SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The public-address announcer at Estadio Quisqueya turned off the festive music.The noise in the bleachers was muted, and the focus shifted to the 60 international prospects lined up on the first- and third-base lines."Let's please have a moment of silence for Ronald Jimenez of Venezuela,
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- The public-address announcer at Estadio Quisqueya turned off the festive music.
The noise in the bleachers was muted, and the focus shifted to the 60 international prospects lined up on the first- and third-base lines.
"Let's please have a moment of silence for Ronald Jimenez of Venezuela, a former prospect that is no longer with us. Rest in peace," the announcer said.
Thirty minutes later, and less than 24 hours after his older brother Ronald was killed back home in Venezuela, Carlos Jimenez took the mound. The right-hander walked four of the six batters he faced, but he never gave in, and he pumped his mid-80s mph fastball to every batter he faced.
Resilient teens like Jimenez reminded the baseball world that the sport is still thriving in Venezuela, and it's probably more important now with the country in economic and political crisis. Twenty-two of the prospects that competed in the annual showcase were from the South American country.
"It's a difficult time for my family, but I am here to do a job and hopefully get signed," Jimenez, 15, said in Spanish. "I have been waiting for these moments my entire life, so I have to take advantage of it. Baseball is in my blood and this is what I'm going to do. Nothing can stop me."
Carlos' brother, Ronald, signed with the Twins as an infielder in 2010, but was released the next year after a short stint in the Dominican Summer League. The Jimenezes are related to Cardinals outfielder Jose Martinez, and on Wednesday, Martinez's teammate, Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez, texted the teen a video message offering his condolences and words of encouragement.
"Carlos Martinez is my idol," Jimenez said. "I cried watching the video. I'm so grateful to him and my cousin. He didn't have to do that, but I know they want the best for me."
There are high hopes for all the Venezuelan teens.
In addition to Jimenez, right-handed pitchers Richard Gallardo, Luis Carrasco and Abraham Calzadilla -- along with catchers Diego Cartaya, Antonio Gomez and Francisco Alvarez -- starred at the MLB event. Shortstops Misael Urbina and Miguel Droz flashed the leather during drills, and outfielder Gabriel Martinez showed some pop at the plate during the two-day event.
The Venezuelan teens were picked from last month's showcase in Colombia and a November showcase in Aruba. The events were held outside of Venezuela because of the situation in the country.
"This competition has been good for us," Cartaya said in Spanish. "Being here on the same team with Colombians and Brazilians and players from other places was a great experience. Facing Cuban pitching and playing against Dominicans has been fun. We all have the same goal: to be good players, and make it to the Major Leagues."
There have been 389 prospects from Venezuela signed during the current international signing period that started last summer. There could be even more when the next international signing period begins on July 2.
The numbers show that scouting in Venezuela remains a priority. The Astros, Rays, Phillies, Rockies, Cubs and Tigers have a strong presence on the ground.
However, operating in Venezuela does come with a unique set of challenges for the locals. Some Venezuelan trainers use armed guards to protect their facilities, and many have been impacted by the country's shortage of food and other goods. A group of top trainers representing the four major regions of Venezuela recently combined forces to promote the game, while also addressing some of the country's issues.
"It's a unique time, because our country has never been in worse shape and our baseball has never been better," said Alexis Quiroz, who represents Cartaya at AQ Sport Agency. "The players we have are just as talented as the other kids, but they live in a country that's facing hardships a lot of other kids don't face."
Quiroz said it is not uncommon for parents to ask trainers to take their children in. Parents believe the sport will provide the opportunity for a better future, and more importantly, there's the promise that the baseball programs will offer multiple meals a day. The larger baseball programs in the country also feed prospects' families and donate food to players they do not accept.
"These kids are not signing with the idea of getting a big bonus. They are signing to get money to buy food for their families," Quiroz said. "You would think the kids feel that pressure, but baseball is fun and keeps them protected from all that is happening around them. It's all they think about. Baseball is their safe place and that's where they are the happiest."
Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.