January 21, 2022

Home is More Than 90 Feet Away

October 12, 2021 by · Leave a Comment 

Venezuelan minor leaguer discusses his native country’s troubles, the pandemic, and life’s other curveballs.

Peterson Plaz

Plaz, seen here in a 2019 Dayton Dragons promotional photo, spent the last half-decade in the Cincinnati Reds farm system and hasn’t visited his native Venezuela since 2018 primarily due to the country’s political and economic instability. (Photo courtesy of Peterson Plaz)

Imagine trying to make the Major Leagues as a minor leaguer. It’s an arduous journey. The strenuous, incessant training, the long road trips, the extra-inning night games, the sacrifice.

Looming above it all is the harrowing and likely possibility of failure: 90 percent of all minor leaguers will never be called up.

And money? Good luck. Many players must work to support themselves, which takes time away from training. Some eat peanut butter sandwiches for every meal, while their MLB counterparts drive six-figure sports cars.

Now imagine these struggles with the added stress of living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Quarantining in an apartment for months, and knowing your family, whom you haven’t visited in three years, is 3,400 miles away in a country on the brink of chaos.

Peterson Plaz doesn’t have to imagine. This is his reality.

A 22-year-old Venezuelan free-agent center fielder, Plaz signed with the Cincinnati Reds as a teenager in 2015. By 2018, he was ranked the 73rd best player in MiLB by MLB.com and considered a jewel in Cincinnati’s farm system.
That was also the last year Plaz was able to return home. Simply put, Venezuela is a country in crisis. It has faced political and economic instability for about two decades, but recent years have been particularly volatile.

As of this writing, two rival politicians claim to be the nation’s legitimately elected leader. The economy has essentially collapsed, leading to severe inflation. Basic supplies are scarce and experts estimate that most citizens live in poverty. Some have resorted to eating wild fruit or even trash.

Many lack access to proper medicine and health care, leaving the country vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. Venezuela has seen a recent, alarming spike in cases. This, along with high rates of crime and violence, has resulted in mass emigration. Millions of Venezuelans have fled to more stable countries in South and Central America. Some have gone to Mexico, the United States, even Europe.

Plaz is from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, once considered one of Latin America’s thriving cultural centers and tourist destinations. The city now more closely resembles a dystopian ghost town.

“It’s bad over there and it hurts me to say that,” laments Plaz. “I love my country and wish I could say things were better. People have to carry buckets of water for home use, friends of mine don’t have electricity, and food can be hard to find. It’s not like here in the U.S., where you can just walk into a restaurant and get a good, warm meal.

“Here in the U.S. people actually respect each other and the rules. You can walk to and from a grocery and not have to worry about others stealing from you. It’s more unsafe in Venezuela.”

Plaz’s mother, grandfather, three sisters, and nieces live in Venezuela, while he continues to chase his baseball dreams in the States. He thinks about his family often. Plaz calls or texts them daily and sometimes uses FaceTime for a more human connection. It’s been three years since he’s talked with his family and friends in person. Returning to a country in turmoil is too dangerous, a risk he is unwilling to take at this point in his life. In addition, he fears that if he returns, he might become a target. While Plaz is a minor leaguer just getting by, some might assume he is a millionaire ballplayer.

He and other Venezuelan professional baseball players, some of whom also haven’t returned home for quite some time, have commiserated and discussed their country’s crisis. Yet they are mostly from the quieter, rural sections of Venezuela, while he is from the turbulent urban center, so it can be hard for them to relate.

On March 13, 2020, Plaz was forced from his second home: the baseball diamond. As if life hadn’t presented him enough obstacles, the coronavirus emerged and baseball shut down indefinitely. He was at the Reds’ Arizona spring training facility, preparing for his fifth season in Cincinnati’s system when he heard the news. Baffled and anxious, he immediately thought about life without baseball.

“So many questions and concerns came to mind,” sighs Plaz. “I never even thought about the possibility of baseball, and the country, being shut down. It hurt because baseball is my job, I love it, and it’s a way for me to help my family.”

It was now time to quarantine. American players went back home and lived with their families. Foreign players, however, encountered an awkward situation, especially as fears of the virus led to international borders being closed (Plaz notes that some could go home once places such as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia relaxed restrictions). Many stayed in their team’s housing—usually small apartments with two players per unit. Plaz roomed with fellow Venezuelan Claudio Finol, a 20-year-old infielder.

