Carlos González was 7 years old the season Andrés Galarraga caught fire. At the time, González was living in Maracaibo, Venezuela, the country’s second-largest city.
That winter, Galarraga, a Caracas, Venezuela, native had agreed to a one-year deal with the Colorado Rockies. Galarraga hoped to revive his career in Colorado. He’d scuttled through the 1992 season, batting .243 with 10 home runs.
It turned out coming to Colorado gave Galarraga new life. He hit .370 and belted 22 home runs in 1993. He was named an All Star and won the National League batting title.
Back home in Venezuela, González followed along by watching the news on his grandmother’s T.V., which kept him updated on “El Gato” as he tore through baseball in a career-defining year. Little did González know then that he too would one day break into the big leagues and star for the same franchise as Galarraga.
González, who’s now in his ninth season with the Rockies, was one of five Venezuelan players on Colorado’s Opening Day roster. González, left fielder Gerardo Parra, utility man Alexi Amarista and rookie pitchers Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela are the latest in a long line of Venezuelan-born players to wear purple and black. Together, they form one of the biggest Venezuelan presences on any MLB team.
“It is super special getting to play with guys who are from the same place you’re from,” González said. “You feel comfortable being around your guys. Not that I don’t already feel good around everybody else. But being around guys who pretty much went through some of the same stuff you went through growing up and now sharing a big league field is very special.”
The Rockies’ Venezuelan-born players arrived here in a variety of ways.
González is the longest-tenured of the five. He came to Colorado in 2008 from the Oakland A’s in the Matt Holliday trade. Márquez, who’s posted a 4.41 ERA in 151 innings this year, was acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016 in exchange for Cory Dickerson.
Parra and Amarista both arrived here through free agency. Parra signed a three-year deal before the 2016 season while Amarista inked a one-year deal this winter.
Senzatela is the lone player of the bunch whom Colorado drafted and developed. The 22-year-old Valencia, Venezuela, native signed as a non-drafted international free agent as a teenager in 2011.
“It helps a lot,” said Senzatela, who started off in the starting rotation and has since moved to the bullpen. “I feel at home here. Everybody’s a good guy, but the Venezuelan guys we have here take care of us.”
Senzatela has been able to lean on veterans like González and Parra for tips on navigating big-league life. He’s also close with Márquez, whom he met in Double-A Hartford last year. Sometimes, one will offer the other words of encouragement after a rough outing.
“We help each other,” Senzatela said. “I tell him, ‘Let’s go, go get him’ when he has a bad day. And he helps me when I have a bad day too.”
Gonzalez and Parra are also close friends. They came up playing minor league ball together in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization. And each were members of Venezuela’s 2013 World Baseball Classic team.
Back in June, when Gonzalez was in the throes of his struggles at the plate, Parra picked up González’s bat before he was due up and did a little dance with it for good luck. The shimmy worked. Gonzalez homered to straightaway center his next time up.
“He’s one of those guys that it doesn’t matter where he is, if he’s on the DL or if he’s active,” González said of Parra. “He’s always loud, he’s always making fun of the fans, the opposite team, always trying to keep everybody loose. It’s always nice to have a guy like that on the team.”
A record number of Venezuelans made Opening Day rosters this spring.
Seventy-six Venezuelan players made big-league rosters when play began April 2 — the most in MLB history. Only the United States and Dominican Republic had more.
At a time when Venezuelan representation in Major League Baseball is at an all-time high, Venezuela itself is in a dark place.
Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela, has jailed political opponents, cracked down on protestors with lethal force and is accused of rigging elections to consolidate power . Roughly 120 people have reportedly been killed in anti-government street protests since April. The country is in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis.
Many Venezuelan MLB players have expressed concern about the situation. Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli said in April that he receives messages every day from “friends and family who have no food, who have no medicine for their little girls, who have no diapers.” In May, Cervelli organized a video that featured 13 Venezuelan-born players commenting on the political and economic dysfunction in their home country.
None of the Rockies’ Venezuelan players appear in the video, but each said they’re aware of what’s happening back home.
“It’s hard, man,” Márquez said. “I follow everything. I think it’s getting bad. I hope that it’s going to be better. All my family is over there. They are safe.”
Like Márquez, González has family back home too.
“It’s hard not to pay attention,” he said. “My parents, my brother and sister. I’m always in touch with them just to see how they’re doing.”
González usually returns to Venezuela for a couple weeks in the offseason to spend time with them. But this winter, González isn’t sure he’ll go back because of all what’s going on.
“I don’t have any plans to go back home,” he said. “But we’ll see what happens.”
It’s possible that this is González’s last year with the Rockies. He’s in the final year of his contract and will turn 32 next month. Colorado has a promising young outfielder in Raimel Tapia waiting in the wings. If González does move on, he’ll do so as one of the greatest players in team history.
González has been chosen to three All-Star games since he became a Rockie in 2009. He’s won three Gold Gloves. In 2010, González even won a National League batting title 17 years after Galarraga, one of his boyhood heroes, accomplished the same feat.
“You don’t remember much when you were young. You only remember a couple things,” González said. “I do remember when he was playing for the Rockies and watching the game on T.V. at my grandma’s house. I had dreams about playing in the big leagues. I never imagined that I would be in the same scenario that he was in. So it’s a blessing.”
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