Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Trailblazers, Part 2: Astros OF Brett Phillips Talks About His Venezuelan Adventure

Yesterday, I gave you a brief introduction to The Trailblazers, a group of eight American players (and three coaches) who were tasked with expanding the Astros footprint in Venezuela in a meaningful way by participating in the Venezuelan Liga Paralela for the winter season. One of those players was OF Brett Phillips.

Phillips was a late addition to the mix of those who went to Venezuela. He joined a group of players who were already in place and playing for the Tiburones: RHP Jamaine Cotton, RHP Michael Dimock, RHP Joe Musgrove, LHP Blair Walters, OF Marc Wik, C Ricky Gingras and 3B Ryan Dineen. I talked to Brett by phone at length about his experiences in Venezuela and it all started with the journey down.

The Trailblazers catching a little sun

Before the trip to South America, Brett had never been outside the United States, except for a quick cruise to Mexico, and his Spanish skills were more or less non-existent. His adventure started as he tried to change planes in Panama. After some confusion, he found himself in an interminably long line for his rapidly approaching flight and then was told he wasn’t in the system. He was thinking, “I’m going to be stuck here and this is not a good way to start things.”

He was quickly rescued by a Venezuelan he met in line who spoke perfect English and recognized the Astros logo on Brett’s bag. Before he knew it, he was whisked to the front of the line, given his boarding pass and had his bag fees waived. When word spread that Brett was an American going to play for the Tiburones in Venezuela, “Everyone is looking at me, taking pictures with me and I’m just so overwhelmed. I’m just a minor league baseball player! I’m seriously in awe. Baseball is their life over there. Baseball is everything to them.” He ended up buying his new friend some coffee and was soon on his way, but his eyes had been opened up to the culture of baseball in Latin America.

Upon his late arrival into Caracas, the first thing Brett noticed was the extremely heavy traffic. What he experienced that night was a common sight. Night or day, the traffic was awful. What would normally be a 30-minute commute in the United States could easily take three or four hours. Motorcycles flew between the cars and a tank of gas cost less than a dollar.

Brett made it to the dorm in San Joaquin at around 2:00 in the morning and was ushered into an open room that looked like a military barracks. “There’s like 30 bunk beds, so [about] 60 players were sleeping in there. It’s just open and everyone’s sleeping together. There’s no privacy, no bedrooms.”

After a standard 5:00 a.m. wake-up call, a bleary-eyed Phillips boarded a bus to head to the field. “Picture a school bus, but no yellow. It’s pimped out. It’s got a big old sound system and a TV in the front of the bus playing Spanish music videos. It’s like 6:00 in the morning and they’re blaring this Spanish music and it’s got this bass. It’s just blaring music and I’m dead from the night before.” He wasn’t having any of it at the time, but he had to get used to it because the music played continuously everywhere the bus went.

Brett described the field as pretty nice, but for one factor … the turf. “It had turf, but the turf wasn’t what our turf is. The turf had no rubber down. Usually the Astroturf has rubber down in the grass. It was basically just like carpet. So if you were going to dive, you’re going to burn your arms, so you had to go feet first if you’re going to dive for a ball.” But that wasn’t even the bad part. “When the sun was at its highest point, that turf got so hot that it would literally burn your feet. Your legs would be on fire. I don’t know how to explain it. It was so hot it made you more tired so quickly.”

But no matter the challenges, Phillips learned a lot by playing ball in the Liga Paralela. “The competition was good. For me, I’ve struggled [a little] with offspeed pitches like curveball, slider, changeup. And what they say is, ‘If you can’t hit a fastball, you go play in the Dominican because everyone there is going to throw 95-100. If you can’t hit an offspeed pitch, they said [to] go play in Venezuela for winter ball because they’re going to drop an offspeed pitch almost every pitch. You see more offspeed in an at-bat than you see fastballs.’ That’s what I was told when I went down to Venezuela. That was good for me, seeing the offspeed.”

It must have worked because Brett wasted no time in drawing attention to himself from the big league Venezuelan club. “I batted leadoff and third there and from the beginning played centerfield. [I] started hitting well and it took about a week or two to get noticed more by the big league team. They started watching me and I ended up being able to go up [to the big league club] for a few games to hit BP and to watch the game in the dugout. Before I had to leave [for a family emergency], I think I was so close to getting called up. That’s what they were talking to me about.” [Note: In my interview with Jeff Luhnow from November, he indicated that there definitely was interest in Phillips for the big league club.]

