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Venezuelan strife burdens natives like the Buffalo Bisons' Alex Monsalve

He leaned back in the dugout, a large smile overtaking his face. Alex Monsalve was a proud papa when talking about his son. But on the warm May afternoon at Coca-Cola Field, his smile was tempered with concern as he placed his hand over his heart, his mind wandering back to his family in Venezuela.

The 25-year-old Monsalve desperately misses his 18-month-old son and his wife, both back home in Venezuela. But it's more than longing in his heart. He's worried about their well being. Worried about their safety. Worried about how they're coping in a country that's been plunged into chaos.

"They have to stay at home and just stay safe all day long," Monsalve said.

Venezuela, once one of the richest countries in Latin America, has spiraled into crisis, both political and economic, with severe consequences for its citizens. Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in the world with the International Monetary Fund estimating it will reach 720 percent this year. The economy has contracted 27 percent. It's resulted in food shortages and dwindling ability to provide medical care. That's spun into protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, which have turned violent. The Associated Press has reported that more than three dozen people have been killed in the protests.

"It's really difficult. Really, really difficult," Monsalve said. "No medicine. No food. It's hard to find anything. There's no security either on the streets."

And while his baseball career has provided him with a new opportunity with the Toronto Blue Jays organization and a fresh start with the Buffalo Bisons, his heart is tugged back home on a daily basis.

"We're just scared," Monsalve said. "Every day you just think about them. It's not easy to just never think of them because they are family. You love them and you keep playing but you also have on your mind how they be."

He calls home every single day to check on them, to make sure they're safe. Then he tries to turn his attention to the field, to joy of playing baseball that he discovered as a kid in a Venezuela that was very different from the one his son was born into.

The joy of baseball

Jason Leblebijian was definitely taken back when he first stepped on a Venezuelan baseball field. A native of Arlington Heights, Ill., he had never seen anything like this when he traveled to the country to play a month of winter ball in 2016.

"To see how passionate they are about the game over there, it's unbelievable," the Bisons infielder said. "Every day there's 10,000 fans. They just love the game of baseball. It's crazy. No matter what time of day. No matter what the weather is, they are always there. They've got their drums and everything, instruments they play during the game. Synchronized chants that they do. It was just unbelievable."

Baseball is extraordinarily popular in Venezuela, a sport which can unify when the shaky political climate can divide. The joy of baseball comes out in force during the winter league season, when home-grown players mix with major league and Triple-A players from the United States.

"Ah. To the winter ball," Monsalve said, smiling while talking about one of his favorite times of the year. "Every person in Venezuela can't wait until the season start. It's the best, emotional for everyone. Every family is just waiting for baseball to start."

While baseball has its own culture in Venezuela, the country has increasingly supplied Major League Baseball and its minor league system with quality players. It started in 1939, when Alex Carrasquel pitched for the Washington Senators to become the first major leaguer from the country. Luis Aparicio became the first Venezuelan native elected to the Hall of Fame, playing shortstop from 1956-73 with the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox.

But scouting the country didn't take off until the 1990s, bringing MLB fans the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Omar Vizquel and Bobby Abreu. In 2016, there were 102 players from Venezuela on major league rosters. According to Baseball Reference, there have been 358 MLB players from the country, second only to the Dominican Republic in foreign players who have made the big leagues.

Monsalve, however, didn't grow up idolizing Venezuelan big leaguers. While he watched MLB games with his friends, the bulk of their time was spent playing baseball. Or anticipating baseball. All day. Every day. As much as they could.

"As a kid? Oh, just have fun every day," Monsalve said. "You can't wait until the next day to get to the field and just play. That's the way we learn, just have fun every day."

The fun remained, but the focused changed slightly when he turned 16. That's when the Cleveland Indians signed him and he became part of the Major League Baseball system.

"We really don't know before we just turn like 16 years old, and then we just hear about being a professional baseball player," Monsalve said. "Then we're like 'OK, we can take it more serious, like having a job. Stay like focus. Get better every day.'"

