English lessons, iPad workouts and home cooking: How MLB teams are helping stranded Venezuelan players

Venezuelan minor leaguers impacted by coronavirus (1:19)

Alden Gonzalez details the difficult situation minor leaguers are facing amid the coronavirus pandemic, particularly Venezuelan players. (1:19)

Eighteen of the Washington Nationals' Venezuelan players are staying at a Marriott in West Palm Beach, Florida. The hotel gym shut down to comply with social-distancing mandates; the local park is also closed, forcing players to train in the parking lot.

Those players, through a Major League Baseball mandate that applied to all minor leaguers, will receive $400-per-week allowances through at least the end of May. In the meantime, the Nationals are also supplying meals, providing workout plans and pitch-recognition software through apps on their iPads, and instructing coaches to check in as frequently as possible, a blueprint followed by most teams.

The Texas Rangers are doing something similar for the 16 Venezuelan players residing at Rangers Village in Surprise, Arizona, a state-of-the-art facility that spans more than 68,000 square feet and can house as many as 180 people. Players can choose to either have meals delivered or receive groceries to cook for themselves. Small-group workouts are scheduled, but they're optional. Rangers minor league coach Carlos Maldonado, a native of Venezuela who was also unable to return home, considers it a best-case scenario for those players.

"We could've flown to another country and stayed stuck at the airport without knowing if we could fly out," Maldonado said in Spanish. "The best decision we could've made was to stay here and wait until this passes. We all want to be with our families during this time, but the most important thing is our health and safety."

Most major leaguers from other countries -- the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Japan, South Korea -- have had the ability to return home. The Venezuelans have not, in large part because of ongoing tension between the country where they work and the country where they live. The U.S. government has increasingly tightened economic sanctions against Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, part of which included the suspension of passenger and cargo flights between the two nations. In the midst of that, the economy collapsed, crime increased and political unrest continued to escalate, putting Venezuela in a situation where it is now considered among the most ill-equipped to handle a coronavirus outbreak.

A strict lockdown has been enforced, and most flights from countries that U.S.-based players would typically fly in from -- such as the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Panama -- have been suspended. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Jose Osuna is among those who returned and has taken it upon himself to hand-deliver food and masks to those in need. In the States, his peers helplessly worry.

"Besides the obvious issues many of us are dealing with in quarantine or confinement to our homes, many of these young Venezuelans miss their families back home and wish they could be there to help them," Nationals assistant general manager Mark Scialabba wrote in an email. "The political and economic turmoil back home in Venezuela continues to create a dangerous situation for many of their families."

Several teams gave their Venezuelan players four choices when spring training camps closed -- return home, stay with a friend or family member in the U.S., live out of team-arranged housing or report to the Dominican academy. But the preference was that players choose among the latter two options, where they would at least get fed and have their medical needs met.

Teams are providing three meals a day and in some cases shuttling players to the grocery store. They're supplied with bottles of water and baseball equipment. English classes are provided online, and workouts are conducted outside. Cincinnati Reds staff members provided their minor leaguers with their per diem up front, taught them how to use food-delivery apps such as Uber Eats and DoorDash, and populated their WhatsApp feeds with necessary information. Rangers coaches have been hopping on video chats with the players' parents in Venezuela to reassure them that their children are in good hands.

"It's not so they stop worrying about them, because as parents, they always will," Maldonado said. "But we want them to stay in touch so that they know they're OK. We want them to hear it from them, but we also want them to hear it from us, the coaches, so that they know about everything we're doing for them to make sure they're good and they're comfortable."

It's an immense burden, but Luis Meza prefers to call it "a blessing." The Los Angeles Dodgers' Latin American pitching coordinator has spent these past few weeks looking after nearly a dozen young Venezuelan minor leaguers sequestered in a hotel near the team's spring training facility in Glendale, Arizona, thousands of miles away from family members struggling to survive a global pandemic in a turbulent country.

