take a chance," he said. "The way my family describes how the streets are, [it's like] they're living in a war. I won't go there."

For him and for so many other Venezuelans, it just adds to the sadness.

They can't go home.

There are 98 Venezuela-born players who have played in the major leagues this season, according to research through Baseball-Reference.com, and many more in the minor leagues. Some, like Gonzalez, have avoided publicly taking sides—"The country is completely apart, divided in two, and at the end of the day, we're baseball players," Gonzalez said. Others have come out against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli took to the Players' Tribune in May to write a heartfelt plea for the troubles to end, and he's been openly critical of Maduro's government. Cervelli and Milwaukee Brewers outfielder-infielder Hernan Perez organized other Venezuelan players in a "Basta Ya" video that appeared on Cervelli's Instagram page.

Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera also posted on Instagram, begging the government not to hurt his family and saying he was told by pro-government people he would be killed if he returned to the country.

"What do you want me to do to help in Venezuela?" Cabrera asked in a video, according to a translation by the Detroit Free Press. "You want me to send guns? Because I have already helped Venezuela a lot; I have sent medicine, I have sent food, I have sent this and that."

Cabrera also said he's tired of hearing his mother will be kidnapped. In 2011, Tampa Bay Rays catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped in Venezuela. He was seized at gunpoint in Valencia and rescued by police commandos two days later.

No active major leaguer has openly taken the government's side in the disputes, though ex-major leaguer Magglio Ordonez is a mayor who represents Maduro's United Socialist Party. Carlos Guillen, another ex-major leaguer, works under Maduro's vice president, Tareck El Aissami, as president of a state sports ministry.

There are more Venezuelan players in the major leagues than ever before. The commissioner's office reported that 76 Venezuelans made Opening Day rosters in 2017, the most in history. The numbers grew dramatically while the country was under the control of President Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor and mentor.

Chavez had played baseball as a youth, and Melissa Segura wrote in a 2013 story in Sports Illustrated that "the former player-turned-politician's social policies unintentionally spurred an era of unprecedented baseball success for his homeland."

In Segura's view, the government policies led formerly middle-class families to struggle economically and see baseball as a way out for their children.

Venezuela continues to develop players today, but the conditions in the country have gotten so bad that major league teams tell their scouts not to travel there. Two weeks ago, many scouts were in nearby Aruba, where some of the top young players from Venezuela had traveled for a showcase event.

Meanwhile, the conditions in Venezuela seem to grow worse and worse. The New York Times reported last Sunday that in three months of daily street protests, over 90 people have been killed and 3,000 arrested.

The country's major league players can try to help in various ways, but their biggest assist may be in using their celebrity to help bring attention to the suffering.

Cervelli, for one, is doing just that.

This should be the best time in Cervelli's life. After seven seasons with the New York Yankees in which he never played more than a backup role, he was traded to the Pirates and found a home. In May 2016, at age 30, he signed the first multiyear contract of his career, for three years and $31 million.

But as Cervelli stood before a small group of reporters two months ago at Citi Field, he looked anything but content. His face showed pain as he spoke emotionally and eloquently about what he has done and how powerless he still felt.

"The reality is I don't have a million followers on social media," he said. "What I'm trying to do is start something."

His parents have left Venezuela. He understands he has to stay away, too.

"The reality is I cannot go there," Cervelli said. "I haven't been there in a year-and-a-half. I'm scared to go."

His extended family remains there, however, and he realizes that speaking out could put them in danger.

"I know what can happen, but I think it would be worse if this government stays," Cervelli said.

He said the Pirates have been understanding and that the organization has even helped send supplies to Venezuelans in need.

"They've been good," he said. "They know I'm not a politician. I'm just a human being born and raised in Venezuela."

For Cervelli and for so many of his countrymen who play in the major leagues, that's really what this is about. Yes, it's political, because it's impossible to discuss the protests without getting political. More than that, though, it's about trying to help their fellow citizens, who deal every day with ugly realities.

"We just want people to speak for themselves," San Diego Padres starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "We don't want anybody to tell us what to do, and we just want to be free. We want more safety for our friends and families."

Chacin joined with other Padres and Texas Rangers players from Venezuela in an Instagram video similar to the one Cervelli did with the Brewers' Perez and 11 other Venezuelans from around the major leagues.

Cervelli said he came up with the idea in early May, during a conversation with Perez. He said they wanted to go beyond simply offering their moral support to the protesters.

"It's not only saying, 'I'm supporting you,'" Cervelli said. "It's screaming loud and asking for help. Every day I wake up and I feel worse.

"You see how the world is so quiet about this stuff. We have to make a change. [The socialist government] has been there 18 years, my friend, talking about how bad it was before. They made everything worse. It's time for them to go.

"My country is misery."

Gonzalez's family continues to travel back and forth between Venezuela and the United States.

"They love our country," he said. "It's not easy to just take off, because you have so many other family members there. You can never disconnect. You can never say, 'I don't care what's happening over there.' I do care. That's the place that I love, and it's always a concern for each one of us."

It's a concern that goes far beyond baseball, but there's no way to get around the sport's place in Venezuelan society. The game has been part of the culture for more than 100 years, and Venezuelan players began arriving in the major leagues in 1939, when Alex Carrasquel played for the Washington Senators.

Nearly 400 players have followed Carrasquel over the years, according to Baseball-Reference.com, and in 1984 Luis Aparicio became the first (and as of now only) Venezuelan in the Hall of Fame. But the current crisis has touched Aparicio, too.

With the All-Star Game in Miami this year, MLB invited all Hall of Famers of Latin American descent to take part in a pregame ceremony. Aparicio declined, leaving his explanation on Twitter, as Marly Rivera of ESPN translated:

Marly Rivera @MarlyRiveraESPN

I love Aparicio: "Thanks MLB for the honor at the ASG, but I can't celebrate when young people in my country are dying fighting for freedom" https://t.co/ok8pQJL3cN

The fighting continues, and no Venezuelan can easily escape it. Dozens of them in the major leagues play on, knowing that for now, they can't go home.

Their country is misery.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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