The lady in the pink sweater is 1,800 miles away — fighting to “stay alive” or “to make it” as she prepares for another tumultuous day in Barinas, Venezuela, with her children.
Her son Angel Aguilar is munching on a pack of peanut M&M’s.
“You want one?” he says with a shy smile.
It’s a sticky summer night in mid-June at Summerville Little League Park, where Angel’s 17-year-old half-brother Bryan is playing catcher for the Summerville Braves. Between pitches, the 21-year-old Angel, who plays third base for the Charleston RiverDogs, jokes with his father, Yan Rojas.
“I’ll bet you 100 bucks you won’t get to second!” Yan playfully yells to an opposing runner on first.
“You owe me!” the kid shouts back 90 feet later, the proud inhabitant of second base.
Angel bursts into laughter, along with Yan; Jennifer, his stepmother; Sebastian, one of his three half-brothers; a family friend; and three RiverDogs teammates who all made the trip to Bryan’s game with him.
Fate brought them together a year ago when the Yankees assigned Angel to play in Charleston, where Yan and Jennifer have lived with their family since 2011. Yan and Angel’s birth mom separated early in his life, and when Yan married Jennifer and moved to the United States in 2002, Angel stayed in Barinas. To Yan’s delight, Angel asked if he could live with him once he moved to Charleston.
“You won’t make it to third!” Yan shouts again to the kid on second. “Fifty bucks if you do!”
Again, Angel cracks up.
For a brief moment, he’s transcended by peace, not actively thinking about what the lady in the pink sweater who graces the locked screen of his iPhone 6 might be going through at any moment in a country marred by extreme poverty, triple-digit inflation and the world’s second-highest homicide rate.
Maybe at this moment Ana DelGado is swapping around supplies so that she and her kids can have toilet paper tomorrow. Or soap. Or toothpaste.
Perhaps she’s counting her money to see if her funds are enough to put food on the table.
“I was born and raised over in Venezuela,” Angel said through RiverDogs pitcher Nestor Cortes. “My mom is still there.”
Angel hasn’t seen Ana in months. The Yankees signed him as a free agent in 2012, and these days he only sees her and his younger siblings in Barinas during the offseason.
Every year time seems to fly by, and in February Ana dropped him off at the airport so he could board a Tampa-bound plane for spring training.
The goodbye consisted of the typical “I love you’s” and “I’ll miss you’s” and tears. Lots of tears. They promised to FaceTime and text message each other every day — a promise neither party has any trouble keeping — but when they’re not talking, Angel still worries about the state of the country and what that means for her safety.
“Every day, something new happens. People are getting killed on the street. It’s always something happening on the street,” said RiverDogs manager Luis Dorante, who was also born and raised in Venezuela with family still living there.
“It makes everybody wonder: When is this going to stop?”
The violence stems from an extreme lack of supplies, a byproduct of the socialist movement Hugo Chavez introduced after his election in 1999. The tension between citizens and the government has been present for several years now, Angel and Luis said, but it’s heightened in the past three to four years, since Nicolas Maduro took over following Chavez’s 2013 death.
As it stands now, the people of Venezuela are instructed to get food, medicine and resources by standing in mandated lines, where the government determines what and how many resources a family gets on a given day. Luis said lines start to form as early as 4 a.m. and are hundreds of people long.
Rarely, if ever, are the rations large enough to feed a family.
“The basics,” Jennifer said. “A cup of rice, a little thing of spaghetti. And if you go back the next day (for more), they’re not going to give it to you.”
She’s speaking from experience. She and Yan both grew up in Venezuela and were childhood friends before they married. Both still have family members there.
Yan said the way it’s determined who gets what supplies on what day is up to the government. He explained it with an example.
“If your ID ends in, say, a four, I’d say it’s probably gonna be: ‘OK. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,’ ” he said, counting to four with his fingers as he ticked off the days. “Thursday’s your day (to stand in line). Something like that. They’re using that system in Cuba.”
For those who find standing in line too violent or a waste of time — fights often break out and supplies run out regularly — the alternative is to buck the government system and instead trade resources with other people.
This is what Ana does.
“Right now, they have a Facebook,” Yan explained. “They created a page and then you say, ‘All right, I’ve got rice and black beans. I’m looking for ...’ ”
Jennifer jumps in:
“Spaghetti. ‘I’ll trade you my rice for your spaghetti ... I’ll trade diapers for formula,’ ” she said. “Things like that.”
The natural inclination is to then wonder why Angel doesn’t just send Ana and his siblings packages from the United States with nonperishable supplies in it.
It doesn’t work.
“What I try to do is send money. If I send a care package, the government screens it and (the package) can stay with them,” Angel said, noting that sometimes people pay triple-digits to get packages delivered only to learn the government hoarded them in Caracas.
