Luis Bolivar won’t be celebrating the Fourth of July with his family today.
The Dayton Dragons manager will be with his team down in Kentucky for a game tonight against the Bowling Green Hot Rods. His family — wife Kelly and children Kamryn, Luisa, Zoey and Enzo — will be back in Vandalia.
But that’s not to say Bolivar doesn’t understand and appreciate the holiday and celebrate it in his daily life. In fact — because of what’s now happening in his Venezuelan homeland — this day resonates more than ever with him.
His is an immigrant-makes-good story with a catch — be it a ground ball, a pop fly or a hard, one-hopper.
Bolivar came to Dayton in 2003 as a versatile 22-year-old Cincinnati Reds minor leaguer out of Maracay, Venezuela.
Although he had played 50 games for the Reds rookie league team in Sarasota the year before, he knew very little English — something he would soon change — and nothing about the Miami Valley.
One night in his first season with the Dragons he spotted 24-year-old Kelly Collins sitting four rows behind the dugout. In an out-of-character move, he waved and caught her attention.
She had grown up in Vandalia, graduated from Butler High School and was working in West Milton while raising her 2-year-old daughter, Kamryn, as a single mom. It was her first Dragons game ever. She had won the tickets at work.
»LOOKING BACK: A baseball story, a ‘love story’ for Dragons manager
After the game Luis and Kelly tried talking — she in English, he in Spanish — and as he told me a few years ago with a heartfelt twist of an old saying:
“It was love at first saw her.”
They married on the beach at Siesta Key during spring training in 2004.
Bolivar thinks that just he and Mark Armstrong — the Buffalo product who pitched for the Dragons in 2015 and is now the baseball coach at Shawnee High School — are the only former Dayton players to marry local women and settle here after their playing days ended.
As Bolivar moved up the baseball ladder in a minor league career that included 962 games — 282 at the Triple A level — he and Kelly made Vandalia their home.
He returned to the team as the hitting coach in 2014 — and became manager three years later — and remains the only Dragons player to come back to the club in such a leadership position.
Eventually, he decided to become a United States citizen.
“That was something I totally left up to him,” Kelly said. “If he wanted to become a citizen, I was fully supportive of that and if he didn’t, I was OK with that, too. But as time went on, it meant more and more to him to say he was a citizen here.”
As he sat in his clubhouse quarters at Fifth Third Field the other afternoon, Bolivar explained: “I had sunk my roots here. My wife is American. My kids are American. And I thought it was very important for them that I became an American citizen, too.
“I respect the people here, the culture here and wanted to be a part of it.”
He went through the long process to citizenship — including the test on government and history and the interviews, both alone and with Kelly — and finally on June 15, 2017, dressed in a sharp-looking suit, surrounded by other candidates from around the world and with his “adrenaline pumping,” he took part in the naturalization ceremony at the federal courthouse in downtown Dayton.
When he turned around afterward, he was stunned to see his family and friends had been joined by his entire Dragons team, all who cheered him.
“That was pretty emotional,” he admitted. “I never expected the players to be there. I was super excited and I felt very proud.”
That night at the Dragons game — when it was announced he had become a citizen earlier in the day — the crowd at Fifth Third Field gave him a standing ovation.
Thinking of family back home
Bolivar said he especially appreciates his dual citizenship in light of what’s happening back home.
Venezuela has been hit with its most severe economic and political crisis in recent memory.
President Nicolas Maduro got re-elected to a second term last year in what almost everyone — including the Organization of American States — called a “rigged election.”
Although Maduro is supported by Russia, China and, so far, the Venezuelan military, a recent Datincorp poll said he has just a 10 percent approval rating among the Venezuelan people.
Opposition leader Jun Guaido — supported by the U.S., Canada, most other western nations and even Venezuela’s own National Assembly — invoked the constitution in January and declared himself the nation’s interim president. But the insurgency faltered in late April.
Maduro’s government has cracked down on Guaido allies. Hundreds of people have been jailed and many more have just disappeared.
Four days ago it was revealed that Navy captain Rafael Acosta Arevalo, jailed for his supposed involvement in the opposition campaign, died in custody.
Venezuelan human rights leaders said he was beaten and tortured.
Those abuses are bookended by an economic collapse that includes rampant inflation, an upsurge of desperate looting and theft and daily power outages throughout much of the country.
Rights groups say nearly five million people have fled the country and the United Nations said seven million Venezuelans need emergency humanitarian aid.
Kelly noted: “For a while the government refused to issue visas or passports allowing people to leave.”
Bolivar said his parents, his sister and one of his brothers still lives in Venezuela and his youngest brother left for Peru in hopes of “finding a better future.’
He said his family is “just being very, very careful every day. Everybody’s been impacted, but fortunately we’ve been able to help my parents a little. But it’s still hard for them to find food and when they do it’s triple the price it used to be. “
Kelly said the situation weighs on the entire family: “We pray a lot for their safety and hope eventually things will turn around.”
Embracing life in Miami Valley
Since coming to the Miami Valley, Bolivar has embraced all facets of his life – from baseball to community to family.
A good example of that came Tuesday morning.
He hadn’t gotten home from a seven-day road trip until 3 am, but later that morning he took all four of his four kids to a Huber Heights movie theater to see Toy Story 4.
And no one was more excited about it than 4-year-old Enzo who Luis said was “all dressed up in his baseball uniform…He loves baseball.”
The family often comes to Dragons games and sometimes Enzo gets to accompany his dad onto the field and into the dugout and clubhouse.
“Luis is really good about juggling baseball and family,” Kelly said. “And after he does his time at the field, he comes home, leaves his baseball at the ballpark and is ready for dad duty.”
In the offseason Bolivar is an instructor at Academy Sports Training in Troy. He also gives inspirational speeches to schools and civic groups.
“He didn’t come up with a lot and yet he was able to work really hard and get where he is,” Kelly said. “He wants to show kids – adults, too – it doesn’t matter where you came from or the obstacles you faced. I always feel he’s making an impact somewhere.”
Bolivar said” “With the recession at home, I just appreciate the opportunities and freedoms I have here.”
At his naturalization ceremony, he wasn’t given a fancy proclamation or a nice plaque.
“It was just a paper that states his citizenship and congratulated him,” Kelly said. “With that he could get a passport and be able to vote.
“I think we’ll have to get that piece of paper framed and hung up, so people can see he’s a citizen.”
While that would be nice, it’s not necessary.
Luis Bolivar already shows that in so many ways.
He celebrates the Fourth of July every day.
Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.