Meza, a native Venezuelan, spent seven seasons pitching in the Dodgers' system before transitioning to a coaching role in 2016. He knows what it's like to toil in the minor leagues and worry about your parents and feel like an outsider in the country where you work. And so, with his entire sport on indefinite pause, Meza has spent his days looking after Venezuelan players who were either unable to return home or considered it too dangerous to do so. He kept preaching the importance of remaining positive, but the circumstances made it increasingly difficult to convey such a message.

He needed something else. He turned to arepas.

A couple of Tuesdays ago, right before the end of March, Meza stood in his Phoenix kitchen preparing one of Venezuela's staple cuisines in bulk. He mixed the ground maize, his wife cooked the chicken, and together they whipped up 50 arepas in an hour. Meza individually wrapped them in foil, stacked them in a cooler, packed them in his car, drove to the team hotel and distributed them to players who longed for traces of their culture in a time of universal consternation. For the first time in a long time, Meza saw many of them smile.

"Very gratifying," Meza, 26, said in Spanish. "In these times, with so much difficulty, any little bit can go a long way."

All 30 teams have been operating under a similar mantra. The rapid spread of COVID-19 has brought sports -- life -- to a screeching halt, forcing athletes to remain indoors and triggering uncommon concerns about how they'll remain active, or acquire food, or care for loved ones. Minor leaguers with paltry salaries and scant resources find themselves in precarious situations -- especially those who hail from foreign countries, none more so than Venezuela.

On March 15, when MLB essentially asked non-roster players to leave spring training facilities, Venezuelan players -- many of them teenagers -- faced an unfathomable decision: reunite with loved ones and put yourself in greater danger, or remain in the U.S. and leave family behind amid a worldwide catastrophe. The vast majority of them chose to stay; those who didn't immediately return were ultimately unable to do so.

A long list of teams -- the Milwaukee Brewers, Nationals, Reds, Rangers and Seattle Mariners, to name a few -- are now housing Venezuelan minor leaguers in hotels or apartment complexes in Florida or Arizona. Others -- like the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox -- arranged for them to stay at their academies in the Dominican Republic. Many, such as the Dodgers, have several young Venezuelans at both sites.

In an emailed statement, the Cleveland Indians called the placement of Venezuelan minor leaguers "one of the more challenging issues in this logistical nightmare." The Indians own a 90-room dorm at their Goodyear, Arizona, complex that is currently housing most of them. The San Diego Padres tried to arrange for their Venezuelans to return home by flying through the Dominican Republic, but those players were suddenly stuck there when flights between the two countries were suspended. Now they're staying at the team's academy in San Cristobal, occupying the rooms of Dominican players who were fortunate enough to reunite with their families.

Two Reds players chose to return to Venezuela, but by the time they landed in New York for a layover, the team learned that most ports of entry were closed. They brought them back to Arizona to join the 13 other Venezuelan players and 17 additional minor leaguers from other high-risk countries. Eric Lee, the Reds' senior director of player development, was concerned the present-day circumstances -- a global pandemic, a teetering country, a helpless set of circumstances -- would cripple his young Venezuelan players, some of whom are barely old enough to drive. Then a group of coaches offered some perspective.

"Almost word for word, they said, 'Hey, we really appreciate what the organization is doing, we should worry about these players, and we absolutely are and everything we're doing is great,'" Lee recalled. "'But we shouldn't be too concerned about their ability to survive, because these kids, if nothing else, with everything they've gone through, they are survivors. They have the ability to survive.' I thought that was an incredibly cool reminder. I think it's so easy to cast them as victims, which they are, and they're vulnerable, which they absolutely are, but they're tough as hell. Extremely resilient."

Every week, Royals minor league pitching coach Carlos Martinez makes at least four grocery runs. The 24-year coaching veteran first heads to a local Latin supermarket in Surprise, Arizona, to get seasoning for his Dominican-style dishes, particularly a hearty stew known as sancocho. He then visits several big-box stores, waiting for hours to pick up what's in stock that week, chicken, pork or beef, and makes sure to pick up enough rice and beans to feed a small army.

