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NEW YORK (AP) — They wanted to show the old seven-starred flag from their homeland. And when the Venezuelan players from the Pittsburgh Pirates finally found one on Amazon, they promptly held it upside down.
"When you carry it reversed, that's a symbol of protest," Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli said about the display before a game in Arizona in May.
Their rejection of the Venezuelan authorities becomes emboldened with those seven stars, instead of the eight that now appear after one was added by the late President Hugo Chavez's government.
Amid three months of often-violent confrontations and economic turmoil in their country, an increasing number of Venezuelan players in Major League Baseball are speaking out against the government and showing solidarity with their compatriots protesting in the streets.
"Our country needs help and we want to show that we're supporting them," Cervelli said.
Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera, the most famous baseball player from Venezuela, has rejected the violence in videos posted on social media. The two-time American League MVP appeared with other Venezuelan players from the Tigers and the Texas Rangers.
"We want a better country, we want a solution. We want to have someone that steps up and stop this because we cannot continue living like this, killing, and fighting for something not worth," Cabrera said in Spanish during an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast.
One of the gestures of disapproval against President Nicolas Maduro's government is the use of the upside-down flag, something that started with another wave of protests in 2014.
Cervelli posed with that flag alongside reliever Felipe Rivero, outfielder Jose Osuna and bullpen catcher Heberto Andrade, all from Venezuela. They wanted to make sure that the flag didn't have the eighth star added by Chavez, so Rivero went shopping online to find that particular emblem.
The almost-daily protests have left at least 90 people dead and hundreds injured. The protests have been fueled by widespread discontent over shortages of basic goods, runaway inflation and allegations that Maduro is undermining democracy in the country.
Venezuela is the second-biggest exporter of foreign players in the majors, behind the Dominican Republic. The 76 Venezuelan players on the 25-man rosters of the 30 MLB teams was a record at the start of the season.
No one has been more vocal than the 31-year-old Cervelli, particularly on his social media accounts. He also has written "SOS Venezuela" in his eye black and has a foundation that ships food, medicine and personal hygiene products to Venezuela.
Cervelli should be enjoying the peak of his MLB career. He signed a $31 million, three-year contract to keep him in Pittsburgh from 2017-19. He has to plans to marry Migbelis Castellanos, a former Miss Venezuela.
But what's happening daily in Venezuela makes him outraged.
He still has family in the country, but his parents moved to neighboring Colombia "due to the shortages." His grandparents returned to their native Italy when they couldn't find the medicine they need.
"It's not me trying to be a leader, that's not what's it all about," Cervelli said. "Venezuela is a country in shambles. We have to rebuild it from scratch."
The unrest has also caused players to not want to go back to Venezuela during the offseason. Many are trying to have close family members join them permanently in the United States.
Yangervis Solarte, the San Diego Padres infielder who was widowed last year, brought his mother to live with his three daughters in Florida. But others want to remain in Venezuela, like his father, Gervis, and his uncle, 11-year major leaguer Roger Cedeno.
"I live in the United States, but you never stop worrying with those in the country," Solarte said. "When you call back home and get all the anguish, that they cannot get this or that. We are tired of this."
Solarte mentions the struggles of less heralded players, who don't have the same resources as established stars.
"The ones speaking out are players with million-size contracts," he said. "But with the rookie ones, it's different. With or without a big contract, you worry about your family."
Cervelli hopes to be able to go to Venezuela one day "without the need of bodyguards and armored cars."
He intends to maintain his activism: "This is not going to stop, is not a fight of just one day. The least I can do is to express that I'm with you and raised my voice because my country need helps. We had the perfect country, but look it a now ... it's a mess."
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