Venezuela’s civil unrest hasn’t stopped the Phillies from investing in local players | Part 3
In 2011, Wilson Ramos was kidnapped near his Venezuelan home — just an example of the danger players deal with. The Phillies have kept their Venezuelan academy open when many MLB teams have shut theirs down.
The grind of a professional baseball season is difficult for every player at every level.
Last of a three-part series about the recent rise of Latin American players on the Phillies' big-league roster and within the entire organization.
It's even more challenging, however, if you come from a country where the primary language is not English. Add in the political unrest, violence, and the ongoing economic meltdown of a place like Venezuela and you wonder how players from that country can focus at all on the game they love so much.
"Latin players live in a much different world," said former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., son of a Mexican-born father and a Cuban-born grandfather (Santos). "They've got their own set of challenges. Things are totally different here for them. It's not just, 'OK, you're a baseball player, so go play baseball.' They've moved their lives here, and that creates a different dynamic and set of emotions."
In recent years, baseball has worked to improve the language barrier for Latin American players by requiring every team to have a Spanish interpreter. Venezuela-born Diego Ettedgui has held the position with the Phillies for the last three years. In addition to translating words, he also serves as a confidant to the growing legion of Latin players who have joined the Phillies in recent years.
"A lot of teams also have bilingual mental-skills coaches," Amaro said. "I think that's an important piece of the puzzle."
The Phillies had one for the first time last season, which is vital when you consider some of the things that players from Venezuela must deal with. The most dramatic and frightening instance in recent years involved Phillies free-agent catcher Wilson Ramos.
Seven years ago, after his rookie season with the Washington Nationals, Ramos was kidnapped by four men at gunpoint during a visit to his mother's house in Santa Ines, Venezuela. He was freed after two days by an air rescue, but he has never publicly discussed what he went through. Through Ettedgui, he declined to talk about it near the end of the season.
Almost all Venezuelan players are reluctant to talk about what is happening in their home country and nobody understands that better than Ettedgui.
"It is an unfortunate situation for some people down there," he said. "Some MLB scouts don't want to go to Venezuela looking for prospects anymore, and that's why it is so great that the Phillies still have an academy there. It makes me happy that they are still interested in the talent that comes out of Venezuela."
That is a tribute to Phillies international scout Sal Agostinelli; special assistant to the general manager, Jorge Velandia; international scouting coordinator Jesus "Chalao" Mendez; and Latin American coordinator Carlos Salas. Velandia, Mendez, and Salas are native Venezuelans. Agostinelli, a native New Yorker, simply has a deep appreciation for the plight of Latin players, especially those from Venezuela.
"To talk about how difficult it is for them, it's not even fair," Agostinelli said. "The conditions are so bad; beyond what you could imagine. If you had 10 dollars in your pocket there a year ago, it's worth a penny now. There are a lot of really, really good people in Venezuela, and they are looking for a way to get out. Baseball is a major way to do that and these guys want to send money back to their families to help. I was there three times this year and there are still a lot of good players there, too."
Venezuela was hit hard when oil prices fell a few years ago — according to the BBC, 95 percent of the country's earnings from exported goods come from oil. The shortfall made paying for imports more expensive, which translated into increased prices.
The inflation rate has increased by more 80,000 percent since the start of 2018. Thousands have left the country in search of a more affordable life. The socialist government, led by President Hugo Chavez until he was succeeded by Nicolas Maduro, hasn't helped, according to some.
Ettedgui, a Caracas native, knows firsthand about the danger that exists in his native country.
"Venezuela is in constant chaos," he said. "Something new comes up and something happens on a regular basis. Every day these guys have to play with that in the back of their heads. Getting together to talk about concerns such as food shortages and lack of medical supplies back home are common."
Ettedgui said the other Latin players did not ask Ramos about his kidnapping story because they do not need to know the details.
"I don't think they go to him to learn that story," Ettedgui said. "It was all over the news in Venezuela when it happened. I can only talk about it from my own personal experience. I'm from Caracas, where there are three kidnappings a day on average. I come from a middle-class family, and my cousin has been kidnapped and my grandfather was kidnapped, too. I have high school friends who have been kidnapped as well.
"In my opinion, players may be a bigger target because of the money they are making. You become a target as soon as you sign an international contract. And their families do, too. That's why players are so eager to bring their families here."
That, unfortunately, is easier said than done.
"It's hard to bring your family here, especially when you are a young player," Ettedgui said. "You have to meet certain criteria and that can take a certain number of years of being here. In my own case, I had to apply for residency first and then become a citizen, which I did in 2016. But even when you do that you still worry every single day about the family members that stay behind."
And that's a heavy weight to bear for men who play such a challenging mental and physical game.