TORONTO – Major League Baseball’s resumption after the pandemic shutdown last summer presented Breyvic Valera with a real opportunity. Not only was the switch-hitting infielder out of options, meaning that if he didn’t make the Toronto Blue Jays he’d have to be put through waivers, but rosters were also expanded to 28 players, giving each club two extra spots.
Nothing was guaranteed, of course. But after changing teams seven times in a two-year span, Valera had a legitimate path to a big-league job as a super-utility player.
Only he couldn’t get out of his native Venezuela to join the Blue Jays for summer camp. When spring training shut down March 12, he returned home to the municipality of Montalban, a small town roughly 225 kilometres east of Caracas, off the country’s southern coast. Five days after that, president Nicolas Maduro suspended all international travel, while neighbouring Colombia sealed the border, measures only recently loosened.
So, just as circumstances on the baseball side seemed to align perfectly for him, efforts to curb COVID-19’s spread trapped him at home for the entire 2020 season.
"It was very hard knowing that I was missing that opportunity," Valera says through interpreter Hector Lebron. "I had the desire to be here with the team, to take advantage of what was going on here. I knew I was going to have a lot of chances to prove myself, to try to put up good numbers. But knowing the situation, I couldn’t do anything about it."
Not that he didn’t try.
The most feasible path to North America was to enter Colombia and find transit from there, but that was fraught with the border sealed. In recent years, Venezuelans seeking to skirt various border blockages found ways to cross illegally "Via Trocha," or by trail. Wading the Tachira River between the countries to reach the border town of Cucuta is one route.
Desperate to play, Valera considered doing something similar, but didn’t get far enough down the line to know if he’d have to simply walk a bridge, wade, swim or take a boat across to Cucuta before deciding it was a bad idea.
"It was going to be very dangerous," he says. "That was the only way, and the advice was not to do it. "Plus, the COVID situation in that area was very bad, too. Later on, I tried to get on a private plane, a charter, to the United States, but it was too expensive for me by myself."
And so, Valera spent the summer idling on the restricted list, left to watch as rookie Santiago Espinal made important contributions in a role he might otherwise have been in as the Blue Jays secured a wild-card berth.
All he could do was work out and stay ready "just in case something happened for me to go back to the United States and play ball."
By no means was Valera alone in a baseball purgatory of the pandemic’s making.
In Dunedin, Fla., for example, 18 Blue Jays minor-leaguers from Venezuela, including catching prospect Gabriel Moreno, had to be put up in a hotel after border closures left them stranded. They didn’t all get home until the end of October, when assistant, player development Michael Rivera and John Tamargo, the club’s short-season field co-ordinator, booked them flights to the Dominican Republic first, and then Venezuela. Moreno first made a stop at the club’s alternate training site in Rochester, N.Y.
In Montalban, meanwhile, Valera connected with other players and a couple of strength and conditioning coaches also left on the sidelines, the group gathering for daily workouts at the baseball field in front of his house. Under the circumstances, the competition was good and in combination with his home gym, the 29-year-old managed to salvage something from the summer.
"It wasn't just me going through this situation," he says. "We were just trying to make the best out of it. Thank God I have my family. They helped me out a lot mentally, just by telling me, 'You know what? There are things in life that you can't control. You can't control this. Let's stick together, keep working hard, have some faith in God and let's see what happens.'"
The fall brought the return of the Venezuelan winter league and Valera suited up for the Bravos de Margarita for the seventh time. Playing centre field in 26 of his 39 games, he batted .333/.444/.393 with just six strikeouts in 169 plate appearances.
On Jan. 18, Maduro reopened flights to Panama and the Dominican Republic, so as spring training dawned, Valera didn’t have to consider river-wading on his way into work. Instead, he boarded a plane in Caracas for Panama City, caught a connection to Hermosillo, Mexico and changed planes there for Florida, arriving at Blue Jays camp last week.
Once again Valera is out of options, although with a 26-man roster, he’ll be fighting it out for the final spot on the roster with Espinal and veteran Joe Panik, back on a minor-league deal.
The Blue Jays liked Valera enough to engage in a waiver-wire tug of war with the San Diego Padres, after initially claiming him from the New York Yankees on Sept. 20, 2019. Valera hit his first career homer in five games after he arrived but was designated for assignment just before spring training last year, allowing the Padres to claim him Feb. 12. The Blue Jays subsequently reclaimed him July 1, eventually stashing him on the restricted list.
He’s hoping to settle in now after a couple years through the transaction-wire wringer, which began when the St. Louis Cardinals, who had signed him in 2010, traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in April 2018. The Dodgers subsequently sent Valera to Baltimore as part of the Manny Machado deal that July, the Orioles sold him to San Francisco in January 2019 and the Yankees claimed him from the Giants in May before he arrived in Toronto.
"After being with St. Louis for seven years, my first organization, when all these things started happening it was kind of crazy for me," says Valera. "But that’s the way it is. Some things you cannot control and that’s baseball sometimes. After a couple of years gaining experience, I got, I don't want to say used to it, but I did a little bit, I guess. But I'm good. I'm here now, giving my best for the Blue Jays."
No doubt, finding a little bit more meaning in this return to play after a summer of lost opportunity.