VALENCIA, Venezuela — Police Thursday discovered the four-wheel-drive vehicle armed men used to kidnap Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos, an important clue that the country’s Justice Minister said could help authorities track down the young ballplayer a day after he was abducted from his family’s home.
The Ramos family had yet to hear from the kidnappers, a close family friend said. But a Venezuelan police Twitter feed reported without elaboration that Ramos is alive. “State law enforcement officials confirm ballplayer Ramos alive,” it said.
The Nationals and Major League Baseball said the league’s Department of Investigations was working in concert with Venezuelan authorities.
“Our foremost concern is with Wilson Ramos and his family and our thoughts are with them at this time,” MLB and the Nationals said in a joint statement. The statement said the ballclub and league had “been instructed to make no further comment.”
The vehicle was found in the town of Bejuma, about 25 miles west of this industrial city in central Venezuela, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami said.
“Right now, we are in an investigative phase, collecting evidence, to try to find him,” El Aissami said.
El Aissami made his comments just hours after the gunmen arrived at Ramos’s family’s home in the Santa Ines district of Valencia, forced him into their vehicle and sped away. The abduction of the 24-year-old catcher, a promising player who had recently returned to his homeland to play in the winter league, has garnered broad media attention in a country obsessed with its baseball stars and also painfully aware of the growing scourge of kidnappings and other violent crimes. Ramos’s salary is the league minimum, $415,000.
The justice minister said that evidence-collection teams had been at the scene of the abduction through the evening and that “the best kidnapping investigators” were searching for a lead that would take them to Ramos.
“We have the duty to find who is responsible and to rescue this countryman of ours, safe and sound,” El Aissami said.
Outside the Ramos family home, Gustavo Marcano, identified as the ballplayers’ agent, told reporters Thursday morning that the family has had no information and no contact with the abductors. “We have been waiting for information since 7 p.m.,” he said.
He said the kidnapping occurred about 7 p.m. when three suspects – on Wednesday others close to Ramos said it was four – arrived at the house. “Wilson was with his brother and father, and I understand that the car passed several times, checking things out,” he said. “And when they saw him outside, they took him away.”
Late Thursday morning, family friend Marfa Mata said on her Twitter account the family had yet to hear from the kidnappers and urged the public to stay calm.
“We don’t have any information,” wrote Mata, who helped Ramos adapt to the United States when he arrived here to play in the minor leagues for the Minnesota Twins. “The kidnapers haven’t called yet. Please, we must keep calm.”
The U.S. State Department is monitoring the case but has not been contacted by Venezuelan authorities or Major League Baseball, a State Department spokesman said. Ramos is not a U.S. citizen. “We are certainly aware of the case . . . monitoring it closely,” spokesman Mark Toner said.
Ramos’s kidnapping was a blow to the Venezuelan baseball league, which is in the midst of its winter season, when a number of Venezuelan players who are on Major League teams return to play in their homeland. The kidnapping of Ramos, the first of a Major League player here, led some Venezuelans to call for the suspension of at least Thursday’s games.
“Turning off the lights is not the solution,” Jose Grasso Vecchio, the president of the league. “The professional baseball league is not planning it.”
Grasso Vecchio said that players and administrators were “anguished and saddened” by what had happened. “We are praying for a quick resolution to this case,” he said, “and that he return safe and sound to his home.”
About a dozen players who played in the Nationals’ organization in 2011, mostly minor leaguers, remained in Venezuela, where they are playing for their winter ball teams.
Minor league pitcher Ryan Tatusko, one of the Nationals’ players in Venezuela, said the Nationals called him first thing Thursday morning to ensure he was safe. The Nationals are going to inform him “ASAP” if he’s staying or leaving the country, Tatusko said.
Kidnappings have become a growing problem 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.
Kilgore reported from Washington.