Fear, Texts and Bodyguards

It's not easy getting through MLB's 162-game schedule, but try it when you don't know if your family back home is safe. For baseball's Venezuelan brotherhood, it's a challenge they take on together.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJune 17, 2019

On the third Wednesday in May, Cardinals outfielder Jose Martinez was playing in Atlanta and eagerly awaiting his mother's flight to St. Louis the following day. Then he saw the news bulletin: The United States government was canceling commercial and cargo flights in and out of Venezuela, effective immediately.

"That means I don't know what's going to happen," Martinez said. "Because that's the way I send food back to Venezuela, to my family and to my kids, and I don't know what to do now. That means we cannot go back to Venezuela. It means my mom that is coming tomorrow cannot go to St. Louis to see me play."

It means, in short, that the concern and fear gripping MLB's Venezuelan population every waking hour this summer is only deepening.

Nightly, we watch a beautiful game in peaceful ballparks and break down everything from exit velocity to spin rates. But for 7.7 percent of the MLB Opening Day roster pool this year (68 of 882 players were Venezuela natives, the second-largest nationality of players born outside the United States), there is no quantifying the quiet desperation brought on by the political strife and humanitarian crisis that has brutalized their native country for the past several years and continues to worsen.

Demonstrators this spring took to the streets of Venezuela in support of opposition political leader Juan Guaido against President Nicolas Maduro, and a projection from the International Monetary Fund shows Venezuela's inflation rate will reach 10 million percent this year, which would be "one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in modern history," per the New York Times. Citizens are struggling for necessities: Children are malnourished and dying, and the public health care system has fallen apart.

"You wake up every day, and the first thing you do is go for your phone to see if everything is OK with your family," Martinez says.

Fernando Llano/Associated Press

Before each night's first pitch at 7:05, those phones blow up with voice calls, FaceTime visits and text messages, from loved ones and colleagues, like the ongoing text chain in which regular participants include Martinez, New York Mets catcher Wilson Ramos, Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, Baltimore Orioles catcher Jesus Sucre and more.

They share tips on how best to get supplies to their families, compare notes on the latest news from their homeland and provide moral support for one another—many of whom are their family's main financial providers. If one player needs something, others volunteer names of people who can help. Martinez says the group chat is buzzing every day.

"I pray every day for my family, for my country," Arizona third baseman Eduardo Escobar says. "It's out of control over there. Venezuela is so beautiful, but right now, man, the only thing I do is pray every day for my country."

The crisis is not exclusive to MLB players' families. But because of the political volatility at home and because of the money they earn as public figures, players and their families often become targets amid the chaos. Philadelphia second baseman Cesar Hernandez and Miami infielder Martin Prado, among others, were polite but declined to answer more than a couple of questions each. And many players are fearful of speaking publicly at all, wary of negative repercussions in their homeland.

Ramos, whose kidnapping while home during the 2011 offseason remains burned into the memories of so many, is the de facto godfather of this group, given his elder-statesman status (at 31, he is a 10-year veteran) and harrowing experience. He's also perfectly positioned as a catcher to serve as an information clearinghouse: Each time a rival hitter from his native land steps to the plate, Ramos asks about his family and how things are back home.

"A lot of players from Venezuela, as soon as I get rescued from my case, they ask me a lot of things. They want to talk," Ramos says. "What happened, all the little things, they wanted to know.

"I'm always open to talk and speak with them because now I can teach them how to protect themselves."

As things have devolved into a full-blown crisis in Venezuela, Ramos says that when players return home for the winter, they simply cannot go out in public like before. Since his kidnapping, he's employed eight full-time bodyguards—six to protect his parents, five brothers and two sisters and two more for himself when he visits.

"It's hard to find someone you trust, people who will take care of your family," Ramos says. "It's hard to find the right people for that work. The bodyguards I have, they've been working since my case eight years ago. We have a good relationship."

Martinez said he spends $400 per month to employ seven security guards in Venezuela to watch over his mother (Evelyn), two children (Mathias Alberto, five, and Alana, 10 months), brother, stepsister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and, also, the bar he purchased a year ago near his hometown of La Guaira. When he goes home in the winter, he keeps a bodyguard with him at all times, including one stationed at his bedroom door overnight so "as soon as I wake up, there's someone outside my door."

Jose Martinez employs seven security guards to watch over his family in Venezuela.
Jose Martinez employs seven security guards to watch over his family in Venezuela.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Every day, it's a concern because you don't know what's going to happen over there," Martinez said. "It can be normal and quiet one day, and everything can be a disaster the next day."

Martinez signed a two-year, $3.25 million extension with St. Louis without delay in February in no small part as a means to protect his family. He regularly transfers money online so his family back home can buy groceries ("if they can find groceries," he says). Everyday items we take for granted like food and medicine either have become prohibitively expensive in Venezuela or are simply not available.

Martinez, Milwaukee first baseman Jesus Aguilar, Contreras and dozens more send boxes of supplies home every week or two: canned tuna, dried meats, medicine...even finding something as seemingly simple as pain relievers like Advil or Tylenol is difficult, let alone the more specialized, prescription meds for grandparents. Some players send clothes and money. Arizona outfielder David Peralta tells his sister to shop online—"whatever they need"—and he'll pay for it. Mostly, the orders are delivered to one of a handful of companies in Miami, which then deliver them to Venezuela. Ramos has a friend who owns a transportation company in Miami, so he and some of the players use that to send supplies to their families.

Indeed, balancing the demands of a seven-month season while trying to keep your family safe in a place filled with turmoil has forced many players to do whatever works. While Colorado starter German Marquez tries to help pitch the Rockies to the playoffs again, he is separated from his wife and nine-month-old son, who are stuck in Venezuela awaiting the baby's passport.

