Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon on his home of Venezuela and learning English
This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated. Read it in Spanish here.
Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon has been in the United States for more than a decade, but he still feels deeply connected to his home country of Venezuela. He spoke with Marly Rivera about what it means to represent his small town in MLB, and his distress at the current state of the country.
As a Venezuelan, what was the most difficult thing when you first moved to the U.S.?
First of all, to be far away from my family, from the people with whom you lived for so long, to make that sacrifice. Other than that, the language, learning English. Trying to adapt to the food here, to the lifestyle. You miss your family a lot every day. I still do.
I see you communicating well in English with the media. What helped you get to where you are today?
Trust [in myself]. But it was very scary going out to buy something the first two years. For example, going to McDonald’s and ordering something in English. That was really hard for me.
What was the first thing you learned how to order?
“Combo No. 1” at McDonald’s: cheeseburger. It also helped me a lot to talk to the pitchers. When I was not playing, I asked questions. I tried to learn a new word every day at the stadium. That helped me a lot.
You learned a new word every day? Tell me a little more about that.
I always asked about things around the stadium — things like dirt, grass, screen. Any object in the dugout — chewing gum, seeds, things around the fans. I always tried to learn something new every day so the next day I could try to practice it to be able to communicate better.
After two years of doing that, you felt comfortable enough?
Yes, quite comfortable. In rookie league we also had English classes three times a week, and that really helped me a lot. I was always a good student at school, so that also helped me. I tried hard to learn, because as a catcher, that’s my main weapon, to learn to communicate with pitchers, because if I couldn’t communicate with them, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.
Latinos tend to be very close to their family. Was there a time when you wanted to give up and go back home?
Yes. The first two years I was feeling like, ‘Mom, I can’t take it anymore, I want to go home. This is not for me — the food, the language. I’m not doing well. I had three bad games. I don’t feel good. I want to go home.’ But family is always there to support you. They always give you strength. Parents always make sacrifices to help you, to see you grow. The love they have for me was what helped me stay here, to keep on fighting, keep on working to get to where I am now.
Tell me about your family.
I am from Maracaibo, Venezuela. I am from a very small town called El Moján; it’s about 40 minutes from the city. I am the second major leaguer from our town. The first one was Edwin Moreno; he played with San Diego a little bit. So I am very well-known in that little town. My whole family is still there, my parents, my sisters, my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. Everyone is there. It’s a pretty nice town, pretty warm, and they’ve always been very supportive.
Do people there treat you differently now that you’re in the majors?
Most of all, I have had a great impact with the kids. It’s a town where you don’t see much big league baseball, so there are always kids asking me how are the major leagues? How are things there? What’s the difference? How did I get to the majors? Whenever I can, I try to spend time with them. I try to talk to talk to them. I go to the stadium to practice and there are always a lot of kids who come take pictures. I always ask them how they play, what position they play, because honestly, it’s something that I went through, too.
Is there a sense of pressure being the only player from such a small town?
Yes. But really not so much because of them, but because of my family, because of me, because I really love this. I love to be at the stadium, being here every day, playing. I know that I represent a lot of people — people who follow me, people who support me, people who want me to do well. They are always asking my family how is it going for me. I feel a sense of responsibility to make them proud that I am here and that I am doing well.
Is your sense of responsibility greater because of what’s currently happening in your country?
Yes, of course. There are many issues related to that. I would say the most important thing is what we are seeing on the streets — how people are dying, how they are getting beat up. I leave everything in the hands of God, may God take care of all that, because things are really getting worse lately. That, of course, makes me sad. There are many innocent people who are going through things that should not happen, and, of course, because my family is there.
Has it become the topic among Venezuelan players when you guys meet up?
Yes, of course, Venezuelans, Americans, anyone, because it’s all over Instagram. You see the videos. You go on Instagram and you see videos from Venezuela every day, different things. Something happened to a young kid or a woman or a child. A policeman hit someone or any sort of thing happened; something got stolen. It’s very sad. I am Venezuelan, I love Venezuela. Venezuela saw me grow up; that’s my country. I will always want to go back to Venezuela. But seeing these situations is something that makes me feel really sentimental, sad, because they are things that I really don’t to want to happen to anyone.
Did you imagine that one day there would be 76 players from Venezuela on Opening Day?
No, but in Venezuela there’s a lot of hunger for baseball. Now even more, because of the situation we are going through, because people want to do whatever it takes to leave the country, especially the parents. They want a better future for their children, and sometimes they believe that baseball is the best future.
How is winter league ball in Venezuela different from playing baseball in the United States?
The baseball we play (in the U.S.) is the best baseball in the world; it’s something else. But when you play in Venezuela, when you play for your country, for your team, it’s totally different. Fans in Venezuela take baseball as something very personal. Sometimes it’s so personal that they start insulting you. Venezuela’s baseball helped me get where I am today. It taught me a lot. And as long as I am able to and I am healthy, I’m going to play in Venezuela.
What’s the main difference between Red Sox fans at Fenway Park and Tigres de Aragua fans in Venezuela?
They view baseball differently. In Boston, many beautiful things have happened in that stadium — a lot of history, a lot of success, World Series. That stadium is always full. I think Boston fans understand baseball a little bit more when it comes to the player’s job on the field. In Venezuela, I would say that they are driven a lot by the success of the team. If it’s doing well, a lot more people go; if it’s things are bad, there are fewer people. If a baseball player is doing well, they cheer for you; if things you’re doing badly, they can insult you a bit. They have two very different points of view while watching baseball.
Latinos, especially when it comes to playing winter ball, play baseball in a more passionate and demonstrative way. Did you find it difficult to adapt to the “unwritten” rules in the U.S.?
For me, it has not been difficult because of the kind of person I am. I’ve always been a quiet person. I never had those kinds of moments playing baseball. Of course, like every player, I have moments when I get angry, but I don’t really take it that way. I’ve never had a hard time adjusting to such things. I’ve always played my style of baseball the same way.
Why do you think baseball players generally, especially Latinos, don’t get involved in addressing social or political issues, like NBA or NFL players?
On one hand, I think we spend a lot of time doing busy work, more than in other sports. We spend a lot of time on planes. We play at 7 p.m., and we get there early, and we are in the stadium until 12. We spend all day focused on which team we are going to play, who is going to pitch, who runs, who doesn’t run. We have a lot of things. Of course, we see things in the news, but I feel like we don’t get involved because we are always working. It isn’t because we don’t care about things that are happening outside, but I think that we worry more about doing our job because it is how we can help our families. I think it’s mostly because we don’t have much time.
Do you think Latinos can be reluctant to speak up because they are not living in their country?
That also could be. Sometimes, as a Latino, you hold back for fear that you can say something that is not right and that can put an end to your career.