The traces of blue and black ink peeked out from under the athletic tape wrapped around Wilson Ramos’s left wrist. Each time Ramos stabbed at a pitch Tuesday morning, during the Nationals’ first official workout of spring training, the ball settled softly in his catcher’s mitt and the tattoo on his forearm moved ever so slightly toward his heart.
The tattoo is a Bible verse in Spanish, Philippians 4:13, that Ramos translated as, “I put everything in Jesus, because he has my back.” Under the words is 11-11-11, the date Venezuelan commandoes rescued him from the men who approached him outside of his home, pointed guns at his head and kidnapped him.
“I feel like I’m living again,” Ramos said. “I’ve got a new life.”
Ramos came to Nationals spring training to start his second major league season and to further separate his misfortune from his career, to separate his recent past from his bright future. Ramos expressed gratitude that he had survived the ordeal and confidence that it would not affect his baseball career.
His first task Tuesday was catching Stephen Strasburg’s first side session of the camp. After 10 minutes, Strasburg had thrown his allotment of fastballs and changupes, and he walked to meet Ramos between the plate and the mound. They shook hands and half-hugged. “Attaboy, Stephen,” Ramos told him.
Upon his arrival at spring training, the Nationals did not formally address the kidnapping with Ramos. They already received him in Washington back in November, shortly after his rescue, and then administered a full medical check-up. Tuesday, they wanted to let him move on.
Manager Davey Johnson’s only reference to Ramos’s offseason came as Ramos caught pitches from Strasburg. Johnson sidled behind him and asked how much Ramos had played in the Venezuelan Winter League following the kidnapping, and Ramos responded he had played for about a month and a half.
“That’s indicative of, he’s more comfortable getting on the field rather than talking to you guys about the kidnapping,” Johnson said. “He wanted to get back in there and go play. It’s over with. And I’m sure it’s over with him.
“He’s dealt with that good. He’s in a good frame of mind. We were all scared to death, but I’m not one that deals too much in the past. I deal in the present. As far as I’m concerned, it’s history.”
Ramos did not hit well at first in Venezuela, but by the end he helped the Aragua Tigres win their playoff series. It was an important step in recovering. For Ramos, playing in Venezuela after the kidnapping – which he did under the protection of armed guards – allowed him a degree of mental stability.
“I tried to clear my mind with baseball,” Ramos said. “If I stayed in my house, I was thinking too much.”
In a country plagued by crime and kidnappings, Ramos became the first major league player to be abducted. The challenge of returning to professional baseball after such an episode, performing under high pressure before thousands and thousands, will be something for which there is no precedent.
In one recent winter, Nationals backup catcher Jesus Flores, who is also Venezuelan, was carjacked at gunpoint in Venezuela. “I couldn’t play well for a week or two weeks,” Flores said. “His situation was harder, more difficult. It was more mental.”
Flores went home this winter to play winter ball, and even before Ramos was kidnapped Flores traveled with a bodyguard.
“It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be protected,” Flores said. “I’m not really going out or doing too much on the street because of the situation.
“It could happen to anybody. The security is very bad. It’s a very dangerous country right now. Wilson, I thought that he wasn’t going to be alive after that situation. We were thinking the worst. We were thinking the worst.”
After two harrowing days, Ramos emerged, safe and unharmed. His life had changed forever, and not only in bad ways. His family, as families do, had grown divided before the men took him. The incident united his family again, he said, and his brother, sister and mother are attaining visas to visit him.
Ramos’s teammates this weekend greeted him with hugs and smiles when they saw him in the clubhouse. They told him how great it was to see him – “everybody is telling me that,” Ramos said – but they do not directly mention the kidnapping.
“They know I don’t want to talk about that,” Ramos said. “I just want to concentrate on baseball and help my team.”
When he jogged across a matrix of backfields Tuesday morning and squatted behind the plate in the bullpen, Ramos put another layer between him and his kidnapping. During a drill designed to improve framing pitches, Ramos dropped a ball. Bullpen coach Nilson Robledo hollered, “Good glove!”
“Thank you, Robledo,” Ramos said, laughing.
“Need some bubblegum on there,” bullpen coach Jim Lett teased.
Ramos finished the workout with batting practice. He focused on shortening the path of his bat, which Johnson had talked to him about. “He looked good doing it,” Johnson said. After Ramos sprayed easy line drives, he walked out of the batting cage and packed his things.
Ramos hopped on the back of a golf cart for the ride back to the clubhouse and chuckled as he drove by two familiar faces. When he stopped laughing, he looked to his left, at the empty baseball field, and the smile stayed on his face.