MESA, Ariz. – Every day last season, wherever the Cubs played, whenever the game ended, Willson Contreras called home or texted to make sure his family was safe, especially his brother, Willmer, who was alone in Venezuela.
“Believe me, it’s hard to play like that,” the Cubs’ catcher said. “It’s hard to stay focused on playing baseball. And then after the game, right away I’d think about him and talk to my family.”
Every game. Every day.
He continues to do it this spring.
“He’s doing all right now, but I’m scared because he’s by himself down in Venezuela,” Contreras said. “It’s real easy for him to get kidnapped.”
Nearly two decades of political, economic and social upheaval in Venezuela under former president Hugo Chavez and successor Nicolas Madura have reached crisis stages in recent years. Massive inflation, food shortages, continual blackouts and widespread crime and rioting across the country are now driving thousands out of Venezuela and creating a migration crisis in South America, according to reports.
“I went back in December, but it wasn’t easy, seeing what’s going on,” said Contreras, who stayed only for a few weeks. “The security at the borders. Seeing a lot of little kids getting food from the trash cans. …”
Some major league players have tried to provide humanitarian aid. Former Cub Miguel Montero, for instance, started raising money last year for hospitals that were running out of medicine.
Often, players eventually use their resources to leave, and use their influence to try to take their families with them.
Meanwhile, as more Venezuelans have reached the major leagues over the past generation, they have been increasingly targeted in kidnap-for-ransom plots – their faces familiar, their salaries publicized, their family members known in their hometowns.
Willmer, 28, is holed up close to home and watching his back while Willson keeps trying to find a way to get him out of the country at least for temporary stretches to be with the family in the United States.
“I’m not trying to bring my brother for him to stay or ask for asylum,” Contreras said.
For now, his mother and father are with him and his wife in the U.S. – thanks in large part to the help of U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, who put his staff on it after hearing on a Cubs’ 2016 World Series broadcast that Contreras’ parents were in Venezuela with no way to get visas to travel to see him play.
“I said, `Call John Kerry.’ So we called the State Department,” Durbin said, relating the story to Sun-Times Washington bureau chief Lynn Sweet.
The visas were approved in time for Contreras’ parents to join him before the end of the World Series.
“After the World Series he asked for an appointment,” Durbin said. “He came to see me to thank me for getting his mom and dad in to see the World Series.”
That’s where the feel-good part of the story ends. Willmer was away from home at the time of the World Series and missed his best chance at a visa.
Durbin’s office told Contreras last year that they could not help at that point. The Cubs also have tried to work with him on behalf of his brother with little progress.
“I’m still working on it,” Contreras said. “I’m scared to think he might get kidnapped like Elias Diaz’s mom.”
Just last month the mother of the Pirates catcher was kidnapped but rescued by police after three days. In December of 2011, then-Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped at gunpoint and eventually rescued by commandos after a 15-minute gun battle.
And former Cubs catcher and coach Henry Blanco’s brother was killed by kidnappers in 2008 before he could reach them to pay for his freedom.
The Ramos kidnapping happened near Contreras’ home in Venezuela.
“I think there’s something wrong there,” said Contreras, who also has a younger brother, William, catching in the Braves system. “I think every big league player should be able to bring his brother and mom and dad to the United States, especially from Venezuela.
“Our situation in Venezuela is really sad,” he said. “It’s going to get worse.”
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