Yan does this same thing for his mother, as does Luis for his parents. Yan learned about the government’s stringent screening process the hard way, when he tried to send his mom an innocent package full of photographs a few years ago and the government rejected it.
Even if for some reason Yan, Angel and Luis were able to defy the odds and send supplies that made it through the screening process, the reward wouldn’t outweigh the danger they would put their families in considering the frequency of robberies and killings.
“Imagine you go to a funeral and you leave your car outside and you come outside and it’s on top of four blocks because they stole your tires. That’s what’s going on,” Jennifer said. “You can’t walk around with your cellphone because they will kill you for your cellphone or your shoes. It’s bad. And it’s gotten really, really bad in the past three years.”
Indeed. Angel learned the hard way.
There’s a common misconception in Venezuela that Angel Aguilar wishes he could squash.
“Everyone knows my name. Everyone knows I play for the Yankees,” he said. “They think that every time I go to the States, I’m filled with money when I come back.”
The Yankees signed Angel for $60,000 back in 2012, and Class-A minor leaguers make less than $1,200 monthly.
Even so, about a year ago on the way home from a routine trip to the store, Angel was robbed at gunpoint with his 9-year-old brother in the background. Ana was out of town.
“When I got robbed, I was getting to my house. I was parking. The guys waited for me there and they pointed a gun to my head and basically they said, ‘Give me everything you have inside your house,’ ” Angel said.
“I had sunglasses, watches, chains and I had $200 in cash. And my cellphone, too. There were two people: one driving the motorcycle and the other one on the back, stealing everything. ... The only thing I was praying and thinking of was not to shoot me. Not to get shot.”
He said he was terrified but not necessarily surprised. That’s Venezuela.
A few years ago, Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped. There have been reports of Venezuela natives in the majors coming back to spring training overweight and out of shape because they were too afraid to leave the confines of their homes to go work out during the offseason. Luis wonders if it’s only a matter of time until winter ball teams pull out of Venezuela. Of the 23 MLB teams that formed academies there in the ’90s, only four remain.
But for Angel, his mom — not baseball — is the primary concern.
What if Ana is attacked one day because of his pro status and he’s not there to help her? What if she and the kids never get visas and are stuck indefinitely?
Jennifer said it’s common for people in Venezuela to save three-and-a-half to four months worth of their salaries just to get an appointment with the visa office. Even then, there’s no guarantee a visa will be granted.
Fortunately for Jennifer she’s always been a U.S. citizen — her dad was born in Kansas City, Kan. But when Yan and the kids went to get their visas the process took two years.
“For my mom to just make her life (in the United States), wherever there’s a job opportunity, that’s what I want,” Angel said.
Ana is an educator.
“I want her to have a visa. That’s all. With her visa, she can do whatever she wants.”
In mid-September, the RiverDogs, who are playoff bound for the first time in 11 years, will see their 2016 season come to a close.
In the past, the end of baseball season every year has represented a chance for Angel to spend a few months with Ana and his siblings again in Barinas. But this could be the year that changes.
“If it’s still bad over there then I might just have to stay here and forget about my love for the country and find better ways to live,” Angel said. “Obviously there’s more opportunity here. But the other thing is that my mom is over there. And I want to see my mom.”
Legally, Angel could stay in Charleston with Yan and Jennifer after the season. He has a visa and he’s in the process of completing the paperwork to become a U.S. citizen.
Whatever the decision is, Yan and Jennifer want it to be his. The couple is fully supportive of Angel going to see Ana if he chooses. Sure, they worry about his safety constantly, but Ana is his mom, and if he wants to be there to support her and the kids, Yan and Jennifer are on board.
Angel knows, though, that the life the Rojas family has shown him could be difficult to walk away from for a few months. In Yan and Jennifer he has a real-life example of what a healthy marriage and a happy family looks like in a flourishing country. On his birthday three weeks ago, they threw him a party with karaoke and chicken wings and presents. In his half-brothers, 17-year-old twins Bryan and John and 11-year-old Sebastian, he always has a PlayStation buddy or someone to spend time with at the outlet mall for a shopping spree. After every RiverDogs game, he’s always treated the same when he goes home — whether he just finished the worst game of his career or the best.
“A hug, a warm plate of food, someone to say, ‘Hey, it’s OK. Tomorrow will be better,’ ” is how Yan describes his and Jennifer’s role.
In an ideal world, Angel wouldn’t have to make these decisions, choosing between Venezuela and the United States. If Ana and the kids could just get visas then, he said, his worries would vanish.
“It’s beautiful here,” he said, grinning. “It lights me up every day.”
If only the lady in the pink sweater could feel that, too.
Reach Grace Raynor at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter @gmraynor.