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Upheaval in homeland concerns Venezuelans

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- In the next few days, Elizabeth Zambrano hopes to leave her house in the Caracas, Venezuela, suburb of Los Teques for the first time in nearly two weeks and return to work.

Then, and maybe only then, her son, Victor, will be able to exhale.

The family of the Rays relief pitcher was in no immediate danger during the political upheaval and demonstrations that have jarred the South American nation since April11.

But because Elizabeth Zambrano works for the government (as an adviser to the equivalent of a city councilman) and her home is 20 minutes from Caracas, where there was rioting, looting and assorted mayhem in the streets, Zambrano, her husband and their two daughters were advised to stay home.

"I've been worried," Victor Zambrano said. "I've talked to my mom almost every day. They're okay right now."

At the start of the turmoil, which saw President Hugo Chavez's government toppled then restored to power, Elizabeth Zambrano left Victor a message that bad things were happening in their homeland.

He wired home money so she could stock up on food in anticipation the family wouldn't be able to leave the house.

"Days like that are kind of hard," Zambrano said. "You have feelings that come out from your mind, from your heart. You kind of worry because you never know what's going to happen.

"But this is my job and my life over here, and I try to concentrate 200 percent."

Families of the Rays' two other Venezuelan players, Wilson Alvarez and Felix Escalona, live hundreds of miles from Caracas. But they, along with equipment manager Carlos Ledezma, are monitoring the situation closely.

Alvarez, whose $35-million contract makes him one of the richest Venezuelan athletes, said he is concerned that Chavez continues to alienate the United States government and that it would be better if he were ousted.

"I hope he gets out," Alvarez said. "Everything he says and does, the United States is against that. I'm hoping, and I'm praying every day that it doesn't become like Cuba. That would be a big mistake.

"Say I want my family to come here to see me. Maybe they don't let them in because they're from Venezuela. I want to be able to go there and go to see my family and come back with no problem. With all these problems now, I'm afraid to go back. Maybe they don't let me in or let me leave."

While other teams, led by Houston, have academies, staff members and scouts in prospect-rich Venezuela, the Rays don't have a presence there.

MATURATION PROCESS: The Rays sent Travis Phelps to the minors last week for a simple reason. He wasn't pitching as well as he did last season.

If there was a message in the move, it was he might not be the only one.

Young outfielder Jason Tyner and pitchers Jesus Colome and Zambrano also have started slowly. While they are likely to get more opportunities to get straightened out because of their abilities, they, too, at some point will have to show improvement.

"I go back to what (manager Hal McRae) addressed with this club at the end of last season," general manager Chuck LaMar said, "when he challenged them and said just don't think you can throw your hat and glove on the field and perform as well as we did individually and as a team because it's not going to happen.

"You have to be better. You have to be better prepared mentally and physically. The first two weeks, overall, I think, mentally, they have responded to that challenge. Physically, I think there are several young players not performing as they did last year. And they have to continue to prove they're major-leaguers both physically and mentally."

Skills and approach will be watched. At some point, LaMar might decide someone would benefit from another month or two in the minors.

It doesn't necessarily mean he can't eventually make it as an everyday player, just that he's not ready now.

"There's no assurance for any young player that just because we're "going young' that we're going to stick with them no matter what the results are," LaMar said. "This is still the major leagues."

HOO-RAYS: With the Rangers moving spring operations from Port Charlotte to Arizona, there could be an opening for the Rays to move their Class-A team back into the Florida State League, but it would be complicated. ... McRae said the new Tropicana Field infield still needs work.


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