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."
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.
The baseball players refuse to choose sides, perhaps fearing retribution from an opposing group, but they are targets because of their newfound wealth.
"The money helps," Mora said, "but it brings you a lot of problems."
In the winter of 2002, Mets outfielder Richard Hidalgo, also represented by Greenberg & Associates, was shot outside of a friend's home in Valencia. Two men approached Hidalgo while he was in his truck and asked him to relinquish the vehicle. Frightened, Hidalgo quickly stepped on the gas pedal. Though he escaped, Hidalgo was shot in the left forearm.
Hidalgo, who lived in Venezuela during the offseason prior to the attack, now spends most of his winters in Florida. When he visits Venezuela, usually only for a couple of weeks, he hires bodyguards. Even then, Hidalgo has said he doesn't feel safe.
The players are aware that they are exorbitantly wealthy by Venezuelan standards. They can afford necessities that in Venezuela have become luxuries.
"If you don't have money for medicine, you die," said Machado, from Puerto Cabello. "And for such a rich country, that's inconceivable. We should try to strengthen the entire economy of Venezuela and help those who need it the most."
Once proud neighborhoods have turned into slums. Mora said the neighborhood in his home town of Aqua Negra was a poor and desolate place, but residents used their meager earnings to improve their community. Mora no longer sees that resourcefulness. Instead, Mora said, citizens have become disillusioned and resigned. Mora speaks with austerity, a soul withered by too many deaths, too much despair and too little hope.
"Everybody has a gun," Mora said. "Everybody has a knife."
Mora has known friends who have been murdered. His brother, Jose, was shot and killed in a contract killing two years ago. He believes his family still living in Venezuela is in constant danger. Mora tried to convince his 64-year-old mother to move to the United States, but she refused, preferring to stay where her life was cast and where her terminally ill mother ails. But Mora fears his mother prefers to stay because of apathy and not pride.
"My mother doesn't care anymore," Mora said. "She's been through a lot of things. Whoever wants to get her, it doesn't matter to her anymore."
The players advise their families to remain anonymous, avoid suspicious places and individuals.
"You have to be careful," Santana said. "You always have to be watching."
The players say they will continue to visit Venezuela in the offseason, and though they admit to being scared, they refuse to hire bodyguards and instead put their faith in their beliefs.
"When you're with God, you don't need those things," Julio said.