ST. LOUIS (AP) — For about three hours a day, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jose Martinez gets a break. He’s allowed to smile and enjoy the game he loves.
The rest of the time, his mind is 2,100 miles away at his native Venezuela, where political unrest has become a way of life.
“I’m trying to give my son a better life, leave a better country, not worry if something happens to him like get kidnapped or something,” Martinez said Thursday, the same day the United States ordered relatives of American diplomats to leave Caracas, Venezuela.
There has been a wave of anti-government protests in Venezuela since April, with dozens killed, as citizens are rebelling against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist policies. On Sunday, Maduro has ordered a special election to overhaul the country’s charter, but critics say the election is rigged to strengthen his power.
“You cannot have all the power,” Martinez said. “That’s what it is. You want to have power, you have to give something to the people. That’s the best way I can explain it. People can’t be waiting in lines for food and medicine. People are dying.”
Martinez, 28, spent 10 years in the minors before finally getting called up to St. Louis last season where he hit .438 in 16 at-bats.
After a strong spring training, he earned a spot on the major league club this season. Martinez had played in 20 of the team’s first 29 games, hitting .313 with a homer and four RBIs before being sidelined with a groin injury.
Martinez has had a bench role in a crowded Cardinals outfield since returning from the disabled list on May 29, but is still hitting .282 with six homers and 18 RBIs.
But Martinez’s ups and downs are nothing compared to what is going on back home.
“They’re fighting for my son; they’re fighting for my family,” Martinez said. “So being here I’m always going to support them, saying the stuff I have to say to get change for the stuff over there. It’s not just for my family; it’s for the whole country.”
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Martinez has done a good job compartmentalizing and focusing on the field.
“Guys have stuff and unfortunately this game usually doesn’t slow down to let you deal with that stuff,” Matheny said. “You’ve got to be able to put it in its proper place.”
Added teammate Kolten Wong, “People tend to overlook the fact that we’re human just like everybody else. We’ve got feelings; we’ve got places that really hit home for us.”
Martinez always wears a Venezuelan-themed shirt under his uniform.
“It always reminds me of all the people over there,” he said. “It’s something that shows I’m fighting over here too.”
Martinez couldn’t hide his joy Monday night after hitting a key pinch-hit home run in the Cardinals’ 8-2 win over the Colorado Rockies. He dedicated it to his countrymen.
“He’s doing an amazing job understanding that when he comes to the field its time to do his job and he can definitely talk and worry about that after the game,” Wong said. “It just goes to show the maturity level that he has to be able to turn it off and on when game time starts.”
But those joys are too often short-lived. Reality hits every time he steps off the field and turns on his phone to make sure his 3-year-old son and other loved ones are OK.
“It’s a really tough situation,” Martinez said. “When I’m here I feel it. The fear is not for my family, it’s for all the people dying right now. A guy comes up and shoots the people and nobody does anything. It can be anybody. It can be one of my family. It can be one of my friends. It’s Venezuelans. It’s my people. It’s my country.”
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