The loudest voices for change in a collapsing Venezuela are coming from Major League Baseball

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

As a humanitarian crisis engulfed the country they loved last year, Francisco Cervelli’s parents came to a sad realization: No longer could they stay. Venezuela used to be a bustling paragon for the rest of South America. Now it resembles post-apocalyptic fiction: led by an authoritarian president who was once a bus driver, pillaged by waves of robbery and murder, defined by a commodity shortage that left even the Cervellis, whose son is a Major League Baseball player, struggling to find chicken and rice and sugar and toilet paper. Venezuela collapsed around them. Today, they’re in Colombia.

They aren’t the only family members that left. About 50 years ago, Cervelli’s paternal grandparents moved to Venezuela from Italy, in search of the prosperity of an oil-based economy. They raised Cervelli’s father there, stayed, adopted their new country every bit as much as it adopted them. They were going to stay there until they died. Then Venezuela failed them. Today, they’re in Italy.

“Every person I know,” Cervelli said, “wants to get out of there.”

Today, Francisco Cervelli is in Pittsburgh, where he plays catcher for the Pirates. Sometimes it almost feels like a second job. Cervelli’s mind is consumed by the implosion of Venezuela. Food shortages threaten more than 30 million people. Black markets have tried to fill that gap, but inflation has rendered Venezuelan cash practically worthless. Running water is scarce and medicine nonexistent. The infant mortality rate has spiked and four of every five people live in poverty, according to a study by three major Venezuelan universities. Amid it all, protests against president Nicolas Maduro have raged for months, despite the government’s reported killing of more than 90 dissenters.

Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli’s mind is consumed by the implosion in Venezuela. (AP)

Maduro was the handpicked successor to Hugo Chavez, the former Venezuelan president whose 1999 constitution instituted the economic principles that made the country thrive during the oil-price boom and fail almost immediately after Maduro took over following Chavez’s death in March 2013. Maduro wants to rewrite the constitution. In a referendum last week, more than 7 million Venezuelans cast votes on the measure. A reported 98 percent opposed Maduro.

Undaunted, he plans to consolidate even more power 10 days from now, threatening to turn Venezuela into a modern-day Cuba and make Maduro its dictator. This is why Cervelli can’t stop thinking about Venezuela. His grandparents were forced from their home. His parents abandoned theirs. And Cervelli himself hasn’t been back to Venezuela in two years.

“I’m scared to go home,” he said. “I’m scared to go through immigration. This is the problem: Whoever thinks different, they don’t like it. In democracy, you should allow people to support whoever they want. They should be open to the criticism. They should take positive and negative comments because it’s normal. I’m going to go back there when this government is gone.”

In the meantime, Cervelli speaks out, one of dozens of Venezuelan players in the major leagues who have lent their voices this year to the opposition effort. It is what he can do: use his platform to educate, his family’s story to humanize a tragedy, his voice to hold power accountable — within reason. While his parents are part of the public record, Cervelli requested his grandparents not be named, even if they live in Italy, more than 5,000 miles away from Venezuela.

“You don’t know who we’re dealing with here,” Cervelli said. “I don’t think I even know.”

***
This year’s opening day rosters included 76 natives of Venezuela. Hundreds more dotted the minor league systems of all 30 teams. Together they are MVPs and All-Stars and average regulars and never-will-be’s and dreamers, young and old, talented and not. And almost all of them — maybe every single one — believe Venezuela needs change enough that it’s their duty to speak publicly about it.

“I’m tired of paying protection money so they don’t kidnap my mother, not knowing whether they are police or criminals,” said Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, the two-time American League Most Valuable Player, in an Instagram video protesting Maduro last week. “All I ask is: Please, don’t hurt my family.”

The Cabrera video was the latest in a line of stunning rebukes authored by MLB players. On the day of the All-Star Game, Luis Aparicio, the first Venezuelan player to make the Hall of Fame, skipped the pregame ceremony honoring Latin American legends and tweeted: “Thanks @MLB for the tribute in #ASG2017 but I cannot celebrate while the young people of my country die fighting for the ideals of freedom.” The significance of the tweet from the godfather of Venezuelan baseball was not lost on those in Miami at the game.

“We all feel sad for what’s going on in Venezuela, and what he’s able to do and say about our situation speaks a lot about the character he has and the person he is,” said Atlanta Braves outfielder Ender Inciarte, like Cervelli and Cabrera one of the game’s more outspoken anti-government voices. “Over there, if you’re against them, you’re in trouble. Him standing up and talking about politics and the protests we’re having every day, we really admire what he’s saying, what he’s doing and the person he is.”

Cabrera engendered similar feelings. Venezuela’s descent has turned Cabrera from a publicly apolitical figure — his reaction to Chavez’s death showed no allegiance either way — into one who recognizes his ability to influence minds.

“He’s the king of Venezuela,” Cervelli said. “The best player it’s ever created. When this guy raises his voice, it’s important. And what he says is true. I agree 100 percent with him. Sometimes we want to say things we can’t say. I used to think I could live not getting involved with politics. But this isn’t politics anymore. This is life. This is future for kids — for everyone.”

Miguel Cabrera used an Instagram video to protest Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. (AP)

State-run media has tried to smear Cabrera, Cervelli, Inciarte and others opposed to Maduro, accusing them of being bought off by the United States government, which similarly stands in stark opposition to Maduro. The Trump administration this week threatened sanctions against Venezuela if the government went ahead with its July 30 plan to create a so-called constituent assembly that would rewrite the constitution. Maduro scoffed.

