He can hear his country calling him home, and Melvin Mora is beginning to listen. The turmoil, the poverty, the dying: He feels it all. He longs to do something for Venezuela, to lift his people out of their anguish. His country needs a leader to unite a fractured people, and it's not that Mora really wants to be president. It's just that he may have no other choice.
"I don't dream of being president. I just dream of fixing the problem," Mora says. "I'm the kind of guy, I like to fix problems. And this is a major problem we have. I want to find a way to fix the country, and I think the only way to fix the country is to be on the top, the president.
"I've been thinking about [running]. But now is not the time."
Well, it is probably not the time. Not when you are 32 and in the prime of your baseball career. Not when the Baltimore Orioles have given you a three-year, $10.5 million contract and asked you to be their starting third baseman after a career spent moving around the diamond like a vagabond. And not when you have a wife and six children -- including 32-month-old quintuplets -- living comfortably and safely in the Baltimore suburbs.
No, it is probably not the time. But the thought has crossed Mora's mind. Asked if he thinks he could win the presidency right now, he smiles sheepishly. He wonders the same thing himself.
"My sister says [yes]. I think maybe," he says. "I have a lot of fame there. I don't know why, to be honest with you." Besides, Mora thinks he has at least one other thing going for him, in addition to the fame: He would not have the stigma attached to many politicians, that of a hustler trying to get rich from graft and corruption.
"Because," he says, "I'm already rich."
So if not now, then when? Mora thinks it will be at least six years, maybe more, before he seriously contemplates a run -- after his playing days, after he goes back to school. In the meantime, he has another dream: that the cries he hears now, the ones that call him home to save his country, will have stopped by then.
"By that time, maybe my country is good," he says, "and you can go back there and have a job and be able to walk down the street and not be scared to be shot."
That place -- that peaceful, thriving, united Venezuela -- does not exist now. It went away along with the jobs, the economy and the political stability.
Under embattled president Hugo Chavez, the unemployment rate is at 20 percent and the poverty rate at 70 percent. A recall effort by Chavez's opponents drew 3.4 million signatures, although the recall referendum is now in the hands of Venezuela's legal system. Skirmishes between government forces and opposition protesters pop up all over the country.
"My country is divided," Mora says. "I don't like the people trying to kill each other. It hurts me. . . . We've had a bad situation in the past, but nothing like now. Before, everyone was together. But now the country is divided in two groups -- Chavez and the others."
Asked which side he supports, Mora shakes his head.
"I'm with nobody," he says. "I'm with the people of Venezuela."
Mora met Chavez once, playing catch with him at Shea Stadium in New York in 1999, when Mora played for the Mets on their drive to the National League pennant and Chavez, following a prison term for attempting to stage a coup, was the newly elected president of Venezuela.
But Mora has not seen or spoken to Chavez since, and it is probably just as well. You do not want to trumpet your allegiances too loudly these days in Venezuela.
"You cannot say nothing about nobody, because you might get shot," he says. "You have to stay quiet, just pray to God every day."
So let's say Mora decided to put his idea into motion. How conceivable is it that a man with no political background, no schooling beyond high school and no stated political party could run successfully for a high office in Venezuela, perhaps even the presidency?
"It's possible, only because there is such a vacuum in the leadership of the opposition movement in Venezuela," said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. "But I think it would be very difficult for this person to go back and become a major political actor instantaneously.
"He needs to prepare himself. He needs to know a little about economics, about politics, about history. And he needs to link himself to the political situation there now. He can't just show up and say, 'Here's this famous baseball player -- vote for him.' "
Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the president of the Venezuelan Baseball League and a former congressman who once served as president of Venezuela's lower house, knows Mora from his years playing in Venezuela's winter league and believes Mora could have a successful political career.
"Melvin is a popular figure here," says Aveledo. "He's someone about whom we feel a lot of pride, not just in his region, but the whole country. If he thinks that after his playing career, he would like to become a politician, I see no reason why he could not be very successful."
Could he be president? "If he comes back to his country and prepares himself, I'm sure he will have many opportunities to move up," Aveledo says. "He would have a chance."
However, Omar Daal, Mora's countryman and Orioles teammate, ranks Mora's popularity in Venezuela behind that of fellow baseball players Andres Galarraga ("Nobody compares to Galarraga," Daal says), Magglio Ordonez and Bobby Abreu, and he scoffs when asked if Mora could be elected president.
"Oh, come on," Daal says. "He's big there -- he smiles, he makes the plays, he's good with people. But it's not like that."
Although Mora's dream is little more than that right now, he is serious enough about politics to have found an historical model to emulate and to have read about: former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
"The way he fixed New York," Mora says, "is amazing. I read a book about him this winter. My dream is to meet Giuliani. I'm a fan of his. Look at what he did after 9/11. Everyone was united."
From Giuliani, Mora learned that the keys to prosperity are creating jobs and stopping crime, ideas that go hand-in-hand.
"When you don't have no jobs and you have a baby, you want to steal something to feed your baby," he says. "But when you have jobs, that is not a problem for you. I've seen many people die, people shooting each other. And if you are able to control the crime, you'll be able to fix the country. I've been talking to a lot of people there. People are moving away because they're scared of what's going to happen. We have to bring those people back."
Can Venezuela bring Mora back as well? This winter, when he went home to Valencia -- a working-class city about 100 miles southwest of Caracas -- for about two weeks to visit family, he went by himself. He removed all his jewelry. He tried not to draw too much attention to himself. And he was still scared.
"You cannot go outside [wearing] a ring or a chain," he says. "They don't just take it away from you. They kill you."
The problem tears at Mora's heart. To be president, he would have to move back to Venezuela. But he wants his children to grow up in America, where it is safe and where his wife -- Gisel, a New York native who shares his admiration of Giuliani -- is from.
"I think I can make a difference in my country," he says softly. "But you have to think about what you have here. My kids are American."
And Mora does not want those children to suffer the same fate as himself. When he was 7, his father was shot and killed outside their house by men who, as it turned out, were looking for someone else. Mora's father died in his arms.
The boy would grow up to be famous, first in his country and then beyond. He would come to understand suffering and death, even as his own experience in America, built around baseball and babies, came to include fabulous wealth and bounteous life.
And then his country began to call him home, and he began to listen.
It's not that Melvin Mora wants to be president. It's just that maybe some day he will find that Venezuela needs him to come home more than he wants to stay.