His country in turmoil, Royals’ Escobar balances baseball with thoughts of Venezuela

This hasn’t been an easy season for Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. He has struggled at the plate, and his home country of Venezuela is in turmoil.
This hasn’t been an easy season for Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. He has struggled at the plate, and his home country of Venezuela is in turmoil.

Alcides Escobar has never endured a season like this. He has never performed this poorly at the plate, even after years of declining offense. Never felt the mental weight of a slump this deep. Never felt the pressure of looming free agency, either.

“I’ve never been in this situation,” said Escobar, the Royals’ 30-year-old shortstop.

And yet, when Escobar discusses the challenges of 2017, he is not just talking about the batting average that finally surpassed .200 or the career-worst .506 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). On most nights, when the game is over and the at-bats are done, Escobar returns to the clubhouse and grabs his phone, scouring the latest news from back home.

His home country of Venezuela is in turmoil, the scene of daily protests, civic unrest and political violence. There are food shortages and economic turmoil. Escobar cannot go a few hours without looking to see the latest developments.

“It’s hard,” Escobar said in a recent interview in Spanish. “When you get to the stadium you have to focus on your job. But when it’s done, you start looking at Twitter and Instagram and reading the news and your mind just goes back to Venezuela.”

On Twitter, Escobar’s feed has become a repository for news and articles on the growing political and economic chaos. Every day, he consumes articles on DolarToday, an American-based site that has aggressively covered the country’s political climate.

“It’s where I was born and raised,” Escobar said. “I always offer support to my people. I know something better will come.”

Escobar, of course, is not alone. On opening day, there were 77 Venezuelan players on major-league rosters, more than 10 percent of the league. Outside of the United States and the Dominican Republic, the South American country of 31 million people has produced the highest concentration of major leaguers in the world. Many of them are among the game’s greatest stars, from Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera to Houston’s Jose Altuve to Salvador Perez, Escobar’s friend and teammate.

Their country is also caught in the grips of a worsening domestic crisis as anti-government protesters continue marching in the capital city of Caracas, opposing President Nicolas Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chavez. Across baseball, more and more Venezuelan players have begun speaking out against the violence against protesters. Yet many remain reluctant to publicly criticize the government. Escobar has sought to occupy a space in the middle.

“It’s my country,” he said. “I love my country.”

Every day, he retweets articles about the protests. In May, Escobar spoke about his country in a video for La Vida, a branch of the Hall of Fame that celebrates Latin baseball.

“I hope it doesn’t become worse,” he said, looking toward the camera. “I hope that we don’t see more deaths, that we don’t have more violence.”

The message came a month after Perez addressed the situation in an Instagram post, stating that he was neither a “Chavista” — a supporter of former president Chavez — nor in opposition.

“I love you my #venezuela,” Perez wrote. “It hurts me to see all that is happening to you, it’s enough already with so much violence, hungry children, lack of jobs, GOD please take care of all those people!!!”

Escobar was born in La Sabana, a coastal town that sits nearly 70 miles northeast of Caracas. His family remains out of harm’s way, he says, living more than two hours from the capital. Escobar also has been granted permanent residence in the United States, allowing him to stay here full time in the offseason. Yet, he still spends at least a month in Venezuela each offseason, visiting family and seeing old friends.

“I still have about 90 percent of my family there,” he said.

His home is never far from his mind. The uncertainty has come at one of the most uneasy moments of his career. As the Royals (37-37) prepared to open a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday, Escobar was batting .210 with a .230 on-base percentage. According to Weighted Runs Created Plus, an advanced metric that measures total offense, Escobar has been the worst offensive player in baseball. He will be a free agent when the season is over.

The Royals could pursue a reunion with Escobar via a cheap, short-term deal. Yet they also have an internal replacement waiting in the wings in Raul Mondesi. Escobar has hinted that he would welcome staying in Kansas City, where his postseason heroics contributed to two World Series runs and a world championship. Yet he also recognizes the business aspect of the game.

“It’s been a hard year,” Escobar said. “Thank God, we’ve been playing better as a team.”

For now, the lack of production has not affected his playing time. One year after playing in all 162 games, Escobar has started all 74 games. Earlier this year, he broke the franchise record for consecutive games played. Royals manager Ned Yost still sees value in Escobar’s defense in the middle of the diamond.

“There’s more to this game than just the offense,” Yost said. “There’s more value to a player’s position in that lineup than swinging the bat.”

For Escobar, quiet offensive production has been part of the package for the last three seasons. But the numbers have never dipped quite like this. Always a free swinger, Escobar has swung at more than 52 percent of all pitches this season and 35.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. The latter ranks 18th in baseball among hitters qualified for the batting title. In recent weeks, the Royals have continued to stress better plate discipline.

“You break down what he does on pitches in the strike zone, it’s pretty good,” Yost said. “Especially breaking stuff in the strike zone. Where he gets into trouble is swinging at pitches outside the zone.”

For reasons that Escobar cannot quite explain, his eyes, hands and body don’t always operate in sync at the plate. For now, the battle continues.

On most days, Escobar heads to the batting cage and tries to adopt a simple approach with hitting coach Dale Sveum. Yet in the quiet moments, when the work is done, he returns to his phone. There are more stories about Venezuela, more news to catch up on. The stream is endless and daily, and Escobar says he can’t forget his home.

“It’s a point of pride for me, for them, for every one of us,” Escobar said. “Coming from another country to triumph in the United States fills us with pride.”

The Star’s Maria Torres contributed to this report.