PHOTOS: Young Venezuelan ballplayers 'wanted to stay' in U.S.

Little League players Adrian Salcedo, 12, left, Ibrahim Ruiz, 13, second from left, and Eduar Pinto, 12, center, talk with teammates prior to training at Cacique Mara stadium in Maracaibo, Venezuela. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

MARACAIBO, Venezuela — While playing for Venezuela in baseball's Little League World Series in the United States last month, 12-year-old Adrian Salcedo ate tacos and Chick-fil-A, donned a virtual reality headset to envision himself hitting home runs in big-league ballparks and marveled at the lush grass of the fields.

Now, back at his four-room house in the western city of Maracaibo, hard hit by Venezuela's protracted political and economic crisis, the boy's hopes center on his own version of the American dream.

"I want to make the big leagues and help my mother, so we can buy a house and get away from this," Salcedo said in an interview.

Professional baseball, which is wildly popular in parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, has long been viewed as a path out of poverty. And players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and Puerto Rico make up more than 20 percent of current big-league rosters, according to Major League Baseball (MLB).

Salcedo eats an arepa for breakfast at his home in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

But Salcedo said his trip to the United States — whose government is seeking to oust socialist President Nicolas Maduro through economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure — highlighted some of the extraordinary challenges he and his teammates face.

"The ballplayers over there [in the U.S.’ are fat, and they're not tired," Salcedo said, alluding to Venezuela's growing problems stemming from malnutrition and hunger.

Kids from other countries he spoke to during the tournament in Williamsport, Pa. —the world's biggest youth baseball event — were aware of the problems facing Venezuela, said Salcedo, a lanky and soft-spoken left fielder.

"They asked us how we put up with all this," he said, referring to Venezuela's increasing state of decay.

Salcedo and 13 other players from Venezuela's Cacique Mara team qualified for the Little League World Series by winning a national championship and then a Latin America-wide tournament in Panama. They went on to beat Australia and Mexico before crashing out of the World Series with a loss to Curaçao.

Little Leaguer Santiago Lopez, 10, practices during an electricity cut at his house in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

On their return home late last month, the players were greeted by family members cheering and holding signs at the airport in Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city.

Once the bustling oil capital of the OPEC nation, the city now regularly goes more than eight hours a day without power under a rationing plan that affects everything from running water to internet connectivity.

Many businesses have shut down since a wave of lootings during a prolonged power outage in March, leaving a cityscape marked by boarded-up storefronts and abandoned buildings.

Two days after returning to Maracaibo, Salcedo woke up in the middle of the night after a power outage knocked out his fan, leaving him tossing and turning in the Caribbean heat.

He was so tired the next day that his mother, 44-year-old single homemaker Diana Nunez, had to browbeat him into doing his workout routine, which includes a makeshift weightlifting session with two sand-filled bottles strung to a pole.

Ruiz shows the 2019 world tournament yearbook where his team appears, in his house in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

Nunez said she used to serve her son beef or chicken every day, but lately she can buy meat only three times a week.

Unlike the well-manicured U.S. ballparks, the field where Cacique Mara practices has no grass. A pump that used to irrigate it was stolen two years ago, and lights, which once allowed teams to practice at night, have been out for years.

Funding for the U.S. trip and visa expenses, both for Cacique Mara's Little League team and for a younger division that won a Latin America-wide championship in Mexico in early August, was a challenge.

Ultimately, the teams had to rely almost entirely on contributions from Venezuelan major leaguers and complimentary tickets from airlines due to a lack of support from the cash-strapped government, according to Cacique Mara director Daniel Gutierrez.

"It wasn't like this before, but now even gloves and cleats are luxuries," Gutierrez said.

A teen runs in front of an old baseball scoreboard in Los Ninos Cantores stadium in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

Venezuela's Youth and Sports Ministry and the government's Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. But Pedro Infante, the minister for youth and sports, has blamed the U.S.’s "economic and financial blockade" on Venezuela for preventing the government from importing equipment and paying for athletes to travel overseas.

Baseball was briefly ensnared in the diplomatic dispute between Caracas and Washington last month, when MLB banned players from participating in the upcoming Venezuelan professional league season due to U.S. sanctions.

"When I arrived in the United States I was impressed," said outfielder Eduar Pinto, 12, who enjoyed going out to eat and playing in the game room in the team's dorm in Williamsport.

"When the time came to return, I didn't want to come back. I wanted to stay there."

A card showing a major league player is seen on the ground of Salcedo's sister's yard in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

While players' families often struggle to buy them everything they need, relief could be on the way soon for at least some of Cacique Mara's stars. Many are aiming to join one of Maracaibo's numerous private baseball academies, which provide players with food and equipment in exchange for a cut of any eventual professional contract they may sign.

Such contracts are far from guaranteed in the hypercompetitive world of sports, however, and Nunez acknowledged her son may have to put his hopes on hold.

"If he doesn't make the major leagues, it doesn't matter to me, but I want him to study, to be a professional," said Nunez, whose brother — like more than 1 million other Venezuelans — has migrated to neighboring Colombia to find work and help the family.

"If he doesn't graduate, he's not going to get a job. Let's hope that by then, Venezuela will have gotten better." (Story by Luc Cohen and Mariela Nava/Reuters)

Photos taken in August and September 2019

Photography by Manaure Quintero/Reuters

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Ruiz sits in his father's car as they drive to fill fuel in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Salcedo holds chicks at his sister's house in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Diana Nunez, 44, mother of Little Leaguer Adrian Salcedo, with her son at their house in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Eduar Pinto with a baseball bat in his bedroom at his home in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Windows of a building are seen during an electricity cut in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Daniel Boscan, coach of the Cacique Mara Little League team, speaks with players prior to training at Cacique Mara stadium. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Salcedo and his mother, Diana Nunez, 44, take a taxi in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Salcedo talks with a neighbor at 19 de Abril slum, where he lives. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Salcedo trains with homemade weights. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Lopez drinks water after training at his house during an electricity cut in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Ruiz, bottom right, and Salcedo, top right, take part in a psychological therapy session at Diamonds Prospect baseball academy. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Salcedo takes a bath at his home. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Jorge Ruiz, father of Little Leaguer Ibrahim Ruiz, shows a picture taken for him of the players during the Latin American tournament in Panama. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Players from Cacique Mara Little League team practice at Cacique Mara stadium. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Salcedo walks through his sister's yard in Maracaibo. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
Ruiz stretches before training at Diamonds Prospect baseball academy. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
A baseball glove belonging to Pinto. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)
The Cacique Mara Little League team practices at Cacique Mara stadium. (Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters)


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