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Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos kidnapped in Venezuela

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Wilson Ramos, one of the Washington Nationals’ most promising young baseball players, was kidnapped at gunpoint Wednesday night from his family’s home in Venezuela, leaving the team in a state of shock and raising questions about the safety of playing in a country ravaged in recent years by kidnappings and street crime.

The 24-year-old Ramos, the starting catcher for the Nationals, had returned to his native country for the winter and planned to participate in roughly 10 games for his Venezuelan winter league team, the Aragua Tigers, starting Thursday.

He is one of the Nationals’ best players, a rookie this past season who supplanted likely future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, his childhood idol, as the Nationals’ regular catcher.

Wednesday evening, four armed men arrived at Ramos’s mother’s house in the Santa Ines sector of the central city of Valencia, and took Ramos away, according to multiple news reports out of Venezuela.

“It’s true, Wilson Ramos was kidnapped 40 minutes ago,” Katherine Vilera, spokeswoman for the Tigers, said in a statement Wednesday evening. She said that Venezuela’s judicial police, the CICPC, were investigating.

“The CICPC are up on this and were going to his house in Santa Ines,” she said. “They took him from his house.”

She added that the only details the Tigers knew were that the four men sped off with Ramos in a four-by-four vehicle.

The Caracas newspaper, El Universal, reported in its online edition that the kidnappers had driven past the Ramos home twice before finally stopping and forcing Ramos into the vehicle. The catcher and his family had been just outside the house, enjoying the early evening, when the gunmen arrived.

Ramos’s family had not established communication with the kidnappers as of late Wednesday, according to the reports.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen now,” said Enrique Brito, a longtime official in the Venezuelan winter league who is close with Ramos’s family. “It’s going to be bad for the culture, for the league, for everything. Wilson is one of the best players that we had. It’s bad. It’s real bad, for all Venezuelan people and fans. We are all shocked.”

The Nationals had not commented on the kidnapping as of late Wednesday night. Tigers President Rafael Rodriguez wrote on his Twitter account that he was in the Ramos home. “Prudence and moderation is important,” he wrote.

Kidnappings have become a scourge in Venezuela. Crime in general is a major concern for Venezuelans, who complain that under President Hugo Chavez’s government homicides and drug trafficking have flourished. Cocaine trafficking from Colombia through Venezuela is rife, Obama administration officials say, and big cities like Caracas have become among the most violent in Latin America.

In a crime and safety report this year, the U.S. Department of State described kidnappings in Venezuela as “a growing industry.” In 2009, according to an estimate in the report, “there was an alarming 9.2 incidents of kidnapping per 100,000 inhabitants in Venezuela.”

Dozens of Major League Baseball players and minor league players, from the United States and the Caribbean, play each year in the winter league in Venezuela, a baseball-rabid country that has produced stars such as Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez and Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera. Another Nationals catcher, backup Jesus Flores, also plays in the winter league there.

Brito wondered how the kidnapping would affect the future of the Venezuelan league, if it would prevent major leaguers from traveling to play in Venezuela. “It’s going to be tougher now, even for American players,” Brito said. “It’s going to be not good for the pastime here. It’s going to be real, real hard to come back with confidence and play baseball.”

Ramos is believed to be the most high-profile baseball player kidnapped in Venezuela, but the rash of abductions has touched the baseball world there before. In 2008, the brother of Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Henry Blanco was kidnapped and killed, his body found a day after he was taken. In 2009, Texas Rangers catcher Yorvit Torrealba paid a ransom to get his son back, and pitcher Victor Zambrano’s mother was rescued in a raid.

Many of the kidnappings that take place in the country are so-called “express” kidnappings, in which armed men drive a victim around and take money from him before releasing him. The Department of State crime and safety report stated that “groups that specialize in these types of crimes operate with impunity.”

“I bet you that they will ask him for money,” Brito said. “They all ask for money. I pray to the Lord that Wilson will be released soon.”

The Nationals acquired Ramos midway through the 2010 season when they traded closer Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins. Ramos has since emerged as part of the Nationals’ bedrock, a dazzling defensive catcher with a powerful bat. This year, his first full season, Ramos batted .267 with a .779 on-base plus slugging percentage and 15 home runs.

Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia.

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