LLWS offers reunion for Venezuelan players

Hope for their country remains on minds of big leaguers as they greet Little Leaguers

LLWS offers reunion for Venezuelan players

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- On Sunday afternoon, little boys in green and teal uniforms stood side-by-side with grown men in black big league jerseys outside of the home dugout at Volunteer Stadium. They were in awe of each other.

There were high-fives and hugs. Fancy handshakes and lots of pats on the back. And there was hope.

For Pirates catchers Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz, along with left-handed pitcher Felipe Rivero and outfielder/first baseman Jose Osuna, who are from Venezuela, the 200-mile trek from Pittsburgh to BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field to take on the Cardinals was memorable even before the first pitch of the 2017 Little League Classic.

The 30 minutes the big leaguers spent chatting with the players of Venezuela's Luz-Maracaibo, the country's Little League champion, focused on baseball and dreams of a better future.

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"This is amazing," Cervelli said. "I always wanted to play here when I was a kid and never had a chance to do it. I feel like I'm a fan. I'm enjoying these kids playing baseball."

Luz-Maracaibo won the Little League Baseball World Series Latin American Region with an 8-0 record, outscoring opponents 81-9. The Venezuelan squad defeated the team from Reynosa, Mexico, 4-1 in the opening round of play Thursday in Williamsport and lost to Canada, 7-3, on Sunday morning.

"This is a big deal," Cervelli said. "Them being here and competing is a big deal."

Cervelli, who also met with the Italian Little League team and has played for Italy's World Baseball Classic team twice, was born and raised in Valencia, Venezuela. Cervelli's father, Manuel, emigrated from Italy to the country as a child. Cervelli's mother, Damelis, is from Venezuela.

In addition to Spanish, Cervelli speaks near-perfect English and Italian. The Pirates catcher is natural communicator, and he's not afraid to voice his opinions. Cervelli was among the first and remains one of the most vocal players from Venezuela to speak out against the ongoing political, economic and medical crisis happening in the country under President Nicolas Maduro. Rising inflation, water and food shortages are among the many issues that plague Venezuela under the current regime.

Luz-Maracaibo's trip to the United States was made possible by donations. Locals in the Williamsport area have pitched in to help with hotel rooms and other expenses.

"It's really tough for them to come here They did a lot of things to just get some money to be here," Cervelli said. "It's something we have to applaud because for them, it's not just playing baseball. They only should be worried about coming here to have fun and play, that's it. Now, it's so many different things."

Cervelli spends his evenings on the diamond and nights worrying about his country and the children there. He longs for the days of his childhood and the Venezuela that welcomed his paternal grandparents 50 years ago. The crisis in Venezuela drove Cervelli's grandparents back to Italy. His parents now live in Colombia.

"These kids are the future of the country, and they deserve to have a normal life and a quality life," Cervelli said. "They deserve to have hope and to make their dreams come true."

Most of Diaz's family remains in Venezuela, and it was hard for him to not think about them when he saw the Luz-Maracaibo team. Although he did not play Little League baseball in Venezuela, Maracaibo is his hometown.

"They can't believe we have a Major League player [from Maracaibo]. It's fun," Diaz said. "I think they want to play in the big leagues. They want to be professional players. This is good for everybody."

Rivero, who is from Yaracuy, and Osuna, who is from Trujillo, continue to pray for their country. The significance of the meeting between the Little Leaguers and Major Leaguers was not lost on Cardinals outfielder Jose Martinez, who is from La Guaira. He posed for photos with the Little Leaguers and Pirates players from Venezuela while his Cardinals teammates were on another field.

Martinez, who spent almost a decade in the Minor Leagues, knows how fortunate he is to be able to play in the Major Leagues. He hopes the kids can follow in his footsteps.

"We're a land of baseball." Luz-Maracaibo head coach Luis Romero said. "These kids' futures are enormous. They dream of becoming professionals to be able to leave the country."

Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.