Martinez then heads to the home he shares with his wife, Cari, to whip up that week's menu. But the food is not only for their 14-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, it's for the rest of their family -- their baseball family. Carlos and Cari carefully portion out individual servings, which they then load up in the family minivan before heading out to feed the staff and minor leaguers who have remained in Arizona.

A few years ago, Martinez, whom players affectionately call "Coco," and his wife started a small side business cooking Dominican food to supplement his minor league coaching income. It hasn't been a lucrative endeavor for the Martinez family, but it has brought them and the Royals organization a lot of joy.

"Latin people, we love home-style cooking, we need our rice and beans. A while ago, I thought it would be a good idea to bring a piece of home to players because they are usually in hotels and don't have kitchens. I asked my wife if we could start cooking individual servings for purchase," Martinez explained. "I started by charging them just a bit over the cost of the ingredients. In my last eight years coaching in the Appalachian League, we also cook for them at least once a week, but we give them the food for free. I can't charge them. Those are my kids. I know what it's like to not be in your homeland and not have some good home cooking."

Nick Leto, manager of operations for the Royals in Arizona, heard of Coco and Cari's generosity, and to compensate him, he started ordering staff meals and eventually hired him to cook for the Royals' "Latin Night."

"Nick told me, 'Can you handle catering 165 people?' and all I said was, 'Oh, Dios mío!" recalled Martinez, with a laugh. "'Nick, all I am going to need is to please leave a bit early three days that week so I can cook for all those people!' I made white rice and beans, arroz moro [rice and beans cooked together in the same dish], and I cooked some Latin-style beef, pork and chicken. But I am mostly known for my sancocho, and when Nick found out about it, he asked for it, too ... and you can imagine ..."

This April, Martinez would have started his ninth season as the Burlington Royals' pitching coach. The coronavirus pandemic put a stop to that. But not to the Coco and Cari meal-delivery service -- as usual, free of charge. "The Royals have offered several times to pay for my cooking expenses, but I told them already that would defeat the purpose. Cari and I do this because we care for them. They are part of my family," Martinez said.

Burlington Royals Venezuelan shortstop Maikel Garcia and Mexican pitcher Marcelo Martinez, two of the hundreds of international minor leaguers who couldn't head back to their home countries after the implementation of travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, are very grateful to their coach.

"Coco's food is the best, particularly his rice and beans and meat dishes. What he does is great for us because he helps us save money, also shows they care for us Latinos," said Garcia on a FaceTime interview with ESPN, where he described that the Royals tried to get him home to La Guaira in Venezuela.

"I am so grateful. Coco is taking care of us, worries about us," added Martinez, a minor league pitcher from Reynosa, Mexico. "We are keeping calm over here. There have been no [coronavirus] cases among here, so we are all healthy and able to keep fit."

The Royals are housing around 40 players in Arizona, 25 of them from Venezuela. Players are provided three meals a day and a weekly allowance. Staff members like Australian-born coach Allan de San Miguel, who was also unable to head back home, help with players' grocery drop-offs and keeping them busy on a daily basis. Players have access to the large practice grounds across the street where they can stretch and play catch outside, but only in small groups and following social-distancing guidelines. Staff also helps them fill their days with video calls from their coaches and families, plus language classes.

"I've been a strength coach for about 25 years now," said Royals assistant strength and conditioning coach Phil Falco. "It allows you to keep going and doing the things that you love to do, and it helps out. We clean everything. The plates, the balls, the dumbbells, everything is spotless, and we keep it outside on the field. We abide by the rules of what we're supposed to be doing but also keep a togetherness. [Martinez's food] is outstanding. I spent two years in winter ball in Venezuela, in Barquisimeto, and they had unbelievable food there, too. But Carlos does a great job. It's been great."