Players may have been stuck in apartments, but teams tried their best to ensure they remained in baseball shape. The Reds provided exercise bands and held workout sessions over video calls. They also bought and delivered nutritious groceries to the players. Without access to weights or machines, Plaz and Finol got creative. They stuffed their backpacks with clothes and whatever else was available, put them on, and completed as many push-ups as they could. High-volume sets of squats and jumping jacks helped maintain their conditioning. When the weather warmed, the pair ran wind sprints in a nearby courtyard. It was Rocky-esque training. They used the same courtyard to throw to each other and simulate grounders and fly balls.

Despite intense efforts, Plaz admits he, along with many other baseball players, gained some weight and lost some muscle. And without a real schedule or somewhere to go, it was easy for many to procrastinate, wake up later, and hit the hay later.

Plaz and Finol, though, relished this downtime. Their goal was to immerse themselves in American culture by watching movies and television shows, practicing their English (Plaz is adamant about improving his command of the language and has taken team-offered English classes in the past), and cooking various meals. With more time to think than before the pandemic, Plaz examined his love-hate relationship with social media.

“I stopped using social media for a while,” he laughs. “I’ve been on and off ever since. It’s just not always productive. But it does let me see what’s actually going on in my country, as the Venezuelan government has taken over the media.”

He and Finol, despite being cooped up together for months, were never too bored or irritated by the other’s idiosyncrasies.

“We made it fun and it worked out,” Plaz says. “He’s my best friend and somebody I consider family.”

Plaz batting

Plaz at bat in 2019 with the Greeneville Reds. He, like other hitters throughout baseball, was unable to pick up a bat for months during the quarantine. (Photo courtesy of Peterson Plaz)

When the quarantine ended, Finol left to live with his girlfriend in Ohio and was eventually signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in December 2020. He currently plays third base for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, a High-A Pirates affiliate, and lives in Florida. His family joined many others by leaving Venezuela for Uruguay. Finol and Plaz remain close. Plaz is grateful for the support the Reds provided him and Finol during the quarantine.

“The organization did not let us down,” Plaz says, trying to contain his emotions. “They set up at least two video calls per week, one for training and one to check in on us personally and discuss how we were feeling.

“I heard other Venezuelan and Latin American players did not receive nearly as much support as I did from the Reds. I know every organization is different, but it’s sad that some of those players probably had no idea what was going on.”

In spite of his unique and trying circumstances, Plaz realizes the pandemic negatively impacted many both inside and outside of baseball. He missed the fans and recognizes how much they love and follow the game. He was a fan once, too. As a youngster in Venezuela, Plaz would watch the TV with rapt attention as Colorado Rockies star Carlos Gonzalez, also a Venezuelan, slugged balls to the upper deck. Plaz dabbled in motocross (his mother detested it due to the danger) and horseback riding, but he never felt more at home than on a baseball field.

He returned to the field in early July 2020, picking up a bat for the first time in almost four months. By August, the team facility was up and running, and players were working to get back to pre-pandemic form.

“We were starting from zero, were fatter, and just trying to get back our swings,” Plaz says with a smile. “It was not easy for any of us to get back to where we were before the shutdown. We also had to make sure not to get injured by pushing ourselves too fast. It was step by step.”

Some generous Arizona facilities and gyms gave minor leaguers free one-year memberships, which expedited the training process. Plaz and his teammates also sent videos to coaches within the Reds system for scouting and instructional purposes, but he notes that in-person talent evaluation is more accurate than the virtual variety.

He believes the pandemic experience affected top prospects and developing players the same, but that pitchers may have gained an advantage over hitters: some pitchers were tacking on miles-per-hour to their fastballs during the quarantine, while most hitters did not pick up a bat or could not find an adequate field or facility for batting practice.

Like other players, Plaz sometimes wonders if 2020 could have been his breakout season. Yet he never knew what team or level he would have been assigned to. As with any endeavor, a sense of progress is necessary for motivation and satisfaction. But it’s hard to measure progress when the off-season lasts nearly 20 months. This season, as a free agent recently released by Cincinnati, he’s hoping to find a new team and succeed at either the Double-A or Triple-A levels.

