Venezuela baseball attracts MLB players despite Wilson Ramos kidnapping

November 16, 2011

On Tuesday, Wilson Ramos pulled on his Aragua Tigers uniform in Maracay, Venezuela, and took batting practice, a mundane act that had taken on new significance. During the lowest points of his kidnapping ordeal — the time he spent in captivity between his abduction the night of Nov. 9 and rescue 51 hours later — Ramos wondered if he would ever play baseball again.

As the catcher for the Washington Nationals returned to drills, Major League Baseball’s general managers convened in Milwaukee and, as part of their annual meetings, discussed player safety in Venezuela. Ramos’s case brought new urgency to an issue the league has long grappled with: How can the league protect players and other employees in a baseball-crazed country whose kidnapping and crime rates make it one of the most dangerous places in the world?

MLB officials believe Ramos is the first major league player to have been abducted, but Venezuela’s rash of kidnappings has directly affected players’ families in the past.

Even so, that has not prevented hundreds of players — American and Venezuelan, experienced major leaguers and hopeful minor leaguers — from traveling to Venezuela to play winter ball. And, even after Ramos’s own ordeal, it will not stop him from playing this winter.

Ramos could begin playing in games next week, perhaps Tuesday, Aragua Tigers spokesman Manuel Rodriguez said. First, though, the Nationals will bring him to Washington for a physical and emotional evaluation.

“Wilson is determined,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He wants to play several games there. But we are going to get him to Washington. We want to give him a full physical from our medical people, and then determine what we’ll do after that.”

While Ramos’s case brought new attention to the dangers of Venezuela for ballplayers, MLB has devoted resources to the issue for years. In 2005, the mother of Venezuelan relief pitcher Ugueth Urbina was kidnapped in the country, and the case persuaded Commissioner Bud Selig to create a task force devoted to the issue.

During the Urbina case, Joel Rengifo Añez, the former head of the Venezuelan police force dedicated to dealing with kidnappings, worked closely with MLB. While working for the government, his reputation earned him the nickname, “The Legend.” He so impressed MLB that it hired him, first as a consultant and now as the full-time head of a unit in Venezuela that includes eight part-time investigators.

When Ramos was taken last week, Rengifio was the first person called by the league’s Department of Investigations. MLB officials believe Rengifo’s precision and numerous contacts led to rapid breakthroughs in the case that helped ensure Ramos’s ultimate safety.

[Wednesday, Venezuelan authorities formally charged eight suspects — six accused of participating in the abduction and two charged as accomplices for allegedly providing food to the group — in Ramos’s kidnapping, according to the Associated Press.]

Rengifo said the government’s quick resolution of Ramos’s kidnapping likely will deter other kidnappers who are considering going after ballplayers.

“The state had to give this kind of response because this was a major league player,” Rengifo said. “If they let this take place, then they ran the risk of other Wilson Ramoses happening. This was a message to the criminals: Do not mess with these people or you will create problems for yourself.”

Still, Rengifo said that security officials in the Venezuelan league are holding talks with players to tell them how to best avoid trouble.

“We talk to them about prevention,” he said. “And we tell them not to flash or talk about money, to go out in groups, to be respectful to people.”

He said, though, that in some of the poor neighborhoods where ballplayers come from they can instantly attract attention. Once a ballplayer makes it, either in the United States or some other foreign league, people know they have come into money.

“Some come from poor barrios and they are seen with envy,” Rengifo said. “Why? Because they have a car with the big stereo system and so those who cannot get ahead see them with envy.”

According to MLB, 274 Venezuelans have played in the major leagues and many times that number have played in the minors. The first Venezuelan major league player, Alejandro Carrasquel, pitched for the Washington Senators in 1939.

Most return home during the offseason. In part it’s because they cannot take members of their extended families with them to the United States and want to see relatives. But they also return because the Venezuelan winter league’s 63-game season is highly competitive.

“It’s the best development league there is,” said Dan Radison, a former Nationals coach who also coached several years in Venezuela. “You got to Caracas, you’ve got 25,000 people [in the stands]. You play under pressure. . . . It definitely makes you a [better] ballplayer.”

Two million fans attend games each year, with about 18 million watching on television. The returning major leaguers are treated like heroes.

MLB said in the aftermath of Ramos’s abduction that it would continue to permit its ballplayers to compete in the Venezuelan league.

“I don’t think it changed,” Rizzo said. “I always knew that it was a place you had to be careful and watch where you’re going, and don’t take for granted that things are going to go smoothly. You send scouts there with it in mind that they return safely.”

Even before the Ramos abduction, however, some U.S. teams had begun to reduce their Venezuelan presence. A handful of teams have abandoned baseball academies there in recent years; only five teams now have one.

“We have not prohibited players from going down there, but we make them aware of what’s taken place,” Detroit Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski said. “It was a concern before, and it’s a concern now.”

Kilgore reported from Milwaukee; Forero reported from Valencia, Venezuela.

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