Beyond keeping players paid and fed while trying to keep their focus on baseball -- there are some things that Venezuelan players stranded stateside need.

"Just because they're incredibly talented and in a sport where we tend to think about them as superheroes, they really are like every other 18-, 19-year-old, or kid in their early 20s out there," explained J.J. Piccolo, the Royals' assistant general manager of player personnel. "It's important to keep their minds busy. These are young kids, worried about their families. If players didn't have the structure we are providing for them, or feel supported, it could be a disaster."

The Royals are not the only team focused on the mental health needs of their players. A few other teams are offering weekly mental health sessions or "check-ins" in English and Spanish. The Blue Jays are having mental skills sessions twice a week for all their minor leaguers, particularly focused on the 18 Spanish-speaking Venezuelan players who were unable to head home. The Jays' staff is helping players with overall life skills and well-being, similar to their regular-season mental skills curriculum but stressing resiliency and positivity in these unprecedented circumstances.

But perhaps no team has made their minor leaguers' mental health a priority as much as the Tampa Bay Rays have.

"One thing that really impresses me with the Rays is their care for people. It's people first, doesn't matter whether you are signed or in what round. There are no second-class citizens," explained Justin Su'a, the Rays' mental performance coach. "We focus on making sure that we are taking care of our players from not just the physical state but also the mental state. Baseball at this point is secondary. What's important is how do we take care of every single player and how do we make it so that no one falls through the cracks."

The vast majority of MLB teams employ mental skills coaches to help players deal with the challenges of the game. But in this turbulent time, it is no longer about teaching life skills or assisting players in overcoming performance anxiety or how to help get out of an 0-for-24 slump. It's about addressing the unique set of challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has thrust upon them: These are young players in a foreign country, in a hotel room or apartment by themselves, with the sole reason why they're away from their families, baseball, taken away from them.

"What I think these kids need really right now is, number one, a sense of security. When we have our sense of security rocked, it will bring anxiety, it will bring panic," Su'a said. "We are trying to normalize these feelings. It's OK to feel lonely. It's OK to feel nervous. It's OK to have those feelings of discomfort and uncertainty."

Su'a helps players move past those feeling to address what's within their power. "We give them tools to help them focus on what they can control. It's easy to, even as adults, to fall into panic mode because of the what-ifs, 'What if the season doesn't happen? What if I can't pay for something? What's gonna happen with my bonus?' And the fact that a lot of our international players can't go home is something that we are taking into context. We understand the psychological effect of that, and it's important for them to talk with coaches, who are also experiencing it as well. There's this component to shared suffering, without even the player articulating, being able to tell them, 'I know you're not able to go to your family, I know you want to be with them.'"

That empathy, in a baseball setting, however remote, can make a huge difference in coping with where the players are now.

"And even after phone calls, and video calls or whatever, the situation hasn't changed," Su'a added. "They're still going to be in that hotel room, still going to be in this situation. But hopefully when they hang up they know that there are people who care about them in this organization, and if they need anything, they have the resources to help them physically, mentally and emotionally to navigate this storm."

Su'a admits there is a period of trial-and-error in learning how to care for and respond to the mental health needs of players during this unprecedented hiatus from baseball. At the same time, their staff has to deal with the stigma of mental health, particularly when it comes to the traditional Latin American concept of masculinity, where players fear that cultivating wellness beyond their physical needs is seen as a sign of weakness.

"If you call this generation, it's almost an eye roll, like, 'Why are you calling me? Why don't you text me?'" Su'a noted. "We are learning and understanding that this is a texting generation, a FaceTime generation, who will do FaceTime but won't even look at the screen, who will put the phone down and play video games. But unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, and we are doing our best to communicate in all facets, whether it be from phone calls, to text messages, to FaceTime, to Zoom calls, to WhatsApp. Sometimes, if we happen to see them on social media, we'll throw in a 'Hey, how you doing?' in the comments section.

"We meet them where they are."