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For Venezuelan baseball players, protests hit close to home

By Catherine E. Shoichet and Adriana Hauser, CNN
February 27, 2014 -- Updated 1929 GMT (0329 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Venezuelan MLB players say they're worried about events unfolding at home
  • Athletes share photos on social media expressing support for their country
  • Some use #SOSVenezuela, used by opposition to draw attention to the crisis

(CNN) -- The baseball players posed for a team photo of sorts -- but the signs they held had nothing to do with home runs or striking out.

Two of them toted a Venezuelan flag with "SOS" scrawled across the top. One knelt in front with a sign that said "Pray for Venezuela." Another held a banner that read, "Lejos pero no ausentes" (far away but not absent).

The Detroit Tigers teammates snapped the photo last week in a locker room in Lakeland, Florida, their spring training base.

A group of New York Mets posed for a similar shot this week, holding Venezuelan flags as they stood beside a baseball diamond in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

They may be rivals on the field, but the players from both teams share something in common: concern about events unfolding in their homeland, more than 1,500 miles away.

Weeks of massive street protests in Venezuela have left at least 13 people dead, more than 100 injured, and dozens detained after clashes between members of the opposition, backers of the government, law enforcement and armed groups.

"We are really worried about what's going on there," said Wilmer Flores, a 22-year-old infielder for the Mets. "I have all my family there. All my friends are there."

He hails from Valencia, Venezuela, where the death of a beauty queen who was shot in the head during protests made international headlines.

He said he's warned his family members not to go outside as protests rage.

"From here, supporting VENEZUELA," Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera -- who's from Maracay, Venezuela -- posted as he tweeted the photo with his teammates.

"From here all united for Venezuela," Tigers infield coach Omar Vizquel wrote when he shared the photo.

Baseball is also a national pastime in the South American nation. And statistics show that Venezuelans represent the second largest group of foreign players in Major League Baseball.

The Mets have three Venezuelan players and a coach. On the Tigers' 40-man roster this year, 10 players are from Venezuela.

And when the players speak out, people listen.

The Tigers photo has been re-tweeted nearly 10,000 times since Cabrera shared it, and more than 16,000 times from Vizquel's account.

Some praised the players for their courage. But not all the responses were positive.

Some described them as hypocrites, slammed them for seeming to take sides or criticized them for not taking a firm enough stance.

In the polarized world of Venezuelan politics, there are no referees who step in to break up a fight.

"Now no one can have an opinion. If you support someone, others attack you, and vice versa. And if you are neutral, you are not Venezuelan," Cabrera wrote back in response. "What a sad reality."

Some players' online posts have included the #SOSVenezuela tag used by members of the opposition to draw attention to Venezuela's crisis. Others have said they aren't taking a political stand -- just pushing for peace.

The posts have drawn a response from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro himself. In televised remarks, he implied that players weren't expressing their true feelings.

"Venezuelan Major League players are being pressured to appear in portraits that say SOS Venezuela," Maduro said. "The owners of the Major League teams have pressured our men."

Vizquel didn't mince words when he fired back on Twitter.

"The only pressure we have is winning games, hitting and catching," he wrote. "Sensibility and feelings are not pressured."

The face of one Mets coach, Edgardo Alfonzo, normally lights up when he talks about his home country. But now, weighing the situation, he says he's overcome with sadness and feeling tense.

"We never thought we were going to get where we are today. ... You feel so impotent not being able to do anything from here, just supporting our families and the Venezuelan people. And really, for all these people who have lost family members, it is so hard," he said. "Everyone is worried. It's like a ticking time bomb. Really, you don't want it to continue. You want it to stop, once and for all."

It's not just baseball players and coaches speaking out about Venezuela.

Miami Heat basketball player Chris Bosh tweeted a photo of his shoes during a game on Sunday, with "SOS Venezuela" written in white above the Nike swoosh.

Bosh told Bleacher Report he'd been discussing the crisis with his wife, who's half Venezuelan.

"Kind of brushing up on it in the past week," he said. "Crazy. Government kind of stopping everything. Inflation. Exports and imports have pretty much stopped. I know a couple of people that just came down from there, and work for me, and it's just bad. You go to the grocery store, and there's no groceries. No medicine."

Many Venezuelan baseball players say they hope to use their popularity and the popularity of their sport to send a message of peace that goes beyond politics.

They believe baseball is a sport that can bring people together, and they hope that their message is heard by the international community, as well as back at home.

"We're trying to promote peace," Alfonzo said. "Because, to be an athlete, I think a lot of young people look up to us. That's the way we can help."

There's only one thing Alfonzo says he wants for his country: peace.

"Just pray for Venezuela," he said. "That's all we ask."

CNN's Emily Smith contributed to this report.

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