While Venezuela battles, Emerald Jhonny Bethencourt fights for his family on the baseball field
Baseball was never just a sport to Jhonny Bethencourt—it was a way of life. Since the age of 4, he dreamed of playing major league baseball. Born in Venezuela in 1997, Bethencourt grew up in the city of Pampatar on Isla de Margarita. Years of local competition led him to the South American tryouts held by MLB clubs.
“I fought a lot to get signed—for almost two years,” Bethencourt said. “I was getting to the end. I was going to quit.”
In the biggest moment of his young career, a scout from the Chicago Cubs was watching him. He rose to the occasion.
“I hit a couple of home runs,” Bethencourt said. “I ran a 6.5 [in the 60 yard dash], and then our boss came up to me in the middle of the tryout and said, ‘They’re going to sign you.’ I just was like, ‘wow.’”
Soon after, the Chicago Cubs signed Bethencourt to a minor league contract in 2015. His journey to the MLB officially began.
Yet even as he’s set out on his journey to the MLB, and now as a second baseman for the Eugene Emeralds, his home and his family are always on his mind.
“It’s really hard not seeing my family,” Bethencourt said. “I get goosebumps when I talk about them. But I’m playing here for them. They’re my motivation.”
He especially misses his two younger brothers. Both are soccer players with dreams of going pro, and Bethencourt wants to inspire them. He talks to his family as much as he can, and they’re also able to stream his games.
“Thank God for the phones and internet,” he said.
While being away from home can take a toll on anyone, Venezuelans abroad, like Bethencourt, are dealing with a particularly tough hand. Starting in 2014, the country is embroiled in a near-constant series of protests and riots, spurred on by poverty, government corruption and urban violence. In the past three months alone, at least 90 people have been killed in the rioting, with over 3,000 more detained.
“You are not safe there,” Bethencourt said. “I’m always praying for them, for nothing bad to happen to my family.”
Being in America, he says, is a constant reminder how dangerous things back home are.
“You’re just safe everywhere,” Bethencourt said. “I can walk home at night and not worry. In Venezuela, if you do that, anything can happen.”
While he’s always wanted to make his family proud, the turmoil in Venezuela has added a sense of urgency to his play.
“I’m trying my hardest to move up as quickly as I can,” Bethencourt said. “I want to get them out, to bring them here or another country.”
It’s a sentiment shared by his teammate and fellow Venezuelan Gustavo Polanco, who also tries to focus on his play while remembering why he’s in America.
“It’s no secret about what’s happening in my country,” Polanco says. “I’m here for my family. They tell me to keep focused on my play, and that they are OK. I still worry, but I’m playing for them.”
Bethencourt’s career with the Cubs organization began in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2015. The then 18-year-old second baseman made an immediate impact at the plate, posting 69 hits in the 61 games he played. Bethencourt finished the season batting .319 with a healthy on-base-percentage of .410. Those numbers made him the third-best hitter in the league, as well as the best batter on the Venezuelan Summer League Cubs.
After his strong rookie showing, Bethencourt was assigned to the Arizona League Cubs for the 2016 season. He struggled in his American debut and his batting average fell to .235.
For Bethencourt, new competition wasn’t the only challenge he faced. At 19, he was in a new country with a new language to learn.
“It was hard in the beginning, and I didn’t speak English well when I came here,” Bethencourt said. “I knew some basic things from high school, but not much.”
Listening to him now, it’s hard to believe that Bethencourt barely spoke English a little over a year ago. Occasionally he’ll take a moment to find the right word, but he speaks with confidence. He learned most of his English through classes offered by the Cubs organization.
“The English classes here were really good,” Bethencourt said. He also had help from another less academic source.
“I had a girlfriend in Arizona,” he continued. “She spoke English, so I had to learn.”
Fortunately for both Bethencourt and the club that signed him, 2016 turned out to be a strong year. Bethencourt has been electric in his first season with the Class-A Eugene Emeralds. His batting average is up to .308 for the season, placing him at 18th in the league.
That batting average is the product of a renewed focus on pregame routine, a change Bethencourt hopes will aid his rise through the Cubs’ organization.
“The preparation for the game, it’s the most important thing,” Bethencourt said. “My routine in the cages, the BP, I try to put my best there. If I can’t do that, then I can’t just go in the game and hit.”
According to Bethencourt, the routine is all about quality over quantity. This ensures that he never exerts himself too much before a game, he says. The routine itself starts out with a one-handed-swings with a short training bat, a tried and true way to improve control at the plate. He follows that with full bat swings, mainly focusing on hitting the ball down the middle, and then the routine is finished.
“It’s more psychological,” he said. “It gets me in the zone.”
Bethencourt’s performances makes him a regular presence in the Emeralds’ lineup, and his comfort in that role is clear. He has a relaxed demeanor both on and off the field, and is quick to smile and laugh. “I’m always trying to make my team laugh,” Bethencourt said.
A big source of that comfort comes from Jesus Feliciano, the Emerald’s manager. Originally from Puerto Rico, Feliciano’s heritage and Spanish helps put players like Bethencourt at ease.
“It’s nice, even though I can speak English with the other coaches and I speak it with him too,” Bethencourt said. “But it’s more comfortable for me because he’s Latino too.”
Having been through a similar experience as his players, Feliciano understands the challenges that come with being in a new place. He was drafted in 1997 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and spent most of his career in the team’s farm system.
“It’s something that you have to make the adjustment to,” Feliciano said of playing in the United States. “You’re trying to make your dream come true since you were little, especially guys that come out of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, they grow up watching the big leagues. It’s a huge challenge and they’re taking it the right way.”
While Bethencourt has hit his stride in Eugene this season, he has a long way to go before completing his journey to the MLB. On average, only 10 percent of minor league players will make it to the majors. Bethencourt knows this, but has resolved to focus on his own play.
“I want to keep playing hard, hitting the ball hard, and keep my routine,” Bethencourt said. “Control the things I can control, you know?”
Even with such a focused mindset, there are still days when Bethencourt worries for his family or wishes he could watch more of his younger brothers’ soccer matches. Ultimately, however, his passion for baseball keeps his outlook positive.
“I love this game,” Bethencourt said. “I’m lucky to be playing here.”
Follow Aaron Alter on Twitter @aaronalter95