López, Rojas yearn for experiences of their country

MIAMI – It’s been almost three years since Marlins right-hander Pablo López visited Cabimas, the city located on the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo in his native Venezuela.

López, 25, remembers going to a market where he and his friends asked for “badges” (bottle caps) so they could try to hit them with a broomstick. He also passed close to stadiums where he grew up playing as a teenager who dreamed of making a career in professional baseball rather than following in his parents’ footsteps in the field of medicine.

That trip happened during the Christmas holidays of the 2018-2019 dead season. Lopez had traveled from South Florida. His father and a cousin had come from Mexico. Other members of his family, including his sister and his maternal grandparents, still live in Venezuela.

But that visit came in the midst of a continuous and intense political and economic struggle in Venezuela. Since former President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, the country has experienced an economic collapse, creating a widespread shortage of basic products. There has also been turmoil within the government, with Nicolás Maduro staying in the government palace despite the fact that more than 50 countries, including the United States, recognize Juan Guaidó as president.

“When I was in the minor leagues, obviously I wanted to play until the end of the season. But when it was time to go back, it was a fun moment, because I could go and enjoy myself with my family and all that, ”said López. “These tougher times have made it a bit tougher. You have to take into consideration more things than you would like before making the decision to go to your city to visit your family. “

He also Venezuelan Miguel Rojas, shortstop for the Marlins, understands very well what his compatriot and teammate means.

Rojas, 32, last visited his country in 2019 when he played winter ball with the La Guaira Sharks. Venezuela, the land that shaped Rojas, still has a special place in his heart. His entire family continues to live there, including his mother, who is battling cancer. Rojas thought a lot about the possibility of going to Venezuela during the last weeks, but finally decided to stay with the club until the end of the season. Rojas believes his responsibility remains to make a living in the majors so he can support everyone.

“You can never forget your community, even if things are not very good,” said Rojas. “Through thick and thin, Venezuela is my country and I will always go back there and try to help my people as much as I help the community in Miami.”

For this reason, Rojas does volunteer work with Raíces Venezolanas, an organization that is in charge of donating household items to people recently arrived from Venezuela in need. Like López, Rojas signed a contract to play professional baseball instead of continuing his engineering studies at the university.

In the Marlins clubhouse, there are others who understand them very well. First baseman Jesús Aguilar (Maracay), receiver Sandy León (Maracaibo), as well as right-handers Elieser Hernandez (Ocumare del Tuy) and Luís Madero (Maracay) – who have played for the Marlins in 2021 – are Venezuelans. Rojas is very proud to maintain that tradition of Venezuelan shortstops such as Omar Vizquel, David Concepción and Luis Aparicio, among many others.

“I always maintain that enthusiasm,” said Rojas. “Venezuela is a happy country and I’m always trying to pass that vibe to all my teammates, the people who are close to me, the fans, baseball in general, the game. I try to play the game with a lot of joy and a lot of fun, and I think that is what defines me as a Venezuelan: that I will always play this game with that attitude and those hands as a shortstop ”.

Rojas, the longest-serving player in these Marlins and the unofficial captain of the club, has helped many of those teammates through that assimilation process. He always gives them advice on where to eat or where to rent.

What they have all found are constant memories of their country. Thanks to the influx of immigrants from basically all of Latin America (Hispanics make up 69.4% of Miami-Dade County’s population, according to the 2019 census), South Florida offers a diversity that is unrivaled. The region has embraced culture – everything from music to cuisine – and that connects people to their countries. It also doesn’t hurt that the weather is basically the same.

“Food makes it so much easier. When I was little, we used to go to Margarita a lot, ”López said. “It is the island where my mother was born, so every summer we would drive around the country by car and end up there. I love the beach and it reminds me a little of that time every summer and being able to swim in the sea ”.

Both López and Rojas say that Venezuela has a lot to do with who they are both today. Lopez won the “Charlie Hough Good Guy Award,” given by the Miami group of the BBWAA. Rojas was recently nominated for a second season in a row by the Marlins for the Roberto Clemente Award.

Although their lives and circumstances have changed over the years, there is something that remains the same: The desire to go home.

“I now live in Miami, but I come from Venezuela,” recalled Rojas. “Those old streets that I used to walk through and the stadiums where I trained, those places where I have many friends there that I haven’t seen in a long time, I feel that this is the Miguel Rojas when I was young that I want to remember.”