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Players Fear For Their Families in Venezuela

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2004; Page D01

BALTIMORE -- With high profiles and contracts that afford them riches unavailable to many of their countrymen in strife-torn Venezuela, major league baseball players and their families have become increasingly concerned about becoming targets for theft and kidnapping after the recent abduction of the mother of Detroit Tigers closer Ugueth Urbina.

"It worries me," Minnesota Twins star pitcher Johan Santana, born in Tovar Merida, said in Spanish. "It worries all of the Venezuelans that live there. The situation has turned ugly."


URBINA

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There were 45 Venezuelans on Opening Day rosters this season, according to Major League Baseball. The Baltimore Orioles have three: Roberto Machado, Melvin Mora and Jorge Julio. Urbina helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series last fall and signed with Detroit as a free agent this spring. He has earned about $8 million the past two seasons. After his mother, Maura Villareal, was kidnapped from her home near Caracas by armed gunmen on Sept. 1, Urbina -- who leads Detroit with 21 saves -- immediately flew home and reportedly has been handling ransom demands.

"When people see what is going on with the situation with Ugueth, that's a very frightening thing for anybody," said Chris Leible, an agent for Peter G. Greenberg & Associates, which represents 51 Venezuelan major and minor league players, including Urbina. "The players are concerned for Ugueth and for their own families. Any human being would feel the same way."

Said Julio, who is from Caracas, "Like everybody, I'm scared of that."

This is not the first time relatives of wealthy foreign pro athletes have been the targets of kidnappers in their homeland. In the mid-1990s, at least a half dozen Russian players in the NHL reportedly were extortion targets. In 1996, the mother of NHL player Oleg Tverdovsky was kidnapped and held for 11 days before being freed by police. The kidnappers had demanded $200,000.

It was not so long ago when Mora believed such a thing would not happen in his home country, which he considers a sumptuous place, a haven offering riches to those who worked for it.

"It's a beautiful place, but the people have destroyed it," Mora said.

A quarter-century of economic decline and recent political upheaval have changed Venezuela. The country has a 15 percent unemployment rate and the division between the wealthy and poor is considerable. Oil accounts for about 80 percent of the country's export earnings, but the political turmoil has damaged the oil industry.

The country is on a record crime pace, with a 150 percent increase in kidnappings and a 124 percent increase in homicides over the past five years, the newspaper El Universal reported.

"Baseball players that are visible are easy targets," said Moises Naim, a Venezuelan-born economist who is editor of the journal Foreign Policy. "When you have a son or a brother that has made it to the big leagues everybody assumes he's wealthy and then becomes a target."

Naim said that many players come from poor neighborhoods and still have family members living in dangerous places: "Crime in Venezuela has affected the poor more than anyone else. It is in the barrios where they lack police service."

"It's very hard to protect individuals. Everybody is vulnerable. And even if you protect your immediate family, what do you do with your uncles, cousins or wife's family?"

President Hugo Chavez survived a recall referendum in August, but his precarious presidency has been marred by violence and economic troubles. Chavez has vowed to return power to the impoverished, but his populist, pro-Cuba policies have provoked fierce opposition from much of Venezuela's middle class and business leaders. Violence has erupted periodically between anti-Chavez demonstrators and Venezuelans who ardently support him.


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