I was a little nervous about approaching Felix Hernandez on this, because you don’t want to offend the guy. Even though it’s well-documented that Venezuela has been on a cataclysmic decline over the past few years, it’s still a touchy subject when it’s the man’s home country.
Fortunately, Felix put me at ease less than three seconds into the conversation.
“So, I’ve been reading a lot about everything going on in Venezuela lately and …”
Then, Hernandez interjected.
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“It sucks,” he said.
It really does.
Since 1998, the murder rate per 100,000 Venezuelans has soared from 20 to 90. A recent survey found that 75 percent of the country’s citizens lost weight in 2016 — and by an average of 19 pounds.
Many airlines refuse to fly there. The wealth-makers — like 2 million others — have all left. People are forced to ration water and even toothpaste.
Hernandez used to love visiting family in Venezuela during the offseason, but those days are on hold. After spending Christmas back home in 2016, he and his wife surveyed the damage and decided they weren’t going to return.
“It used to be an awesome country,” Hernandez said. “To see it on the decline like this is really frustrating.”
Hernandez is in year six of his seven-year, $175 million contract, but says sending money back home is pointless. Considering Venezuelans will stand in line for food from sun up to sun down and often come away empty-handed, cash is irrelevant.
So Felix sends his own food to his and his wife’s family and hopes things improve one day. If or when that day is coming remains unclear.
Many point to the election of socialist president Hugo Chavez as the origin of the nation’s decline. Matters have only gotten worse since Nicolas Maduro replaced Chavez after his death in 2013.
The Fraser Institute now ranks Venezuela last in the world in terms of economic freedom, as 82 percent of its citizens live in poverty. And though Hernandez generally isn’t one to voice his political views, he isn’t shy about criticizing his country’s leadership.
“(Maduro) sucks,” said Hernandez, adding that his once-hefty cousin has lost a significant amount of weight. “I don’t want to talk (trash) but he’s doing the wrong thing for the country. We need a change. I believe Venezuela is going to change for the better.”
As I said, this stuff is touchy. Before approaching Astros star Jose Altuve, a fellow Venezuelan, I asked Houston Chronicle reporter Chandler Rome what he was like to deal with. Rome said he was great on pretty much any subject.
Two minutes later, when Altuve declined to comment on his country’s woes, Rome said that was the first time he’d ever seen him turn a reporter down.
A’s pitcher Yusmeiro Petit, on the other hand, was willing to talk. Like Hernandez, he is unsure as to when he’ll return to Venezuela.
And though he encourages his family to stay home — mainly because he thinks it would be too hard to start over in another country — Petit laments the decimation of his once-proud country.
“It’s real sad,” Petit said. “To grow up there and spend the majority of your time there and then to see it like this — it’s tough on a lot of people and breaks your heart at times.”
It used to be common for scouts to fly into Venezuela, which has also produced the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Omar Vizquel and other MLB stars. Now, most clubs — including the Mariners — refuse to send anybody there.
The M’s still have five native Venezuelans scouting from within the country, but in order for anyone else to get a glimpse of a prospect, players have to travel to academies in countries such as Mexico, Panama or the Dominican Republic.
Fortunately, Venezuela is still producing said players. And its winter league carries on.
Maybe the government realizes there’s an economic incentive behind churning out MLB talent, or maybe the sport is too deeply-rooted in the country’s culture to disappear.
Whatever it is, as Mariners international scouting director Tim Kissner said: “Baseball seems to be the one thing that’s been left alone over there.”
I’m willing to admit it was only a few months ago that I was made aware of the extent of Venezuela’s ills. But I think it’s important that as many people as possible know about what’s plaguing this once-rich, still-beautiful nation.
Felix Hernandez made his name due to his ability to deliver a change. Here’s hoping his country can do the same.
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