Lakeland, Fla. – It’s easy to stand there and smugly wonder why anyone would willingly choose to play winter ball in a country ravaged by political unrest, in a country on the verge of social and economic collapse?
Why would you play ball in a country where citizens on both sides of the political fight are being killed or detained, in a country where two Major League players, Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo were killed in a car crash, driven off the road by criminals this winter?
Looking at it from the outside, indeed, why in the world would anybody chose to play winter ball in Venezuela?
Well, what if Venezuela is your home? What if that’s where you were born and where your family lives? And what if your sole means of support for your family comes from playing baseball?
That was the reality for Tigers utility man Harold Castro this offseason.
“Scary, yes, a little bit,” Castro said. “But this is our work. We have to do it. That is where I live. I don’t have a house in America. That is my home. When I get done after the season, I have to go back.”
Castro was there for three months, playing 58 games and having a heck of a season for Leones del Caracas. He helped his hometown team get to the Venezuelan League finals, slashing .341/.371/.450 with an .821 OPS.
That came just a month after he finally, after grinding through eight seasons in the Tigers' system, made his big-league debut on Sept. 23. It should have been the happiest winter of his life. Instead, it was perhaps his most perilous.
“We stayed in a hotel and there was pretty good security over there,” he said. “But at the games, there was police or something like that everywhere. All around the stadium and in the stands.”
The worst, Castro said, came during the championship series against eventual champion Cardenales de Lara in late January. There were violent protests in the streets on Jan. 23, during what was supposed to be a birthday celebration for Venezuel National Assembly leader Juan Guaido, who had declared himself the country’s acting president.
Supporters of ousted president Nicolas Maduro crashed the celebration. According to media reports, more than 850 protesters were detained and 40 people died.
“The whole atmosphere was crazy because of the protests in the streets,” Castro said. “I have to say, that’s the craziest thing I’ve seen.”
That day, Castro and his teammates, according to a report by ESPN Deportes, debated whether or not to continue playing the series. They ended up playing that day, losing Game 2, and were swept in four straight.
But several players did leave immediately after that second game.
“Before, you would be very happy to be playing in the finals,” Castro said. “This time, it was so quiet. We all just wanted to get it over with so we could hurry up and leave.”
Typically, the championship series is a festive celebration in Venezuela, it’s their World Series. The stadiums are typically sold out. But with the economic collapse and inflation rate reaching 1.7 million percent in 2019, ticket prices were unaffordable. Across the league, there was a 60 percent reduction in attendance.
The stadium was nearly empty for the fourth and final game of the series.
“It was sad,” Castro said.
On top of that, for the second year in a row, the Caribbean Series was taken away from Venezuela. It was moved, hastily, to Panama.
Castro, who has re-upped with the Tigers on a minor-league deal with an invitation to big-league camp, was able to get a work visa and get to Lakeland in plenty of time before reporting day Sunday.
“For the professional baseball player, it’s easy to get a visa,” he said. “But for the rest of the people, it’s very hard.”
But he’s left his mother, two sisters, wife and young son behind in Venezuela. He said they live a couple of hours outside of Caracas, which is where most of the violence is. He said they are relatively safe and well provided for, in terms of food and necessities.
“When you have money over there, good money, you will be OK,” he said. “If not, that’s the problem. Most people don’t have too much money and they can’t buy food or anything.”
Castro, who most likely will start the season as the second baseman or utility man at Triple-A Toledo, has been working out at Tigertown for three weeks. But a big piece of his heart remains in Venezuela with his family, with whom he talks, texts and FaceTimes with daily.
“It is very hard to be here, with my mind over there,” he said.