Apr 6, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Colorado Rockies left fielder Carlos Gonzalez (5) hits a double against the Houston Astros in the first inning at Minute Maid Park on Opening Day. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE
It is a packed house at Luis Aparicio Stadium in Maracaibo, the biggest city in the Venezuelan West. As usual, the heat is unbearable. But that's never been an excuse for the faithful, loud and demanding Aguilas del Zulia fans.
Before the game starts, a young, promising outfielder signs autographs for the fans. Always smiling and willing to respond, Carlos González has been dubbed as one of the most promising prospects out of Maracaibo.
On this afternoon in 2007, his mother Lucila is in the stands, eager to see her son play. For her, this is more than a matter of pride.
"Watching Carlos play with Aguilas was, until a very short time ago, the only way to see him in uniform," Lucila González now recalls. It looks like a long time ago, even more so now that she's been able to join him at least once a year in Denver and Arizona. She was among the family members who traveled to Arizona for Spring Training, and then moved in to Colorado for the Rockies home opener.
It has been a short, but tumultuous and winding road for the Gonzalez family, ever since little Carlos decided that he wanted to be a baseball player... and nothing else.
"This story is so long, I could fill an entire book just by telling it," Mrs. González says. "Whenever I touch this subject, it is so emotional for me, I even burst into tears. And I'm glad to talk about it, because people must realize how many sacrifices and trials Latin players must go through before they even have a chance to make it in the Big Leagues."
Rafael Betancourt Senior, a college professor in Cumana, in the Venezuelan East, shares that sentiment.
"You cannot imagine how many things have happened to us. I'm glad Rafael is successful now, but it has been the result of many sleepless nights, of sacrifices. I remember when my son had to make a transition between being an infielder or a pitcher... When he went injured and did not pitch for a full year and he had to prove everyone he was ready, after so much therapy. It was an ordeal," Betancourt said.
For Latin baseball players, their rise (or fall) in the baseball world is a family business. They share the glory, but also the bitter struggle.
"Carlos was five years old when he said he wanted to be a ballplayer," Mrs. González says. "He always wanted to play baseball. But I didn't know he could get into Little League when he was so young. You see, I've learned a lot about baseball thanks to him. His mind was always into baseball. He loves to draw as well, I think he could have been an architect if he didn't pursue a career in sports".
There's always a crucial moment for all baseball prospects: when they finally realize they have skills to play the game professionally. They would have to fly away from their loved ones. That could be a scary thought for many: coming out of humble upbringings and having to realize they were about to deal with a wholly different culture and language.
"I remember when a scout came here, to my house, to tell me Rafael could make it in baseball. It was a cold moment, and terrifying as well," says Betancourt. "I remember this guy coming over here, and asking me, without hesitation or even an introduction, 'How much is your son worth?' Wow, I thought I was selling out my flesh and blood, like if he was a piece of cattle".
"Carlos seriously decided to be a professional at age 15. I thought he was nuts," Mrs. González remembers. "He always said to me it was his destiny. Luckily, a great guy named Miguel Nava started a baseball agency and academy. He took Carlos under his wing."
"Nobody can say Carlos is in this business for anything else but for the love of baseball. He dedicated himself in mind, body and soul to the game. When he finally had to move out of the country, a few months before he was eligible, I said to him: 'Look, you will become a baseball player, and you will make it into the Big Leagues. I don't want all of your efforts to be put to waste'. Of course, I told him that in order to cheer him up. But I thought, well, if he didn't make it, then he could come back to school."
"It was absolutely tough to see Rafael go," says Betancourt. "I knew this was the path he wanted to follow, but you have always inner doubts. But you have to let them go, that's what I did."
"Carlos was always taken care of, maybe a little too much. He is the youngest among his siblings, which is why it was so tough for me to let him go. I never really told him that, I always tried to show my most optimistic face and demeanor; I never let him see my concerns. Because I didn't want him to quit in order to make his mother happy," Mrs. Gonzalez said. "It has been the single toughest decision I've ever made. How could I let my youngest child go?"
And so she did. Carlos had offers from Arizona and Boston, but his instincts ("One of the best features he has," according to his mother) told him to sign with the Diamondbacks in 2002. While he struggled at first with dealing with the intricacies of the game of baseball and learning to deal with American culture, his mom always kept an eye on him.
"Ever since he was a young boy, I always got him used to calling me - even if it was once a day - whenever he was on a trip, be for a national championship or anything else. He had - and still has - to let me know how and where he is. He always sounded optimistic and upbeat, but I knew there were things he didn't want to tell me about. It was tough for him, you hear all the classic stories about a young player going to a diner and not knowing what to order and if he could actually order something, he didn't know what it was. He would call me and tell me he was sick, I ordered him to go to the ballpark and get medicine instead of just lying in there without getting any help."
"He was lucky to find people along the way who helped him out. He got involved with a young girl who became his girlfriend and supported him. But it was tough. He went through a lot of hard things. He would never tell me about his struggles, but I knew."
Early in his career, Gonzalez developed a reputation for being a little cocky. His mother has an explanation for that.
"When he started with the Dbacks, there was a manager who would not recognize his achievements. He would practically ignore him, for reasons that I yet have to comprehend. That was probably the one moment in which he was closest to calling it quits, and I had to keep on telling him otherwise. Later I found out he told people Carlos was that way. That couldn't be further from the truth."
Lucila had difficulties to get into the United States because Immigration authorities wouldn't grant her a visa. Then she managed to get one with a limited permit to stay in the country. What she would see during her stay was shocking enough to keep her in tears after her return.
"People would always asked me why was I crying so bad after I got back from seeing my son play, and I would always tell them that I was impressed by seeing the conditions those Minor Leaguers had to go through, the beds they slept in, the buses they traveled in... Things I could tell you and try to describe you for hours to no end and I wouldn't even make justice to the correct proportion of how they were."
When he was traded on the transaction that involved Dan Haren in 2008 to Oakland, Mrs. González was surprised at first.
"I never thought he would leave Arizona. But whenever there's a trade, prospects such as him at the time are the first to go, so it happened. I'm so happy that things turned out the way they are. However... I taught Carlos, and I will always remind him, that all the money on Earth is worth nothing and you cannot forget where you came from. You must remain a humble person on the inside and whenever you meet other people. You cannot believe you're a demigod just because you have money".
For Rafael Betancourt, dealing with different transactions was harder. "It wasn't until he went to Cleveland that he started to have stability," Betancourt said. The pitcher joined the Indians in the 2002 offseason. Venezuela was facing a national strike which began in the oil industry and lasted over three months. "The Venezuelan League was canceled that year, after a month and a half of play," Betancourt recalled. "Rafael was ready to play but he couldn't get a full season's pay. That was tough at that moment." It was his last season before he debuted with the Indians in the Majors. He would spend six seasons in the American League until he was traded to the Rockies.
As for the Gonzalez family, things are a far cry from that afternoon in Maracaibo five years ago. But they are determined in keeping the fabric of Carlos' character the same way it was when he decided his career path at age 15.