Inciarte thrives with Braves amid concern for his homeland

Ender Inciarte rejoices after hitting the first home run in SunTrust Park, against San Diego in April. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

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Ender Inciarte rejoices after hitting the first home run in SunTrust Park, against San Diego in April. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

To know what is happening in his riven homeland, Braves coach Eddie Perez doesn’t need CNN, doesn’t need the New York Times, doesn’t really even need the crowded global soapbox of social media.

He knows that his center fielder, the same one he coached as a teenager in winter ball back home, is anxious to share daily the news of Venezuela’s great and sad struggle. Ender Inciarte wants to talk about it. Needs to talk about it.

And Perez is keen to hear him out. He may have gained U.S. citizenship, but some connections are spliced to a person’s DNA. Every two weeks or so Perez will send another shipment of toiletries and over-the-counter medicine to a family member, or to a member of his wife’s family, in Venezuela. And they distribute the necessities through the neighborhood as they are able. Everything but strife is in short supply there.

Yet, at the same time Perez worries that Inciarte is too absorbed in Venezuela’s troubles, distant and complex as they are. The batter’s box is no place to be thinking about the fate of nations.

“I tell him he’s paying too much attention to that,” Perez said. “It’s not that I don’t care. Everything that happens in Venezuela, he tells me and I keep telling him, don’t worry about it. Relax. Go play the game. And he says, ‘I can’t.’”

“Where are the police and military who want to enforce the Constitution rather than be torturing the Venezuelans?” — recent Inciarte tweet (with translation by Braves interpreter Franco Garcia).

The fact that Inciarte, 26, is going to his first All-Star game next week as the lone Braves representative, that he is playing at such a sublime level both in the field and at-bat is all the more admirable given the extra weight he and all of baseball’s Venezuelan-born players carry with them now.

These are the testimonies to Inciarte’s ability to compartmentalize the conflicting passions of baseball and country: He’s a Gold Glove outfielder. Since last year’s All-Star break no one has more than his 208 hits (through Wednesday). Hitting his seventh home run of 2017 on Wednesday, he surpassed his previous season high for a season.

“The only thing that gets me out of thinking about the situation in Venezuela is baseball,” Inciarte said.

“I think about everything that’s going on in Venezuela every single minute of the day. But when I get to play baseball I forget about everything. Those are the only three hours I have a lot of fun.

“It’s not like I try to separate things. I get locked in when I play the game, just try to do it for my team, try to win the game, try not to think about things that get me off concentrating about the game.”

This year’s All-Star game is in Miami, a U.S. and Latin American crossroads. Inciarte is one of five Venezuelan-born players who are part of the game, and the subject of the violent unrest in their country is bound to follow them to this south Florida showcase. There’s a ready platform for them should they wish to add their voices to those calling for change in Venezuela.

A small group of Venezuelan players — not including Inciarte — joined in a video supporting protesters back home at the start of this season. Inciarte and Perez did an interview together with Fox Sports South on the same topic. Given the compressed schedule of the All-Star game, Inciarte said he was unsure if he and his countrymen could produce any sort of unified message.

But silence and staying apolitical — as is so common among the athletic class — is not an option. “(Inciarte) is going to say whatever he needs to say to people. He wants to spread the news. He wants to say everything he can to help Venezuela,” Perez said.

“I ask God every day and every night for the lives of all the people that go out every day to fight for liberty in the streets.” — another recent Inciarte tweet, interpreted.

Taking sides, even this far removed from the crisis, does not come without risk. These are dangerous times in Venezuela. An economic crisis and a crisis of faith in the government has become a constitutional crisis as President Nicolas Maduro maneuvers to hold power. Hunger has spread. Desperate citizens have taken to the streets daily to protest for change. Crime and chaos are in their wake. Those on both sides have died.

It is always possible that words spoken from the safety of a major league clubhouse might have repercussions on family and friends back home. But, said Inciarte, “When you see 90 percent of the population in Venezuela going against (Maduro), you cannot be quiet. You got to join them and try to say what you think. Everybody knows it’s wrong what’s happening.”

The balance Inciarte strikes is a precarious one, for the terrible times in his country coincide with the best of times in his career. His Twitter site reflects the stretch from one extreme to another: Ranging from messages of humility and gratitude after being named an All-Star. To displays of a recent shirt design honoring his heritage and contributions to the Braves. To the more overtly political posts.

When acquired in a 2015 Winter Meetings deal with Arizona, Inciarte was not the headliner in a trade now considered a borderline swindle in the Braves’ favor. That role belonged to Dansby Swanson, the hometown infielder also obtained for the cost of starting pitcher Shelby Miller (who sputtered last season and this season underwent Tommy John surgery).

While Inciarte made little noise with the Diamondbacks, Perez was doing plenty of the speaking for him on his arrival in Atlanta. He regularly enthused about the player he briefly managed in winter ball to then-manager Fredi Gonzalez. “I told Fredi last year, this is our center fielder for years. Fredi didn’t know him much. I told everybody, watch, this kid is going to be unbelievable.

“Watch. He’s a Gold Glove. He’s improving himself every year. And he wants to get better every year. He works hard. He wants to win.”

In the field, Inciarte seems to know where a fly ball is going before the ball does — his instincts, his jump, his angles are unfailing. His productivity as a leadoff hitter has been revelatory.

To be important in a team’s scheme has thrilled him. “When I was in Arizona I played as hard as I could, and I probably didn’t get a lot of attention from people there,” Inciarte said. “Having the fans from Atlanta supporting me this much, it means a lot to me. I love playing for the Braves. I love playing in Atlanta and hope to do it for a lot of years. I’ve never had as much fun as I have had here.”

To be an All-Star, while personally significant, can also be seen as tonic for Venezuela. To play the role of a temporary diversion, to stand as a source of pride for a tortured country — these tasks Inciarte also sees as part of his All-Star duties.

Some such messages Inciarte takes to Miami can go unspoken.

And others, as expressed on his Twitter page, require no translation:

“Que viva la Libertad!! Que viva Venezuela!!”

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