I asked Brett about some of the Latin players who played alongside him on the Tiburones team and he responded, “The Venezuelan players were all so nice to me. A couple of them actually took me to the mall to hang out. Good guys. All around good guys. They treated me like they treated each other over there. I wasn’t singled out. I think they kind of clung to me once they saw the laugh. They all thought that was the funniest thing ever. They’d never seen anything like that. Every time we’d be in the dorm, they’d try to get me to laugh. It was fun. [Note: Brett is known to have a laugh akin to the sound a dying donkey might make.] I didn’t single myself out to the Americans. I didn’t stay away from the Venezuelans. I went in there open-minded about everything and my experience there was good. I don’t have any complaints about that at all.”

We talked a little bit more about the challenges of living in Venezuela. “First of all, the power will shut off whenever it wants in this town. The whole town, the power will go out for five to six hours. One day we had it out for nine hours. It will shut off in the dorm and then the dorm gets really hot and the WIFI’s off.” The players could live with no electricity and no hot water in the showers, but intermittent WIFI was probably the worst issue that they had to deal with on a daily basis because WIFI represented a lifeline to their homes and families. That was something that Pitching Coach Don Alexander apparently understood. As Brett put it, “Donnie, the Pitching coach, he was in charge of everything down there. He had stressed to the Tiburones that the WIFI had to be on for us no matter what it took. We just needed it. He took care of us. He did everything for us. If we needed something, he took care of it. He’s a good guy.”

The accommodations may sound a little rugged, but after staying in a nice hotel for a few days at one point, Brett couldn’t wait to go back to the dorm. “Me and [Jamaine] Cotton decided we wanted to move back because we could have stayed at the nice hotel, but [we] were getting the experience part of it and we wanted to move back with the Venezuelan guys so we could learn better Spanish.” Plus, as Brett explains it, there was nowhere to go out around the hotel and back at the dorm, “We could go out with the Venezuelan guys, talk with them, mess around, hang out, so we decided to move back.”

Aside from traffic, Astro turf, blaring music and rustic living conditions, there were a couple of real issues to overcome. The two biggest issues to be faced were probably food and crime. With the emphasis on good nutrition for athletes, the lack of much in the way of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis will likely need to be addressed. The food was plentiful, but was generally the same thing day in and day out. “Breakfast was a piece of bread and an egg and a piece of ham. That was basically every breakfast. Lunch was either chicken and rice or beef and rice and then dinner would be the opposite.” Several of the players struggled with stomach problems at one time or another and Brett ended up losing significant weight.

The other issue has to do with the incidence of crime in a relatively poor country such as Venezuela. Brett talked to me about this as well. “There’s going to be crime. You have to go over there and respect how they live. You have to put yourself in safe situations because anything could happen there that could happen here. You just have to respect the way they live and not put yourself in a situation where you’re going to get hurt. You just have to be smart.”

When I interviewed Luhnow, he told me that the safety of the players is the team's top priority and their goal is to provide that safety while still ensuring a rich cultural experience. Brett thinks the front office will likely change a few things before sending American players there again next year, mainly adjusting the food situation and tightening security, but he noted, “All in all, I think a few things will change but not much. Because going over there, wanting to play baseball … that’s your main focus. [You’re going] to get an experience that you’re never probably going to have [again] so you’re going over there knowing you’ll live how they live.” The experience of living in the dorm with the Latin players was an important part of the experience for Brett and that is one thing that he wouldn't change.

Venezuela can be difficult and it’s not for everyone, but Brett seems to have approached the experience from the right frame of mind. “Luhnow sent Americans to the Dominican and [on] this Venezuela trip, first of all to interact and get that aspect of the game and second of all, [to show] us what those Latin guys go through when they come over to the United States. The living conditions might be a little different, but they’re coming over here blind. They’re coming over here not knowing any English and it just makes me appreciate more where these guys are coming from and how they’re going about their business, how they are when they’re over here and it makes me appreciate them more. And definitely going over there, it opens your eyes. The living conditions – they are what they are.”

When asked about his experience in Venezuela, he says without hesitation, “I would do it again.” And he has some advice for those who may be charged with blazing the trail just a little bit further next winter, “You’re going over there for one thing … to play baseball.” He goes on to say, “It’s not going to be glamorous. You’re going to go over there and suck it up and you’re going to play baseball and you’re going to be open-minded about the experience.”

Tomorrow, I check in by email with three of the other players who participated in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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