Erikson Andrus thought he was a dead man.
On an ordinary day waiting in line at a crowded lunch-time eatery, a gunman appeared out of the corner of his left eye. He lurched closer and ... BANG!
Then more gunfire, from multiple directions.
Patrons screamed and scrambled for cover. Face-down on the floor, Andrus’ mind flashed to his wife and daughter in the car. He lifted his head and saw the bodyguard hired by his brother, Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus. Blood soaked the bodyguard’s shirt.
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A bullet had entered his chest, tearing through his left side and lodging itself below his armpit.
“Hey boss, hey boss, let’s go!” the stocky bodyguard urged seconds after he fired seven bullets, killing the assailant. A second suspect fired shots above his head and ran.
The gunmen were believed to belong to one of the country’s armed civilian groups loyal to Venezuela’s socialist government. Andrus had become a target because of his famous last name and his job as a spokesman with Empresas Polar, the country’s largest private company and top beer producer — and a staunch opponent of the increasingly totalitarian regime.
“He was going to kill me,” Andrus said, recently recounting the events of May 29, 2014. “That scared me.”
Throughout this baseball season, the six Venezuelan players on the Rangers roster have been consumed by concern for the safety and well-being of loved ones back home as civil unrest, economic collapse and extreme food and medicine shortages roil the country.
Some have brought parents and siblings to North Texas to escape the turmoil. Relatives of big-leaguers are afforded the mobility to leave, but when their six-month travel visas expire, they return home not only to rapidly deteriorating living conditions, but also as targets of kidnappers seeking ransom.
The morning after Andrus’ life-threatening encounter, he called his brother a world away in Washington D.C., where the Rangers were opening a weekend series against the Nationals.
“Hey Elvi,” Erikson said, using his little brother’s nickname. “I need to do something.”
“You know what, bro?” Elvis said. “It’s time to come to the U.S.”
A week later Erikson and his family were in North Texas, seeking asylum.
“Thank God nothing happened to my brother,” Elvis said. “As soon as that happened, because you knew it could happen any time, I brought them all here.”
How the chaos-inflicted stress might have affected the players’ performances over the course of the season is impossible to know. The distraction clings closely to their hearts.
Second baseman Rougned Odor, though a fierce competitor nightly, has slumped at the plate all season. Catcher Robinson Chirinos took over the starting job in July, and has staked a claim for the job for next season. Pitcher Martín Pérez, seeking an elusive breakout, is 12-11. Andrus has put together another solid year.
A return to the postseason is possible, but unlikely with just a week left in the regular season. At the conclusion, each player would love to head home, to normal times, to laugh and play dominoes with their families and friends at weekend barbecues. Now, none are sure they will venture home.
“Especially right now, I don’t think about that because if I start thinking about ‘should I go or don’t go,’ when I go up to bat,” Odor, 23, said, then pausing. “I have all my friends and family there, so that’s why I can’t be thinking about that right now.”
During recent clubhouse interviews, those four Venezuelan players, plus rookie pitcher Ricardo Rodriguez, 25, spoke out against the regime and expressed frustration beyond being able to send back money, medicines as basic as aspirin and hygiene products as routine as deodorant no longer on Venezuelan store shelves.
Many of the 77 Venezuelans on major-league rosters when the season started, including Chirinos and Pérez, use Instagram and social media to express grievances with the government and support the majority who oppose it.
“It’s bad when you live in a country where before you have everything and now you can’t find food, you can’t find medicine, everything’s expensive,” said Pérez, 26, who, with his wife and baby daughter, have welcomed into their Dallas home his parents, his sister and her family, and one of his brothers and his family, nine in all.
“All the people who work in Venezuela work for free because they don’t make enough money. You see these kinds of things happen right now to our people, it’s hard for us as players to do nothing.”
This summer has been especially brutal. Violent riots erupt in the streets of Caracas and the food shortage is dire. Just weeks ago, an election boycotted by the opposition granted the Cuban-backed Nicolás Maduro government power to rewrite the country’s constitution.
The Maduro administration is grinding the once-democratic nation into a single-party Marxist state, said Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“There is a very real recognition among many Venezuelans that if they don’t speak up now and prevent this sort of completion of this takeover by Maduro, they’re going to live lives similar to Cubans,” Smith said.
Venezuelans are now the top asylum seekers in the U.S., easily surpassing those from China. More than 14,700 Venezuelans sought asylum in the U.S. in 2016, up from 5,605 in 2015. That number jumped to 15,469 in the first six months of 2017.
“It is important we make sure people know the situation all the Venezuelan people are going through right now,” said Chirinos, 33, from Punto Fijo. “The people are not just protesting the government, they’re protesting the way they’re running the country. They protest because there is no food, they protest because the security is not good.
“People are dying every day because they rob people for a pair of shoes, they kill people for them. That’s why people are protesting in the streets and trying to get new people to run the country.”
Elvis and Erikson
Erikson and Elvis’ mother, Elvia, 60, and stepdad, Hector Gruver, now split time between North Texas and the Dominican Republic.