Peralta's parents were supposed to visit him during spring training, but massive, sustained power outages throughout Venezuela forced the cancellation of their flight. At the same time, Aguilar couldn't reach his family for a day-and-a-half because of the power outages. His mother was with him at the time, and as texts didn't land and phone calls didn't connect, Aguilar tried to allay his mother's fears as best he could.

"It was hard before, and right now it's even worse," says Milwaukee starter Jhoulys Chacin, whose hometown of Maracaibo has been hard-hit by electricity shortages.

With six Venezuelans on their active roster—Aguilar, Chacin, Orlando Arcia, Manny Pina, Hernan Perez and Junior Guerra—the Brewers have one of the largest Venezuelan contingents in the majors. Manager Craig Counsell relies on first base coach Carlos Subero to keep the pulse of the group. Last year, in particular, Counsell says he spent time watching Periscope and Facebook Live videos with Subero and his players as events were happening.

"It's alarming," Counsell says. "For United States citizens, it's tough to put reality around it, really. It's a revolution. It's literally a revolution.

"There's humanitarian concerns everywhere in the country. It's definitely on their minds, as it has to be. How could it not be? Because they all have family dealing with it."

And now, flights are grounded, canceling visits and leaving many players, like Philadelphia's Hernandez and Washington's Anibal Sanchez, to send care packages by boat—which takes longer.

Martinez, whose father famously hit the home run that bounced off Jose Canseco's head in 1993 in Cleveland, has been one of the more active and outspoken players regarding his beloved homeland. Last September, the Cardinals supported him by offering $10 tickets to three games with Milwaukee and donating 75 percent of those proceeds to Martinez's Venezuelan relief efforts—mainly, donations to children in hospitals who are hungry. Fans also donated food items for Venezuelan relief that series, an effort that Martinez says elicited some 200,000 food items.

Though Ramos' kidnapping occurred eight years ago, it remains a stark reminder of the underlying danger accompanying an already difficult situation. The intrusion occurred around dinnertime at his mother's home in Valencia in November 2011. Ramos was held captive in a mountain hideout for 51 hours before being rescued by Venezuelan government forces. He now advises others strongly that when they are home, they should not leave the house alone and, especially, they should not wear anything that targets them as professional baseball players. That means no gold chains, no jewelry, no designer clothes.

Since Wilson Ramos was kidnapped in 2011, he has counseled many of his countrymen about how to not draw attention when they are back in Venezuela.
Since Wilson Ramos was kidnapped in 2011, he has counseled many of his countrymen about how to not draw attention when they are back in Venezuela.Lexander Loaiza/Associated Press

"Before my case, I was enjoying my time, my life, my country," Ramos says. "I grow up in my neighborhood, I was walking on the street by myself, enjoying the neighborhood I grew up. I didn't know that crazy thing would happen to me.

"After that, I have to take care of myself, I have to protect my family, so that's what I'm doing right now."

According to Ramos, the Venezuelan government helps some of the higher-profile players—All-Stars like Altuve and Detroit's Miguel Cabrera—with police and security protection. In the immediate aftermath of what he calls his "case," Ramos says he, too, received government help.

But many players, such as him and Martinez, pay for their own protection.

"I want to be safe, you know?" says Ramos, who prefers not to say how much he spends on bodyguards (but allows that he does pay them in U.S. dollars, which go much further, instead of Venezuelan currency).

"I don't want to be here working, playing … I got too many things in my head, all my pitchers, all my routines, all the different hitters I have to [game-plan for] … I don't want to have it in my mind thinking my family is not safe. I don't want to think that. It's better to keep my mind clear about that. I know they're safe, and it's better if it stays like that."

For a time, Ramos would wake up in the middle of the night, terrified.

"And if I heard something, that scared me, too," he says.

Now he lives in Florida in the winter with his wife and children (ages four and two). "It's like another life, you know?" Ramos says "Now, you come back home and see your kids, play with your kids, you don't have time to think about all that."

The players know that families are not necessarily safe when they're gone during the season, either: Two years before Ramos was abducted, in 2009, catcher Yorvit Torrealba's son, 11 at the time, was kidnapped along with two of his son's uncles. Torrealba took a leave of absence from the Colorado Rockies that June. Chacin was a rookie with the Rockies at the time.

"He had to go back home to Venezuela to see what was going on," Chacin says. "It was tough, man. I can't imagine if that happened to one of my kids. We'd freak out and not know what to do."

MLB security operates a special phone number that the Venezuelan players can call if something happens. With the fate of their homeland, and often their families, uncertain, it's not easy to take the field for three hours a night as if everything is normal.

"It's a tough moment for every Venezuelan guy here," Aguilar says. "Everybody's thinking about the situation."

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras has been active in trying to get food and medicine to Venezuela as well as trying to publicize the crisis that has paralyzed the country.
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras has been active in trying to get food and medicine to Venezuela as well as trying to publicize the crisis that has paralyzed the country.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Right now the best thing anybody can do to help, Contreras says, is "to find any center in your local community where you can go drop off food, clothes, things for babies—medicine, that's what's needed right now."

Whether it is Ramos dishing advice to players about how to protect themselves or Martinez and others sending home food and medical necessities, players simply want relief for their beloved home.

"I'm a baseball player, so I cannot be political," Martinez says. "If I'm political, I'm going to be on one side and what if that side doesn't get the work done? What am I going to do? I'm still going to provide, I still want to do good for the people. That's all I want.

"If you're going to do something, get it together and get something done because people are suffering, a lot. Especially my family. Even though I can actually take care of them, still, they still need stuff. They have to go to another state to find medicine or food or other stuff. That's not right. We need to go back to normal. Now. Now. It's not like, oh, we have to wait five more years for whoever is going to be in power. We need it now."

      

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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