CornBelters Venezuela photo

Five Normal CornBelters are playing baseball in the United States while worried about family in Venezuela. At front from left are Francisco Carrillo and Santiago Chirino. In back from left are Jesus Solorzano, Miguel Torres and Diego Cedeno.


NORMAL — Diego Cedeno hurries back to his cell phone after every Normal CornBelters game.

The center fielder hopes for good news and dreads what could easily be troubled tidings from his native Venezuela. Even no news is good news these days.

"You come back to the clubhouse, and you don't know what's going to happen," Cedeno said. "Something could happen to your family. You see a text from your mom that everything is OK, and you're like (huge sigh of relief)."

Cedeno and fellow Belters Santiago Chirino, Francisco Carrillo, Jesus Solorzano and Miguel Torres face the daily tension of having loved ones in Venezuela, where political and civil unrest have contributed to a severe deterioration in living conditions throughout the country on the northern coast of South America.

"I'm very worried," said Solorzano, Normal's left fielder, with the help of Chirino as translator. "I don't know what to do. I'm trying to figure out what's going to happen."

Solorzano has parents, a wife, a daughter and a son in Venezuela. Normal's third baseman Torres has a 2-year-old daughter among family members in the country.

"The situation is no good right now," Torres said. "My family needs money for food. It's very difficult."

Venezuela is experiencing a shortage of food and medicine that has driven prices sky high. Violence in the streets is in part blamed on economic conditions, while protests against the policies of President Nicolas Maduro contribute to the mayhem.

"It's dangerous to go there and be there," said Carrillo through Chirino. "People on the streets are trying to rob you and sell what you have to buy food for their kids. It's really tough to live there."

Chirino believes problems are "getting worse and worse. The election a week ago wasn't right. It wasn't a fair election. We don't want to be like Cuba. Things going on back home are what happened in Cuba a long time ago.

"They call the president in Venezuela a dictator now. He wants to make his own rules and do whatever he wants. He just wants the money and the power."

Normal's Venezuelans are professional baseball players. They use their modest Frontier League salaries to support themselves and their families, sending as much money as possible back to Venezuela.

"We started playing baseball when we were little," said Carrillo, who is among the Belters' top relief pitchers. "That's why we're here playing baseball trying to make money and send money back home. We want to make our family happy."

The 26-year-old Chirino, known around the Corn Crib as "Chi Chi," has played professionally since 2009 and is Normal's franchise leader in hits. Equally adept in the field at either second base or shortstop, Chirino has been with the Belters since 2013 and is in contention for the Frontier League batting title.

Chirino is from Punto Fijo, Solorzano's hometown is Barcelona on the northern coast of Venezuela and Carrillo, Torres and Cedeno all hail from Maracay, near the country's Caribbean coast.

"We have fun because it's baseball, but we're still thinking about what we have to do," said Cedeno, a 25-year-old who has been a professional since 2010. "Every day you play hard. We have to do great to keep going to take care of our family."

Venezuelans in the major leagues such as Miguel Cabrera and Francisco Cervelli have spoken out about the problems in their native country and expressed fear of family members being kidnapped because of their high salaries.

"Hopefully that will help," Cedeno said of the exposure those statements received. "People are crazy in the streets. It's really dangerous. People are killing each other. The government has taken the army into the streets. It's really scary."

Normal manager Brooks Carey admires how his players have been able to concentrate on the job at hand.

"They have stayed pretty focused on their own. Most of these guys have been playing for years so they're accustomed to leaving home," said Carey. "But it still doesn't negate the fact it's their lives. The stories from some of these guys ... They don't have the privilege of living in America like we do."

The worsening strife has the Venezuelans wondering with considerable trepidation what awaits them after the Frontier League season ends. Their work visas expire in September but securing flights back to Venezuela may not be possible.

"The president from the U.S. is trying to help us. Chile, Colombia, Argentina, like 15 countries are trying to help Venezuela," Chirino said of mounting international pressure on the Maduro regime. "I'm trying to see if I can play baseball in another country. I might have to do something to help my family in another country."

Cedeno plans to return to Venezuela if permitted to do so.

"It's tough over there," he said. "But I have to go. It's home."

Follow Randy Reinhardt on Twitter: @Pg_Reinhardt


Sports Writer

Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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