It pains her to have left her own parents and siblings behind. She speaks only Spanish, and that can be discomforting even when making a quick trip to the store. But life changed dramatically the day Elvis signed his $120 million extension in 2013, and she appreciates a life free of bodyguards.
“They are getting comfortable with the culture and thank God, they now kind of like it here,” Elvis, 29, said. “They like that they can walk in the street without bodyguards. They like they can go to the mall without getting robbed, they can go to dinner late and walk and nothing’s going to happen.”
Erikson, Maria and their two daughters, ages 10 and 7, live in a home Elvis purchased in Hurst. The girls didn’t know a lick of English, but are now fluent and they’ve adjusted well to school. A special-needs teacher in her old life, Maria recently opened a daycare in their home.
Erikson, 35, brought his late father’s legacy with him, a baseball academy their father ran in their hometown of Maracay called EA Osos until he lost his battle with lung cancer 21 years ago. Erikson rebranded his burgeoning youth baseball endeavor with the English version of the mascot, EA Bears, although he laughs because he pronounces it more like Beers.
“If not for Elvi, I wouldn’t be here. He’s the one that made the base to bring me here and help me,” Erikson said. “It’s hard to start over from zero. Elvi is helping cousins, uncles, aunts, a lot of people, man. I don’t even know how many friends he is helping beside our family.”
Erikson’s amnesty claim, which allows his family to stay here, could take up to two more years to complete, said immigration attorney Margaret Donnelly, who is handling his case. Elvis, a U.S. resident, said he hopes to put his parents on the path to permanent residency through the EB-5 visa classification.
EB-5 allows immigrants to invest in a new commercial enterprise. It requires deep pockets most Venezuelans don’t have. The minimum qualifying investment is $1 million.
Donnelly is also an author of four books covering Latin American history and a co-producer of four documentaries on the Americas. She is forming a multimedia production company in Los Angeles, in essence creating an EB-5 opportunity for immigrants with an ability to invest. She hopes Venezuelan major-leaguers will take advantage on behalf of their parents.
EB-5 could also be an option for the Odor family.
Odor’s dad, also named Rougned, was a scout for the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers until last spring when Odor signed his $49.5 million extension and told his dad to hang ’em up. He won’t seek asylum because it prohibits leaving the country and would prevent him from returning to Venezuela to see family.
But he is formulating plans to move his wife, Carolina, and daughter Ysabel, 13, to Texas within a year. Odor’s brother, Rougned Jose, 19, is a minor-leaguer in the Rangers’ system.
They are here on travel visas, and will return to Venezuela after the season ends. He said moving to the U.S. won’t be easy because they won’t have legal status beyond travel visas, which get you in, but send you out after six months.
“Then maybe we can go to another country for a month, and then come back,” the elder Odor said as he watched the early innings of a recent Rangers home game. He and Carolina don’t miss a game when they’re here. “It’s not going to be easy to move, but we have to do it because the situation is not good. It’s more difficult right now.”
As are most Venezuelan players, Odor is torn about returning to his hometown of Maracaibo, the second-largest city in the country. His heart never left.
He grew up playing Little League baseball in Maracaibo, and so when the city’s squad qualified for last month’s World Series in Williamsport, Pa., Odor paid for the team to fly to Caracas to obtain visas. Representing Latin America, they went 2-2 on the diamond. More important, for a week a tight-knit group of 12-year-old boys got to get away.
Friends and battery mates
Pérez’s family’s visas are set to expire. His parents will return to Guanara, a city of about 112,000, and he worries that an entrenched Maduro regime will make it increasingly difficult for Venezuelans to leave in the coming years.
As it is, the U.S. embassy is no longer issuing first-time visas. U.S. airlines have either already significantly cut flights to Caracas or suspended service all together. Available flights are cost prohibitive for most Venezuelans.
“You can’t [expletive] live in your country, man, because of the government. They don’t want people to have opportunity to have a better future,” said Pérez, who speaks passionately and urges his countrymen to stand firm in the face of oppression. “The problem is not just the government. The problem is us, because we don’t want to change the mind, we don’t want to think deeper, we don’t want to do things to change the country.
“As soon as we start to change, I think all the Venezuelan people are going to change, and our country is going to change, too.”
Peréz and Chirinos, whose brother’s and sister’s family are staying with him, speak often about the troubles back home, and how to keep their families safe. Their lockers are side-by-side. A Venezuelan flag proudly hangs between them.
Chirinos’ parents arrived in North Texas just a couple of weeks ago. Last December, the country’s turmoil could have killed his father, who suffered a stroke. The doctor at the hospital told his family they did not have the proper medicine. Chirinos put out a desperate plea on Twitter.
“Thank God people responded quick and we were able to get medicine. Thank God he is doing better,” Chirinos said.
His parents now have six safe months ahead in Texas. Chirinos wishes for longer.
“Hopefully forever,” he said.
Jeff Caplan is a projects and enterprise reporter for the Star-Telegram. Reach him at 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan.