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Venezuelan connection a strong bond in Tigers' clubhouse

Before a recent game in Minneapolis, Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera walked into the clubhouse, plucked a plastic grocery bag brimming with stocked Tupperware out of his locker room stall and sauntered over to a card game among teammates a few feet away. The star slugger said nothing but made eye contact with Victor Martinez and dangled the goods before the table, beaming and gloating.

Home-cooked food had arrived.

Pitcher Mike Pelfrey, sitting across from Martinez, turned to Cabrera and, with raised eyebrows, jokingly asked, “Gringos?,” hoping he might be included in the culinary spoils.

Cabrera laughed and playfully wagged a finger.

Of all the things he misses about his homeland -- the people, the stunning vistas, the vibrant culture -- Cabrera is grateful that Venezuelan food is something he can enjoy stateside. He knows it is a comfort to his countrymen, such as Martinez, as well.

The Tigers, one of four major league teams that still have a baseball academy in Venezuela (most clubs have moved their operations to the Dominican Republic), are a microcosm of the greater influx of Venezuelan talent throughout Major League Baseball.

The club has arguably the strongest Venezuelan contingent of any team -- not just by virtue of numbers but also by the sheer accomplishments among them. There is Cabrera, one of the most prolific hitters of all time, a former Triple Crown winner and two-time AL MVP with four batting titles in the past five years. There is Martinez, a five-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger winner. On the pitching staff, there is Anibal Sanchez, who led the American League with the lowest ERA (2.57) of all starters in 2013, and closer Francisco Rodriguez, MLB’s active saves leader (393), acquired this offseason in a trade from the Milwaukee Brewers. Then, of course, there is Omar Vizquel, one of the all-time great Venezuelan shortstops, who serves as the club’s first-base coach.

Some of these players knew one another before joining forces in Detroit. Cabrera and Sanchez, who both hail from Maracay, a city on the northern coast, have known each other since they were kids. Cabrera goes way back with Rodriguez, a native of the nearby capital city Caracas, as well. The two played Little League against each other growing up. Martinez was raised in the south in a city called Ciudad Bolivar, an area much more agricultural than the industrial metropolises to the north. Geographical differences mean little to the men, though, because of all that they share: a love for their country, a love for baseball and a mutual understanding of the intersection between both.

It is not by any means an inviolable inner sanctum or an automatic alliance, but it a strong brotherhood and a special kinship that is hard to replicate.

“People here don’t have a clue where we come from. To us, that makes it special, always special,” Cabrera told ESPN.com. “Because a lot of people see you in the uniform and say, ‘OK, you can pay baseball,’ but they have no idea where we come from.”

Having teammates who understand helps, especially for those, such as Rodriguez, who are new to a team.

“There’s a familiarity with everything that makes it a lot easier,” Rodriguez said. “Even if you haven’t met [a teammate], and you know he’s Venezuelan, you know what he wants, what he likes … The chemistry is easy for some reason.”

Sanchez said he has known Martinez for only a few years but immediately felt close to him because of the mutual reference points.

“You can share a story from when you’re a kid, [that’s] common for both of us,” Sanchez said. “I met Victor for the first time in [2012], when he was coming up from the [disabled list]. He’s a great guy, we’re from the same country, we have a lot of conversation. We talk a lot on anything, and that makes it [nice]. At the end of the day, you spend more time over here than with your family.”

This bond is evident within the Tigers' clubhouse, whether it’s displayed in the everyday banalities of the 162-game season or in the milestone achievements.

Take Martinez's most recent. He recorded his 1,000th RBI during a recent road trip in Kansas City and became only the fifth Venezuelan-born player to reach the milestone, along with the ranks of Cabrera, Andres Galarraga (1,425), Bobby Abreu (1,363) and Magglio Ordonez (1,236).

Martinez spoke after the game about how honored he was, but reporters were forced to lean closer and closer to hear him. It was becoming so difficult because of the raucous display from Cabrera just a few feet away. No one was more thrilled for Martinez than Cabrera, and he let people know -- everyone in the clubhouse and those within earshot of the adjoining hallway too.

Cabrera has seen Martinez toil in the batting cages and slog through injuries and scrutiny and doubt in recent years. He knows what the accomplishment meant to his teammate, and it meant quite a bit to him as well.

“It made me feel good,” Cabrera said. “It made me feel proud.”

This sense of national pride and connection is strong within the Tigers' clubhouse, but it extends beyond. It wasn’t just Martinez's teammates who took notice.

“Absolutely,” Vizquel said. “You go and ask a guy from the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League, and he doesn’t even play in our division or in our league, they’re gonna say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe Victor Martinez has 1,000 RBIs … they acknowledge that, they recognize it. There is a sense of pride.”

That mutual respect -- not just among teammates but among foes -- is forged with the knowledge of what came before that hit, all that went into the splashy numbers and lucrative contracts. Most people cannot grasp how difficult it is to make it to the major leagues, let alone come and play in a foreign country starting at such a young age.

