After Hugo Chavez’s death, Cubs’ Venezuelans hope conditions improve
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com March 12, 2013 9:31PM
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez embraces Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa, both wearing the Venezuelan national baseball team uniform after a batting exhibition at the Universtity Stadium in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 25, 1999. Sosa hit four home runs against the pitches of Chavez. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Updated: April 14, 2013 6:44AM
MESA, Ariz. — Cubs catcher Dioner Navarro left for good more than a decade ago once he saw the direction the new president was taking his country. He later stopped vacationing there because of safety concerns and has since offered to move his parents to the United States, to no avail.
Third baseman Luis Valbuena envisions a day he, too, can earn enough job security in the majors to relocate to the United States and has looked at possible homes in the Miami area.
“I want to see it better for us,” Valbuena said, “for everybody in Venezuela.”
As spring training continues its lazy pace through March across Florida and Arizona, this is the more pressing reality for many Venezuelan-born players since the death last week of polarizing socialist president Hugo Chavez, who waged a propaganda war against the United States during his 14-year presidency.
“It’s sad what happens. Nobody wishes anybody bad,” said Navarro, a Caracas native who lives in the Tampa, Fla., area. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. But hopefully the change is for the best and not for the worse.”
The events leading up to the April 14 elections in Venezuela between Chavez’s handpicked successor and the opposition leader are certain to be a focus for players and coaches in every clubhouse in the majors.
Already, the ripple effect has included Major League Baseball’s refusal to comply with Team Venezuela’s request to fly the Venezuelan flag at half-staff and observe a moment of silence last week during the World Baseball Classic.
Chavez’s regime had a mostly negative impact on Venezuela’s fast-growing roster of major-leaguers, despite his well-known passion for baseball. Policies that in many cases stripped land owners and business owners of wealth — for better or worse — also contributed to growing instability in the oil-based economy.
One result was that violent crime, including kidnapping for ransom, rose dramatically at a time when the number of Venezuelan-born major-league millionaires was rising almost as dramatically — creating a highly visible class of targets. Venezuela ranks second only to the Dominican Republic in foreign-born major-leaguers with 66 on opening rosters last season.
“It was not good at all for baseball players,” Navarro said.
In 2011, Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped outside his home in Valencia by four armed men and rescued two days later by police commandos.
Two years before that, former Cubs pitcher Angel Guzman’s brother was murdered in Caracas, a few blocks from a hotel where they were staying at the time. Guzman moved to Arizona that spring.
Before moving to the United States full time, former Cub Carlos Silva said he quit stopping at red lights when driving at night in Venezuela. He recalled that former big-league outfielder Richard Hidalgo was shot by assailants who ran up on him while he stopped at a light during the 2002-03 offseason.
And Brewers shortstop Alex Gonzalez said early in his career, when he lived in Maracay, he circled his block to make sure he wasn’t being followed before pushing the remote on the gate to his home. He now lives in Florida.
Even Chavez acknowledged the violent reality in his country by dispatching five armed guards to the remote mountain village where Johan Santana lived to help protect the pitcher’s family after celebrating Santana’s first Cy Young Award at the nation’s capital following the 2004 season.
Santana has since moved his family to the United States.
“That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to go back there,” said Navarro, who had to give up his fishing, hiking and boating passions when visiting home. “I was going down to Venezuela, but I spent most of the time with my parents inside the house because I was afraid of what was going to happen to me or my family out in the streets. It got to the point where it was pointless going down there.”
MLB teams have made similar decisions, with at least 10 teams pulling their academies out of the country during Chavez’s presidency and using Dominican academies to train Venezuelan prospects (which the Cubs do).
The Cubs likely will open the season with three players and a coach from Venezuela, four men working desperately to help the Cubs get off to a strong start in April — four men hoping at least as desperately for lasting, positive change in a country rich with tropical beaches, rain forests and lush mountain regions.
“I still miss Venezuela; I still miss my family,” said Navarro, who tries to consider the good with the bad when he thinks of Chavez and tries to focus on the positive as he looks forward.
“Hopefully, it gets back to where it needed to be. Because it’s a beautiful country, and we’ve got a lot to offer the world.”