Even before catcher Sal Perez on Tuesday reaped a new contract that figures to mean he’ll be forever Royal, his stature and wealth had brought with it a certain unwelcome trapping.
When Perez returns to his home in Valencia, Venezuela, he is buffered by six bodyguards — typically four who ride with him and two accompanying on motorcycles.
“Everywhere I go,” said Perez, the Most Valuable Player of the 2015 World Series.
If that sounds like a bit much, consider that only a few years ago Valencia native Wilson Ramos of the Washington Nationals was kidnapped and rescued after a gunfight between police and his abductors.
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Such is the grim reality in their homeland. Venezuela is teeming with corruption, snarled in an economic collapse and triple-digit inflation, and reeling from a scarcity of many basic resources that Fortune magazine in 2014 reported restricted people to once-a-week shopping at sparsely stocked supermarkets.
It’s a time of desperation for many, which has bred a frightening degree of crime that Perez grasped in a new way when his mother, Yilda Diaz, was the victim in daylight Sunday of a carjacking at gunpoint.
In an Instagram post Perez wrote, “Until what point do people stop respecting each other?” And in his first interview about the issue, he suggested compassion for the broader issue.
“Sometimes I understand what the bad people do,” Perez said Tuesday, “because they’ve got four kids, they don’t have a job, they just want to find some food for (their) kids. I know they’re doing the wrong choice, but they have to do something, you know?”
So there was something bittersweet in the timing of his $52.5 million contract that will take effect in 2017 and cover the next five seasons.
On the very day his mother cried with joy when he called to tell her of the contract, she was preparing to fly to Arizona to her son’s side after the trauma of Sunday.
“She’s going to stay with me for a long time,” said Perez, who called his mother “my life.”
When his father left them and offered no financial support, Perez was raised by his mother and grandmother, Carmen, who died in 2013. To sustain themselves, his mother worked as a housecleaner and sold baked goods while finding time to pitch various objects to the broomstick-swinging boy she later enrolled in a baseball academy.
If she didn’t “teach me the way she taught me, I don’t think I’d be here,” Perez said, laughing and adding that it’s “Mama first every time” even if it might be to the chagrin of his fiancée.
“But that’s what I feel, you know?” he said.
This backdrop tinged a day of triumph, not simply for Perez and his mother but also as a statement of the honorable intentions of the Royals — who had no obligation to restructure or extend the club-friendly deal they possessed.
“The bottom line is it’s the right thing to do,” said general manager Dayton Moore, who uttered rare words from someone in his job: that Perez had “outperformed the contract. He’s an underpaid player in the game.”
Or was, anyway. Manager Ned Yost celebrated Perez’s contract for what it said about Moore’s integrity and for rewarding a player for whom he felt “love at first sight” because of his obvious rare set of tools and charisma.
Such catching prospects “don’t grow on trees,” Yost said. “They’re very, very tough to find.”
The twist, of course, is that the Royals would seem less likely today to find a gem such as Perez, 25, who was signed for $65,000 by assistant general manager Rene Francisco on his first trip to Venezuela shortly after Moore took over in 2006.
While the Royals retain a network of area scouts in Venezuela and coordinator of Latin American scouting Orlando Estevez still travels there frequently, it’s become too dangerous for them and other major-league teams to be as invested as they were.
Francisco hasn’t been there for years now.
“It’s just too many things,” he said. “(Anything) can happen just riding in a car, if someone just wants my wallet or my watch.”
Moore, who first ventured there in the late 1990s, hasn’t been back since 2007 and is “very concerned” about the current climate.
“There has been a rapid decline in just the safety of players in that part of the world,” he said. “It’s sad. It’s a beautiful country.”
And that’s the fundamental dilemma for all of the Venezuelan players, who love their country and are torn between that loyalty and affection and the harsh times.
“How you say, the paradise?” said shortstop Alcides Escobar, who grew up in the coastal town of La Sabana.
But Escobar, the 2015 ALCS MVP, also at times seeks protection when he goes home and lamented, “Always, I worry for my family.”
While Escobar hopes things improve, he also has held out hope of moving his mother to the United States. But at 55, she has no inclination to leave Venezuela, and even having obtained his green card, Escobar apparently is inclined to return to Venezuela to live when he is done playing.
In the wake of Perez’s mother’s frightening experience on Sunday, though, Perez seemed eager to do all he can to have her here as often and for as much time as possible.
He may not have had that option if the assailants had known she was the mother of a major-leaguer, which Perez said he didn’t believe was the case. If they had, he said, it might have been that they would “take her, too,” instead of just the Toyota 4Runner SUV she’d been in on her way back from a store.
Under terms of visa limitations as understood by Perez, who obtained his green card last year, she will only be allowed to stay six months. When she does return home, Perez expects to enlist two bodyguards for her.
In the long-term, though, Perez speculated there may be a time he will no longer return to Venezuela and will apply for U.S. citizenship.
So on this long-awaited day, the national icon who cherishes his roots was left to wonder just how much he can go home again.
“I’m not talking about the government or the president, I just want Venezuela to get better, you know, and that’s it,” he said. “That makes me sad, because I love my country.
“It’s a good people there, but for the situation I have to protect my family, too, so I think a lot of people have to understand that. It’s going to be better staying here.”