Rodriguez was 16 when he came to the United States. He remembers that he cried the entire plane ride. If it hadn’t been for a member of the then-Anaheim Angels, who made the voyage with him, he wasn’t sure he would have made it.

“I was 16 years old. I had never left my house. I had never not slept a night in my house. And all the sudden, you’re going to a new country where you don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture, you don’t know anybody, you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know where you’re going to eat or sleep,” Rodriguez told ESPN.com. “It’s kinda scary.”

Does he still miss certain things?

“Everything. My people. I mean, everything,” Rodriguez said. “If you look at it, I spend more time in the U.S. than Venezuela because I’ve been coming here for 17 years already, and I came here when I was 16. [But] that’s my roots. That’s my family, friends, cousins, enemies, non-enemies, haters, non-haters. Sometimes you take it for granted what you have.”

Cabrera also speaks about Venezuela with the sort of fondness that makes it clear homesickness never truly abates.

“We’ve got a beautiful country. We’ve got mountains and snow and big beaches, everything,” he said. “We’ve got everything you can imagine in the world. We have it. Venezuela is beautiful.”

But it’s the people -- the warmth and exuberance of the culture -- who have Cabrera the most wistful.

“You know what I miss the most? The people. You can go there and go to any house, and you can spend three or four hours talking about baseball. Talk about baseball every day, every hour. They mess with you. I miss that,” he said, describing the incessant draw of a neighborhood game -- dominoes, basketball, baseball played in the streets, anything. “They always want to compete. That’s what I love.”

There is good reason that the love for baseball runs so pure back home, a place that has seen economic turmoil, thorny politics, crime and poverty grow worse and worse. The game offers a relief from the otherwise sobering realities of life in a tumultuous socialist state.

“Venezuela is not going through a great time right now, and baseball is their way out, their escape. You know, their way to express themselves, their way to forget what’s going on there and a chance to do something fresh, do something fun,” Vizquel said. “So every time a guy like Victor gets an RBI or Miguel hits a home run or a new record, it’s like big news. It’s refreshing news. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, that’s awesome. These guys are kicking butt up there,’ and it’s a hope for all these kids that are growing up. They want to follow their leaders and do the same thing.”

It is for that reason that it is so important to many of these players to give back and retain a strong connection to where they come from.

Martinez's 11-year-old son, Victor Jose, has been back with him on multiple occasions, though not in a few years. Venezuelan is one of his favorite places to visit, and his mouth waters when talking about the arepas or hot dogs with salsa rosada (a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise).

Rodriguez still spends his offseasons there. Like Cabrera, he enlists the help of bodyguards -- a necessity amidst the dangerous times. He wants his kids to understand where he grew up -- in El Barrio Kennedy, one of the most dangerous areas of Caracas -- but he wants to shelter them from the harsh realities as well.

Growing up, Rodriguez would see people settle beefs with fistfights in the street. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to brandish a knife in a robbery attempt, either, but it wasn’t anything like it is now.

“Now you see guys with AK-47s, grenades, all kinds of guns,” Rodriguez said.

His dad used to have weekly barbecues in the neighborhood, with games of basketball and bocce ball. Now, it’s lock down after 4 p.m.

“I want them to know exactly how hard it was, my journey to get to where we are right now," he said. "But at the same time, as a parent, you don’t want to take that risk."

For the first time in three years, Cabrera went back this winter -- twice. He went when his foundation helped rebuild Jose Altuve's home stadium in January and for a few weeks around the time of the elections in December. It was an eye-opening experience and a different Venezuela from the one he recognized growing up.

Cabrera admits it can be scary to travel with bodyguards, but for the most part, he feels people look out for him. He understands why there is so much upheaval and unrest. People don’t have enough money and food to feed their kids, and desperation can lead to unpredictability.

Cabrera has ruled out ever entering into the political sphere back home (“No, it’s a different world. I prefer to stay in what I love -- baseball.”), but that doesn’t mean it isn't important to him to do what he can to help.

Already, he runs summer baseball camps for kids, facilitating scholarships and instruction to help those in need. Recently, he and a friend purchased the recently shuttered baseball academy formerly run by the Seattle Mariners.

Cabrera wants to open it to kids, to encourage them to play baseball and excel academically. He has not only a passion for this but also a sense of responsibility.

“You’ve got to speak for everybody. We have advantages because we’re baseball players, so we’ve got to speak for all the people who live over there, for all the people who feel insecure,” he said.

He might not live there anymore, but as he and his fellow Venezuelan countrymen will attest, the connection endures. The love for his country is unending. It is part of his past, and he wants to be a part of what is, hopefully, a better future.

“We can’t start thinking it’s going to get worse,” Cabrera said. “We have to start thinking it will get better.”