February 28, 2014 at 10:04 am

Tigers' Venezuelan players worry about families back home

The 12 Venezuelans in the Tigers' clubhouse posed with flags, banners and signs of support for their native country. (Maduradas.com)

Lakeland, Fla. — It’s a Tigers spring training like none other for Venezuelan ballplayers.

They are infielders and brothers.

Outfielders and sons.

Pitchers and cousins.

But their thoughts and concerns for a homeland in turmoil have only intensified since spring training began last week.

The unrest in Venezuela began more than two weeks ago in the western states of Tachira and Merida, when students began demonstrating against the government, angered by the country’s high crime rate, economic woes and shortages of basic goods. The demonstration spread and violence erupted, with up to at least 16 dead.

With the turmoil so far away, however, solidarity was formed with the Tigers from Venezuela.

They didn’t alert the media covering the team that a photo was in the works.

Attracting attention wasn’t its purpose.

The intention was for their friends and relatives home in troubled Caracas, in violent Valencia, or in the smaller cities, to be bolstered by a message of support.

And that seemed to take place.

More than that, it spread.

“We were the first,” said Tigers coach Omar Vizquel, from Caracas. “But I think other teams were on the brink of doing the same thing.”

What the Tigers did — posing with flags, banners and signs of support — was repeated by one team, then another — the Miami Marlins posed outside their clubhouse the next day with signs for peace.

And another — the Minnesota Twins, with sympathetic teammates from the Dominican Republic posing with those from Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro acknowledged the expressions of concern by saying the players were under pressure from the U.S., and their teams, to speak out against the government.

Players show human side

But the underlying reality is that ballplayers, no matter where they are from, aren’t de-sensitized robots.

With violence in the streets of home, and their country suffering shortages of necessities, the players reached out as far and as genuinely as they could from a distance to assure their friends, Venezuelans and countrymen they’re thinking of them.

“Baseball players sometimes are seen as machines,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “This shows the human side of our guys. They have families. They have reasons for concern.

“As much as we love our country, they love theirs. I thought the display (of solidarity) was tremendous.”

Avila understands the concerns of his Venezuelan teammates. He grew up listening to his grandfather’s connections with what took place more than 50 years ago in Cuba.

At first, it wasn’t a concern for Ralph Avila, who became a longtime scout for the Dodgers. It was support.

“My grandfather fought with (Fidel) Castro because he thought that would lead to a better life,” Alex Avila said. “But then he fought against him, when it didn’t.

“People in Venezuela are fighting for a way of life as well.”

Venezuelans stand united

There were 12 Tigers in the photo. Most were active players, ranging from stars to prospects.

“Nobody refused,” Vizquel said. “And nobody was under pressure to be in it. Everybody just said, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ ”

Some players weren’t available for comment after the photo. Others politely declined to comment. Perhaps they feared they would endanger their loved ones if they spoke out.

After all, high profile kidnappings, for instance, are not uncommon in Venezuela. In fact, the rise in crime there is a central issue to those demonstrating against the government.

“It’s hard to be here and not be able to do anything (to help),” two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera, born in Maracay, told MLB.com a few days after the photo. “It’s hard to be here and do your work, and not think about your country.

“It’s kind of tough. You have to be careful with what you say.”

So, most of the Tigers said nothing.

Vizquel, whose 24 years in the majors made him a hero in his homeland, has had plenty to say every step of the way.

“The situation is still pretty bad and just exploded last week,” he said during an interview on Sirius XM radio. “We’re just hoping everything gets solved soon so we can live our regular life. We want peace.”

Still, Vizquel is careful about making it sound as if he’s not choosing political sides.

He said he received “a lot of response” to his comments after the photo, “from both sides.”

“I got some good ones, but also got some bad ones,” he said. “But that’s the way it is right now. The situation is so tense that people think you’re rooting for one side or the other.”

Is that the case?

“No,” he said. “We don’t want to see people dead. We don’t want to see blood spilled. We just want peace.

“I want the Venezuela I used to live in when I was growing up.”

An activist faces National Guard troopers during a protest in San ... (Orlando Parada / Getty Images)