Repping Venezuela 'very special' for Escobar in 1st Classic

After 12 years in the Majors, infielder donning home country's uniform for first time

March 9th, 2023

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When Buck Showalter poked his head into the Clover Park clubhouse early Thursday, he noticed an unexpected sight: infielder , “soaking wet” from his morning workout. Escobar had departed Port St. Lucie earlier in the week to join Team Venezuela for the World Baseball Classic, but there he was only a few days later, back in camp.

“You can’t be in this locker room,” Showalter quipped to him.

Escobar didn’t linger. Several hours later, he bounded out of the visiting dugout to exchange lineup cards with Showalter, as the Mets welcomed Venezuela to Port St. Lucie for the second of two WBC exhibitions here.

“I’m so happy,” Escobar said, looking forward to Venezuela’s tournament-opening showdown Saturday at 7 p.m. ET against the Dominican Republic. “I’m ready.”

On a team stacked with superstars like Jose Altuve, who homered twice in the first two innings of Team Venezuela’s 6-4 win over the Mets on Thursday, Escobar is one of the elder statesmen. A 12-year veteran who recently celebrated a full decade of Major League service time, Escobar ranks among the most respected members of a stacked Venezuela roster that also includes Altuve, Miguel Cabrera, Ronald Acuña Jr. and others.

When the club emerged for batting practice on Thursday, hundreds of fans clustered around the dugout clamoring for autographs. Cabrera even continued to sign during the game, reaching around the dugout railing to grab baseballs, hats and trading cards.

“These fans, Venezuelan, Dominican, are crazy, man,” Escobar said, laughing. “Latin baseball is crazy. All game, the people are real loud. They enjoy the game.”

If Cabrera is the foremost legend on Team Venezuela, and Altuve was Thursday’s star, Escobar is the heart of the clubhouse. That wasn’t always the case. A lightly recruited amateur, Escobar didn’t become an everyday Major League player until his age-29 season -- a year after the most recent WBC. When Team Venezuela was formed for that tournament, Escobar wasn’t invited.

Plenty has changed for him since then, including a 35-homer season in 2019 for the D-backs, an All-Star selection two years later and a two-year, $20 million offer to join the Mets prior to 2022. This time, when Venezuela began drawing up its WBC plans, Escobar was a featured player. In Thursday’s exhibition, he hit third, starting at third base and later shifting to left field -- anything the team needs, he says. A natural infielder, Escobar has a bet with Mets coaches Wayne Kirby, Joey Cora and Eric Chavez that he can throw a runner out at home at some point during the WBC.

“I didn’t go to the last Classic, so right now, this is very special for me,” Escobar said. “To be around here and play for my country, it’s very important for me. I’m happy because you want to compete with the best players from the best countries.”

Along with the Dominican Republic, the United States and Japan, Venezuela is frequently mentioned as a WBC favorite. Yet despite its stacked rosters in every Classic to date, Venezuela has never finished higher than third. The country has mustered only a single bronze medal finish, and that was back in 2009.

Perhaps Escobar, brimming with national pride, can help change that. His fans back home will be waiting to find out.

“In baseball, every team has a chance to win,” Escobar said with his son by his side in a postgame interview. “In baseball, everything happens. But my mentality is with my country. I don’t want to disrespect other countries, but it’s what I want, to win for my country. Every team has a great, great, great opportunity in the World Baseball Classic. But for me, I want Venezuela.”