Cubs’ Willson Contreras keeps big season in mind, Venezuela in heavy heart

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Contreras (right) with teammate Victor Caratini during batting practice this week.

MESA, Ariz. — Catcher Willson Contreras’ family is OK, for now. Which is about as far into the future as Contreras can look and keep his emotional footing.

“They’re in a safe place,” he said as spring training opened this week. “I just wish that their visas were going to be longer. I’m trying to bring them back and hope they can stay and live here.”

As Contreras approaches a possible defining season in his young major-league career, he does it with an eye on the chaos that has engulfed his native Venezuela.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro is under increasing international pressure to step down or hold a secure, verifiable election after the widely disputed results of last year’s election kept him in power. The national assembly declared the results invalid and installed its leader, Juan Guaido, as the acting president last month.

The United States and other countries recognize Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader.

Under Maduro (and predecessor Hugo Chavez), Venezuela’s once-thriving economy has crumbled as has its social infrastructure, including any semblance of law and order in much of the country. One result has been an exodus in recent years of those with the means to flee.

“As a Venezuelan player, we are here,’’ Contreras said. ‘‘When you’re on the field, your mind’s here, and your heart’s here. Once you get off the field, your mind and your heart go back to Venezuela.

“We have a dictatorship going on in Venezuela. We hope it’s over soon. I’m just tired of seeing a lot of kids dying because they don’t have [anything] to eat. Venezuela’s tired of seeing a lot of old men dying because they don’t have medicine or because people cannot [afford] food.”

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Contreras, whose brother William is a minor-league catcher in the Braves’ system, slumped much of his second full year in the big leagues in 2018 but doesn’t use the troubles in his homeland as an excuse.

He said he “tried too hard,” called last year “a learning experience” and vowed to be better for that experience.

As much as the baseball part of his life is a healthy place to take his mind away from what’s going on at home, Contreras won’t be too far from Venezuela — even on the field.

If baseball backs off on the ban that forced him to stop wearing his Venezuelan flag-motif sleeve, he’ll bring it back for games. Regardless, he plans to wear an undershirt with the flag’s colors and the message “Freedom For Venezuela” on it.

The shirts he helped design are being sold on obviousshirts.com for $28, with proceeds benefitting relief aid in Venezuela, he said.

“It’s really bad when you go back to your country and see all this stuff that 20 years ago wasn’t the same,” said Contreras, who also said he must employ security to travel home these days. “It’s just hard. It’s just hard for us and Venezuela. But the faith and hope are there, and I want to thank the United States of America for stepping up for us and doing everything it can for us.

“You love your country, and you want to go back and feel freedom. I hope we have the freedom soon.”

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