Plaz joins the hundreds of minor leaguers cut by their squads. The release of minor league players is common, pandemic or not. However, the number grew during 2020 and 2021 due to MLB’s contraction of MiLB—a quarter of minor league teams were eliminated last year, resulting in fewer spots for players. This subtraction, coupled with the halving of MLB’s draft to 20 rounds, has baseball experts predicting a talent drain.

Plaz is acutely aware of baseball as a business but does not support the timing of this forced reconfiguration.
“Lots of good players lost jobs and that’s never okay,” he states. “They [MLB] should have made these changes after the 2021 season, not during the pandemic when everything was crazy. At least that’s what I think would have been fair.”

Plaz, though, does appreciate the financial lifeline MLB provided the minor leaguers it kept. Major league teams paid their minor league players $400 a week during the months that would have been the 2020 season. This amount, similar to Plaz’s and his teammates’ weekly pay during a normal year, was enough to keep players afloat.
“I don’t know how many of us would have made it without that support,” he says, relieved.

The assistance was critical for the vast majority of minor leaguers, including Plaz, whose signing bonuses are not enough to live on (only premier prospects receive hefty amounts). Plaz received his $20,000 signing bonus from the Reds in 2015, but that money’s been depleted—30 percent immediately went to his agent and the rest to expenses.
Even during a normal year, most minor leaguers must supplement their baseball money by working ordinary jobs or coaching youth baseball. With more time on his hands than usual over the past 12 months, Plaz coached Little Leaguers, which he’s done before, and assisted a local electrician.

The nonprofit More Than Baseball, which supports minor leaguers in need, also delivered for Plaz and hundreds of others who applied for assistance. It gave Plaz a $300 check, which while modest, was meant to help pay looming bills, transportation costs, and baseball-related expenses. The amount the organization provided to players was based mainly on their signing bonuses; the lower the bonus, the higher the assistance. This monetary help was made possible by generous donations from star MLB players such as Adam Wainwright and Daniel Murphy, who remember with empathy the struggles of lower-level ball.

“Major Leaguers know what it’s like to play down here,” Plaz explains. “A lot of them don’t consider us to be less than them.”

The young Venezuelan serves as More Than Baseball’s Latin American ambassador, championing the organization’s mission to advocate for minor leaguers, who essentially have no collective voice.

“I try to reach out to other Latin players who could benefit from More Than Baseball,” Plaz says proudly. “I’m very thankful for the organization and the efforts of [Executive Director] Jeremy Wolf. They stood up when we needed it. We are way more than coworkers, we are family.”

To alleviate the well-chronicled financial hardships of minor leaguers, players and advocates have pushed for annual salaries of $15,000 to $25,000 (depending on level, players typically earn $5,000 to $15,000 annually). While Plaz would love such a raise, he suggests it might be imprudent to demand an immediate significant salary change, believing an incremental negotiating approach is wiser.

“I don’t know if those numbers are realistic,” Plaz admits. “There are a lot of minor leaguers right now, especially at the lower levels, who would see $10,000 as great. And then maybe we can work from there.”

Money isn’t the only issue he wants addressed. According to Plaz, the logistics of minor league baseball are often overlooked, contributing to player frustration.

“The schedules are rough,” he points out. “It can be very late before we even get off the field. After the game, there is sometimes bad [tasteless] food or not enough food. My teammates and I have made quick runs to McDonald’s so we can feel full after a game.”

Plaz and child

Plaz escorts a young fan onto the field at a Greeneville Reds game in 2019. The center fielder enjoys encouraging youngsters; he has coached Little Leaguers for years to supplement his minor league income and have fun. (Photo courtesy of Peterson Plaz)

As a 22-year-old from another country, Plaz has a relatively advanced understanding of minor leaguers’ needs and the business side of baseball. His ambassadorship at More Than Baseball and his measured suggestions above serve as proof. It’s no surprise his backup plan is to attend college and become a financial advisor.

Currently, however, Plaz is doggedly pursuing his baseball aspirations. America has been a breath of fresh air. At times throughout his career, he’s been housed by families across the country who have helped him adjust to living in a new land. He says he will forever be indebted to them. But he still thinks wistfully about life in Venezuela—the language, the culture, and his family and friends.

The center fielder’s lofty goal is to be inducted one day into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Whether he succeeds or not is irrelevant. He’s already won. At a young age, he’s overcome a lot and refuses to surrender. If there was a hall of fame that celebrated tenacity and optimism, Peterson Plaz would be on the first ballot.

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