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How conflict back home is uniting Venezuelan baseball players

Toronto Blue Jays' Miguel Montero holds a bat between turns in the batting cage before a baseball game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York, Tuesday, July 4, 2017.

Kathy Willens/AP

Miguel Montero is known around baseball as a player who speaks his mind.

So while some Venezuelan major leaguers will not talk publicly about the intense political and economic crisis that seems to escalate almost daily in their home country, Montero discusses it freely.

"I'm sick of it," said Montero, a Caracas native and 12-year major-league veteran who joined the Blue Jays last week. "I just want them to be free."

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Montero's outspoken nature has caused him problems in the past, most recently after disparaging remarks he made about former Chicago Cubs teammate Jake Arrieta. The club demoted him a day later before trading him to the Jays last week.

It is not surprising, then, that when it comes to the future and well-being of those struggling in his home country, Montero does not shy away.

As scores of people are being killed or jailed in violent protests against Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, Montero has lent his voice to the pro-democracy movement there, speaking openly about his homeland's plight and his desire for reform. He's shared strong anti-Maduro sentiment and empathy for those struggling on his social media channels.

"It's a sad situation," he said.

Beyond corruption, violence and economic disarray, one of Montero's major concerns is the alarmingly limited access to health care and proper medical supplies in the country.

He recently launched a charitable foundation along with his wife, Vanessa, that will provide medical aid to children. But instead of sending money and supplies to Venezuela, which Montero says would never reach their destination, the couple will raise money to fund medical trips to the United States for Venezuelan children in need of aid. He hopes to have the first round of eligible patients selected by January.

"Kids are dying, they don't have proper supplies," he said. "We're hoping to put a few smiles on faces."

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The chaos has been top of mind for many Venezuelan players, coaches and team staff around baseball, who have the daily challenge of trying to balance their professional responsibilities with concerns about the well-being of friends and family. Fearing for the safety of their loved ones has players here on edge. Worried that their words could have repercussions back home, many are hesitant to discuss it in the media.

Maduro has fuelled that fear, claiming the United States has coerced Venezuelan athletes and artists living abroad into opposing him.

Like many Venezuelan players, Blue Jays outfielder Ezequiel Carrera does not talk about the political situation in his home country. To do so could be dangerous.

"They're intimidated," said Montero, who moved his entire family to Arizona, where he spends the offseason, to ensure their safety.

Venezuelan players do discuss the situtation with counterparts on other teams, however. Rogers Centre last week was no different, when the Blue Jays hosted the Houston Astros for a four-game series. Jose Altuve, the Astros star, spent time catching up with Carrera and Blue Jays translator and Venezuelan native Josue Peley during batting practice Thursday. Houston outfielder Marwin Gonzalez lounged on a sofa in the visitors clubhouse during pregame on Friday, chatting about home with Venezuelan journalist and author Arturo J. Marcano Guevara and Carlos Suarez, a Canada correspondent for the Caracas-based daily newspaper El Nacional.

Marcano Guevara said all of his conversations with Venezuelan players lately inevitably end up about the political turmoil back home. "Even if you are talking about a different subject to Venezuelan players, coaches or employees, you know that conversation will end up talking about Venezuela," he said. "It is unavoidable."

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Gonzalez, who along with Altuve has been a major contributor to the American League-leading Astros, said that while they ache for their home country, talking about it has helped strengthen the fraternity of Venezuelan major leaguers, of which there were 77 on opening-day rosters.

While they do their best to keep their minds on baseball on the field, Gonzalez said when the players go out together for dinner after the game, the discussion inevitably turns to what is happening at home.

"You try to separate it, but it's difficult," said Gonzalez, who is having a career year with the Astros. "We're here playing, they're back there fighting for their rights."

Montero said his teammates and other players around baseball have been supportive. Astros manager A.J. Hinch said his club has tried to help its players and staff affected by the crisis, who include Altuve, Gonzalez and bullpen catchers Javier Bracamonte and Carlos Muñoz.

"They've got a lot of family and friends directly affected, and we've talked about it a bit behind the scenes, just checking on them," Hinch said. "It's obviously something that the Venezuelan players in the league have banded together over."

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