Balancing pro life

While American-born players like to use the phrase "grinding it out" to describe the typical slow rise of a professional baseball career, Monsalve talks about learning and opportunity. Both have been central to his path from a kid playing ball in Venezuela to major league prospect to minor league free agent.

Signed at age 16 in 2008, he made his pro debut playing in the Dominican Republic in 2009. By 2011 he was ranked fifth among Cleveland's prospects and was named a mid-season all-star while playing for Class-A Lake County in the Midwest League. But he spent most of his time in the Indians organization in A-ball, getting one game at Triple-A for the Columbus Clippers last year.

The Blue Jays signed him as a minor league free agent in the offseason to add depth to their catching corps. Monsalve has spent all of 2017 with the Bisons, serving as a backup first to Mike Ohlman and now to Raffy Lopez. The back-up role doesn't seem to faze him. Monsalve sees opportunity as part of the Blue Jays organization and is enjoying new teammates and a new coaching staff.

Baseball is still a labor of love, a job which brings joy. But it's becoming increasingly difficult to access that joy when life away from the park is filled with worry for his family back in Venezuela.

Does his paycheck help his family back home? Would a potential big-league pay-out, even a day or two in the major leagues, help ease the struggle of his wife and son?

"I don't know. No matter if you got money, if you got money but you don't find anything," Monsalve said. "It's hard, too hard."

It's not just that things are expensive with inflation in Venezuela, but commodities, including food and medicine, are difficult to find. Even if people have the money, they can't buy what's not on the shelves. There is one big difference a Major League salary would make for Monsalve. It would give him the ability to bring his wife and son to the United States. The family can't afford the move on a Triple-A salary.

"Every day I try to make the big leagues and make some money so I can bring them over," Monsalve said. "It's not easy to have a family here with no money, especially with minor league guys."

While many players in the Major Leagues have been able to move family to the U.S., they can't move everyone. Even big league players are struggling with loved ones back home battling for basic staples and personal safety.

And it's not much different for the lives of his countrymen on major league rosters with major league salaries. As their home country has spiraled into violence, more players are using the platform baseball provides to talk about the humanitarian crisis.

In Pittsburgh, Felipe Rivero hung a Venezuelan flag over an empty locker in PNC Park. He then posted a video on Instagram with a number of his countrymen across Major League Baseball, including teammate Francisco Cervelli, under a Spanish caption that translates to "That's enough! The cries of millions of voices for Venezuela!"

Cervelli told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he and his girlfriend are sending boxes of rice, beans and deodorant to his parents back in Venezuela.

Monsalve does the same thing, sending back everything he can. "I try to save money and send back stuff like medicine, food, clothes, deodorant, perfume, cologne, everything to my family," Monsalve said. "Every year. All the time."

While players in the United States at all levels of baseball balance their athletic careers with concerns for family back home, future Venezuelan players are on the cusp of finding themselves in a bind as well.

Major League Baseball recently issued a memo that called the situation in Venezuela "extremely dangerous and volatile" and moved three showcases for Venezuelan players outside of the country. Teams still scouting in Venezuela have been asked to give all travel information to the league's security office.

While there are estimates that around 500 prospects have been signed from Venezuela over the last two years, teams have been diminishing their presence in the country for some time. Twenty-three of the 30 MLB teams once had academies in Venezuela where players would train and play and take English lessons. Now only four teams still have academies in the country – the Chicago Cubs, Tampa Bay Rays, Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies. Teams now sign players from Venezuela and send them to academies in the Dominican Republic.

But there's more to Venezuela than its political turmoil and financial crisis. Monsalve's memories of his home country center on the joy of baseball, a game that opened opportunities for him unimaginable as a boy growing up in Boqueron, about 115 miles west of the capital city of Caracas.

He still sees that joy, still sees hope for his country. He wants people to see what matters most in Venezuela.

"Wonderful people," he said. "They are really good people. Now it's hard for everyone but the people are really good. I hope soon it will be better."

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