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Pirates notebook: Rivero bringing awareness to unrest in Venezuela

| Tuesday, May 16, 2017, 6:30 p.m.
Pirates pitcher Felipe Rivero delivers in the first inning against the Diamondbacks on Saturday, May 13, 2017, in Phoenix.

In the Pirates clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, Felipe Rivero wore a black T-shirt with "Just a kid from Yaracuy" emblazoned on the front.

A promotional gift from a sports drink company, the shirt also is a reminder of the home and family Rivero hasn't seen in more than three years.

"I haven't been in Venezuela since 2014," Rivero said Tuesday. "I haven't seen my mom or my daughter. My dad, all I have of him is a photo. The last time I was there, things weren't that bad. When I got here (with the Pirates) is about the time that everything there started going crazy."

Although Venezuela sits atop the largest-known oil reserve in the world, its 31.9 million citizens are beset by runaway inflation, shortages of basic supplies and even starvation.

The economic crisis has sparked bloody street protests. A crackdown by President Nicolás Maduro has left more than 30 people dead.

"He doesn't care," Rivero said. "People are dying, and he's dancing on TV."

Rivero wrote "S.O.S Venezuela" on the back of his game cap and hung an Venezuelan flag — upside-down, an international signal of distress — at his locker at PNC Park.

There were 76 players from Venezuela on MLB active rosters opening day. Many of them, including Rivero and Francisco Cervelli, have raised awareness of their country's crisis via social media.

"Everybody started texting and posting," Rivero said. "Guys in other sports — basketball, football, soccer — are joining us."

Rivero knows tweets and texts alone will not heal his homeland.

"It's not going to be a one-day fix," Rivero said. "I'm not going to say that (Maduro) is going to be out, but I think that would be a better choice for my country. It can only get better if (Maduro) goes out. That's what the majority of the people want."

In the meantime, Rivero keeps tabs on his family via daily phone calls and tries to find clandestine ways to send them food and supplies.

"I talk to them every day, just to make sure they're fine and they have enough food," Rivero said. "I try not to worry about it too much when I'm working. It's been tough. I try not to take it on the field. After the game, I can worry about it."

Venezuela remains fertile ground for ballplayers, so MLB recently announced it will hold three showcase camps where amateur players can be scouted. The camps will be held outside of Venezuela.

Minor matters

Right-hander Mitch Keller left his start Tuesday for High-A Bradenton after one inning due to back tightness. Keller, whom Baseball America ranks as the club's No. 2 prospect, is 3-1 with a 2.93 in eight starts.

Bradenton shortstop Cole Tucker was named Florida State League player of the week. He hit .435 with three doubles, two triples and three homers and had a franchise-record seven-RBI game Friday.

The Pirates signed right-hander Hai-Cheng Gong as an international free agent. He will be assigned to the rookie-level team in Bradenton.

"We like how the arm works and see some growth potential with his secondary stuff, especially the changeup," assistant general manager Kyle Stark said via email.

This past spring, Gong, 18, pitched in one game for China in the World Baseball Classic.

Gong is the second player to sign out of the MLB development center in China. Outfielder Xu Guiyuan signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 2015.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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