BARRANQUILLA, Colombia — Temperatures hovered around 85 degrees on a recent Thursday morning, and inside the confines of Edgar Rentería Stadium, dozens of Venezuelan and Colombian kids and baseball coaches were gathered on the infield while the public address announcer’s voice boomed in Spanish over the sound system:
"The catcher for the New York Mets, 'the Buffalo,’ Wilson Ramos!”
Ramos bounded up the dugout steps to an adoring audience and took his place alongside several other major-leaguers — including the Yankees’ Gio Urshela and Red Sox lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez — before the young baseball hopefuls split into different groups to practice all facets of the game under the watchful eye of the pros.
Moments later, Ramos, wearing shades, crouched in position behind home plate and instructed the kids in front of him how to frame a pitch.
“Beautiful, right? Hopefully we have a spring training game one of these days,” said Rentería, 43, the former World Series MVP (2010 Giants) and five-time All-Star who was born in Barranquilla and for whom the stadium is named.
But Rentería’s voice became almost a whisper when he was asked about the continuing turmoil in neighboring Venezuela, a country whose political and economic upheaval the last few years has forced millions of citizens — including Venezuelan MLB players and their families — to flee to safer havens, including moving across the border to live in Colombia. Socialist Nicolas Maduro remains the Venezuelan president despite opposition leader Juan Guaido’s declaration in January that he was in charge.
According to the “Response for Venezuelans” (R4V) website, which is used by government agencies to track migration figures, approximately 1.63 million Venezuelans have left the country and sought refuge or asylum in Colombia since 2017.
The Venezuelan-born Ramos, who survived a harrowing kidnapping ordeal of his own in his country in 2011 when he played for the Nationals, said he and his wife and kids (the couple is expecting their third child) “feel really good in the U.S. and we have a great time living there.”
Ramos said he still has some family members living in Venezuela, a predicament that weighs on him mentally.
“Every day, I never forget that [kidnapping] case. I always have that in my life, in my mind. Right now, the country is really dangerous. It’s hard to go there and spend [any] really good time. We have to be careful,” said Ramos, 32. “You have to take care of family [there], have bodyguards, so they [are] protected every single day. It’s very hard to see how the country looks right now.”
The Colombia goodwill trip involving over a dozen MLB players was the brainchild of Leonor Colon, the senior director of international and domestic player operations at the Players Association. She said the union is “always looking to find ways to assist our collective players in charitable efforts” through the Players Trust (the MLBPA charitable arm).
But the unrest and turmoil in Venezuela has continued to worsen, and it has become more difficult to carry out charitable efforts there. The goodwill trip had multiple missions, not the least of which was to spotlight Colombia’s support of Venezuelans during the humanitarian crisis.
“It’s so sad,” Rentería said. “That’s why we’re here. [Venezuelans] can come over any time. We’re here for them.”
The trip began in Cartagena with a visit to a children’s education center for disadvantaged Colombian children and Venezuelan child refugees. The last leg of the goodwill tour was a reception at the Bogotá residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Philip Goldberg. The players presented two checks to Goldberg: $300,000 to the UN Refugee Agency and $150,000 to Project Beisbol, which provides equipment and other support to baseball programs throughout Colombia.
“This is amazing. This is one of the things that made me play baseball — the kids,” Rodriguez said during a break in the Barranquilla clinic. Rodriguez, like Ramos, is from Valencia, Venezuela.
Former Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli had no qualms about voicing his opinion on what needs to change in his native Venezuela. Cervelli, who said his parents have moved to Colombia because of the unrest, smiled when asked if Maduro needs to go.
“Oh, yeah. Everybody knows, the answer is that one. You need to remove Communists. Simple,” Cervelli said during the reception at Goldberg’s residence. “I think it’s not a secret for anyone, what’s going on [in Venezuela]. It’s worse. It’s always going to be worse. If change doesn’t happen, it won’t be better.”
“The country needs a change. We need another face, you know?” Ramos said of the Venezuelan political situation.
During the four-day trip through three Colombian cities, MLB's winter meetings sizzled in San Diego. Ramos and Urshela kept tabs on the rash of deals, including pitcher Gerrit Cole signing a $324 million deal with the Yankees.
“That’s a great addition,” said Urshela, 28. “I’m excited. I think he’s gonna be a big help for our team. I hope we get the chance to win the World Series. That’s what we want.”
The Colombian-born Urshela added that he’s “feeling healthy and working out” in preparation for the upcoming season and that he’s not opposed to moving around the Yankees' infield if needed. Urshela, who said he hadn’t yet spoken to manager Aaron Boone this offseason, played 123 games at third base last year.
“Whatever they need me [to do]. I’ll be playing anywhere. If they put me at second, [or I] share first — I’m gonna play everywhere,” Urshela said.
Ramos is pleased about the Mets' two newest players, saying pitchers Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello are “going to be good for that rotation. Those guys have experience and 100 percent they will help the team. I know we lost [Zack] Wheeler, but we have good arms,” he said.
Ramos added that he had a “really good” conversation with teammate Noah Syndergaard after the season and that he already has forgotten about the flap between him and the long-haired righthander that occurred during the season. Syndergaard reportedly went to the Mets’ front office to complain about being paired with Ramos.
“We talked, it was really good,” Ramos said. “That helps us to communicate better. We’ve got more time to talk and that will help to be better this year.”
Maybe the Mets could consider signing Cervelli, a free agent, as a backup, although he said he wouldn’t be opposed to a pinstriped reunion, especially after Austin Romine signed with the Tigers.
“I would love to play there again,” said Cervelli, 33, who played 250 games with the Yankees from 2008-14 and was with the Pirates and Braves last season. “When you come from the Yankees, that’s the best school you can ever ask [for]. That was my school.”
Cervelli said he will continue to be vocal about the Venezuelan crisis, hoping for a tide of change.
“That’s my country. That’s my land. I’m going to stand up against bad things — the abuse, abuse of power,” he said. “I’m gonna be vocal. That’s in my system.”