Blue Jays trying to support Venezuelan players as turmoil continues


Toronto Blue Jays warm up during spring training in Dunedin, Fla. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – As spring training unfolded, Rafael Dubois noticed a theme to the conversations he was having and he didn’t like it.

Dubois, a mental performance coach in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, works closely with minor-leaguers as they adjust to the demands of professional baseball on and off the field. This spring, he kept hearing from Venezuelan players who were deeply stressed by the humanitarian crisis that has made essentials like food, water and basic medical care scarce in their home country.

"They were coming to us saying, ‘I can’t really play well because all my attention’s with my family and I don’t know if my family’s able to eat tonight,’" said Dubois, also a Venezuela native. "Their mind was somewhere else."

"This is something that’s really messing these kids up," he added. "And for good reason."

Back home, the situation keeps getting "worse and worse and worse," so players want to help, but that’s hard for those who signed for modest bonuses. Even though the Blue Jays recently raised minor-league salaries by approximately 50 per cent, minor-leaguers barely earn enough to support themselves. Plus, anyone headed for a short-season affiliate won’t get paid until June.

"We saw the kids really unfocused and worried," said Latin America player advisor Omar Malave, a fellow Venezuelan. "It was tough to see."

With 10 Venezuelan staff and approximately 40 minor-league players from Venezuela including Kevin Vicuna, Elixon Caballero and Alejandro Melean, it didn’t take long for others in the organization to see the reach of the ongoing crisis. Midway through March, players and staff gathered at spring training to brainstorm ways of helping.

"We were seeing our players with their minds on stuff going on at home," recalled director of player development Gil Kim. "We’d see our staff members in between workouts checking in with their families back home and it became apparent that we needed to be good teammates and find a way to help these players and staff members."

Those brainstorming sessions set in motion an organization-wide push to raise money for basic provisions such as rice, pasta, canned beans and painkillers. Fundraising efforts are now ongoing with a view toward buying essentials and sending them to players’ families in Venezuela.

Once they decided to start raising money, the Blue Jays made the entire organization aware of a GoFundMe page. Soon, the donations started to pour in from staff and players alike. Prospects such as Kevin Smith and Chavez Young contributed, as did Mariana Bichette, Bo’s mother. One of the more generous donations came from Marcus Reyes, a left-hander at low-A Lansing who gave $900.

Word trickled up to the big-league level, too, prompting a $500 donation from Clay Buchholz.

"We get paid a lot as major-league players and I know that if my family and I were in that situation I’d want to be comfortable asking my teammates for help," Buchholz said. "What’s happening there is really hard on people and if I can help even a little bit I want to do that to help my teammates and the staff here."

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

To Kim, that kind of support reflects genuine care for others’ wellbeing.

"We’re so focused on what we’re doing on a baseball field and in a weight room, but we wanted to let those players know, ‘We’re here for you,’" he said. "We talk about being good teammates every day and this was our chance to show it."

Combined, these efforts have raised close to $8,000 and counting. Now that prospects and staff have identified their families’ greatest needs, the first shipments could leave for Venezuela within a couple of weeks.

"And not to send the stuff only one time," Malave said. "We’re going to see if we can send the stuff all year. That way they don’t have to worry about their families as much."

Given the scale of turmoil in Venezuela, these contributions are a way of easing the struggle, not ending it. As Dubois says, ‘It’s a moment of political, economic and social crisis’ – one that extends far beyond baseball. But in the absence of more lasting solutions, there’s hope that these efforts will help players through a difficult time.

"We ask so much of them," Dubois said. "We ask them to be professional, we ask them to learn English, we ask them to have a good game. It’s a lot. This is real. This is real life."

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