Saturday afternoon, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo sipped a cup of Starbucks coffee, trying to stay awake and to comprehend the previous 72 hours. The moment he learned that catcher Wilson Ramos had been kidnapped Wednesday night felt surreal to him, and that feeling had not faded, even after the euphoria that overcame him Friday night when Ramos came home.
“It’s like I can’t believe this experience happened,” Rizzo said in a phone conversation Saturday afternoon. “This one is not in the GM handbook.”
During the three-day saga, Rizzo acted in roles he could not have imagined when he became the Nationals’ general manager in 2009. He counseled the family of a player who had been abducted outside his home, and he spoke with investigators who kept him abreast of classified information pertinent to the case. It began with the initial shock when he learned Ramos had been kidnapped.
“You get so close to your players and you worry about them on and off the field,” Rizzo said. “They really do become part of your family, especially when they’re your core people and they’re going to be with you for the long-term.
“You get that kind of information, there’s two ways you go. You say, ‘Holy cow,’ and fall apart. Or you suck it up and gather yourself. I go into a, ‘Okay, here’s what we do now,’ step-by-step mode.”
Rizzo spent about five minutes digesting the shock and outlining in his head what he needed to do. He called Nationals ownership, sat down and wrote a step-by-step list of people to contact. He had front-office assistants Bryan Minitti and Mark Schialabba reach Nationals players in Venezuela. They told Venezuelans to be careful and recommend Americans come home, but all players stayed.
To keep Nationals players in the U.S. informed, Rizzo had traveling secretary Rob McDonald send out team-wide text messages, informing players what they could do to help and, more important, what they should not do.
The baseball operations office hummed with energy, concentration drowning out worry. There were still offseason baseball matters to tend to, but the workload tilted 80-20 toward ensuring Ramos’s safety.
“There were spurts of anger and sort of a testiness at the absurdity of the situation,” special assistant to the GM Haroyln Cardozo said. “There wasn’t a lot of emotion. There was more focus than emotion.”
Rizzo established a line of communication with MLB and became the Nationals’ point of contact. Investigators kept him abreast of the latest developments with the case as they determined Ramos was alive, identified possible suspects and began to formulate a raid to rescue him.
“I had inside information,” Rizzo said. “I was involved in the process.”
Rizzo also tried to comfort Ramos’s family. He spoke with Ramos’s brother and father, keeping in constant contact, letting them know they could ask for anything.
“I was reassuring them that they’re not alone, that we are a family, we’re doing everything humanly possible to make sure Wilson comes home safe,” Rizzo said. “He’s part of our family, so Wilson’s family is part of the Nats’ family. I wanted to make sure they were aware of that. Hearing that from me was important.”
As the investigation unfolded, Cardozo said, Rizzo became increasingly frustrated at the situation, the feeling of helplessness. Rizzo needed to be in Illinois on Saturday to see his son for the weekend, but those closest to him expected him to travel to Venezuela personally if Ramos had not been found by Monday.
“Mike was driven,” Cardozo said. “The best thing that could have happened to Venezuela was that they got him out before Mike Rizzo got down there. . . . We could only hold him back for so long.”
By Friday evening, though, Rizzo realized Ramos’s safety was close at hand. “I could kind of feel the process going in the right direction,” he said.
Rizzo heard initial good news about the raid, but, complying with baseball’s superstitious code, did not want to publicly acknowledge anything until he knew for sure. “I didn’t want to pack up the bats, so to speak, until I spoke to him personally,” Rizzo said.
Finally, at about 3:30 a.m., Ramos spoke to Rizzo over the phone and assured him he had come home, safe and sound. “It was euphoric,” Rizzo said. “The combination of the Venezuelan government and MLB security really saved a life.”
By this afternoon, Rizzo had still not slept more than a handful of hours — three or four, he guessed — since Wednesday night. While devoting most of his time to Ramos’s case, Rizzo tended to some of his baseball work, making appointments and calls. Ramos, though, never left his mind.
“As much as the world goes on, you always look back and your mind goes back to, ‘Wilson has been kidnapped,’ ” Rizzo said. “You’re wondering things — ‘Is he tied up in a chair?’ In the back of our minds, it was hanging over us, always.”