“It was tough to see what was going on there two years ago,” said Inciarte, who, like Cervelli, last visited in 2015. “If you see what’s going on right now — people tell me, ‘What you see on TV, what you see on the news — it’s even worse than that.’ I can’t even imagine. It’s really tough. I’m just hoping, praying, this situation gets better.”

***
On Wednesday, about three-dozen 15-year-old Venezuelans flaunted their skills in front of scouts. They hit. They fielded. They threw. They ran. It was like any other showcase except for one difference: It wasn’t in Venezuela.

Major League Baseball sent out a memo May 4 that, according to a copy obtained by Yahoo Sports, started off ominously: “As you know, the situation in Venezuela has deteriorated significantly in recent weeks.” Baseball long knew the risks Venezuela presented. It is close to being named the murder capital of the world. Wilson Ramos, the Tampa Bay Rays catcher, was kidnapped in 2011 before police engaged in a gun battle to rescue him. Though the depravity of the Maduro government is relatively new, the idea of Venezuela as a struggling country is far from it.

As part of its efforts to insulate young Venezuelan talent from the chaos around them, MLB scheduled three showcases outside of the country, including Wednesday’s in Aruba. Teams across the game have stopped allowing employees to travel to Venezuela, and rather than allowing the rich pipeline to dry up, MLB figured it best to bring the talent to the scouts.

Only the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Detroit Tigers maintain a regular presence in Venezuela. At one point, more than 20 teams had opened academies in Venezuela to cultivate talent in the same fashion as they have in the Dominican Republic for decades. The exodus of teams is far from the lone sign of Venezuelan baseball teetering. The Venezuelan Summer League, created in 1997, shut down last year because too many teams had pulled out of Venezuela. Two people associated with the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, a staple of winter baseball since 1946, told Yahoo Sports that if the anti-government protests continue into September, the league may consider shutting down for the year. Poor attendance last season already spooked the league.

The teams that have stayed understand the risk — and it’s a significant one, even when weighed against what could be a handsome return. The desire to return home that grips Cervelli and Inciarte is even stronger in the 16- and 17-year-old boys who sign professional contracts, and the ability for the Phillies, Rays and Tigers to offer a place they can stay instead of spending the year at a Dominican academy is attractive. The Phillies and Tigers in particular have hit on a number of top prospects from Venezuela in recent years.

“The talent level is still there. It’s still coming,” said Sal Agostinelli, the Philadelphia Phillies’ international scouting director for two decades who was at the showcase in Aruba on Wednesday. “That particular business is still thriving. We’re just hoping for things to get better there. We love Venezuela. Our starting second baseman is Venezuelan. Our starting shortstop is Venezuelan. Our starting center fielder is Venezuelan.”

Agostinelli’s fondness was obvious. So was his understanding of life for those who live there. During a phone conversation, he paused to ask fellow scout Carlos Salas, who grew up in Venezuela but now lives in the D.R., a question.

“Have you ever been robbed?” Agostinelli asked.

He had. Other executives had similar stories, either of the danger they encountered or crimes against people they knew. That’s not just part of baseball in Venezuela. It’s part of life.

***
Before Augusto Cardenas went to the All-Star Game in Miami, a friend asked whether he could bring a little treat to the festivities: some of the sweet bread Venezuelan boys and girls grow up eating. Cardenas apologized. No store near him offered it. The shelves were empty, and even when they weren’t, the bachaqueros — black-market dealers — didn’t give him their first call.

“I see people in the streets going through garbage to try and find some food,” Cardenas said. “It’s real.”

When Cardenas travels to the U.S. as a baseball journalist, he buys baby formula and diapers. His friends who have left Venezuela stock up on medicine and send it to family still there. They only hope the government doesn’t confiscate it first. Life is difficult enough for those that stay.

Anti-government demonstrators run in the street during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela, earlier this month. (AP)

Cardenas does so, in part, because he serves as the voice of Aparicio, whose biography he’s writing, and helps spread the messages of Andres Galarraga, Gerardo Parra, Jhoulys Chacin and other Venezuelans. He also sees hope in the same place the vast majority of the public does: change. The opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was released from jail two weeks ago, and whether it’s him or someone else, Cervelli understands the next leader is inheriting a truly sad situation.

“Whoever from the opposite side comes into power is going to have a tough job,” he said. “The country is destroyed. Socially. Economically. Everything. It’s going to take time to rebuild. But anyone can be better than Maduro.”

And that’s what sustains him. That’s why Cervelli talks about wanting to visit all the beautiful sites in Venezuela he hasn’t seen, like Los Roques national park. That’s why he sees this is as simply the first step in his efforts to help undo what Chavez and Maduro wrought.

“My plan is not only to raise my voice,” Cervelli said. “I believe I’m going to be part of the rebuilding of my country. This is not only talk. There’s a lot of people in Venezuela who are good people, who had to leave the country because of the government. I believe they will be back. We need to give those kids hope that there’s a big world out there. There are more things they can believe. They have to go to school. They have to put information in their brains. Then they can do whatever they want.

“It’s our country. It’s our everything. And now these people think they own it. No.”

Someday, Francisco Cervelli will be in Venezuela, exactly where he belongs.

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