VIERA, FLA. – The traces of fresh blue and black ink peeked out from under the athletic tape wrapped around Wilson Ramos’s left wrist. Ramos squatted behind a plate Tuesday morning, his first act during the first organized workout for Washington Nationals pitchers and catchers. Each time Ramos stabbed at a pitch, the ball nestled softly in his catcher’s mitt, and the tattoo on his forearm moved, ever so slightly, closer toward his heart.
The tattoo, etched last week, contains a Bible verse in Spanish, Philippians 4:13, that Ramos translated as, “I put everything in Jesus, because he has my back.” Emblazoned under the words is 11-11-11. On November 11, 2011, Venezuelan commandoes rescued Ramos from the men who approached him outside of him home, pointed guns at his head, threw him in a Chevy Captiva and held him captive for two days.
“I feel like I’m living again,” Ramos said. “I’ve got a new life.”
Ramos came to Nationals spring training to start his second major league season and to further separate his ordeal from his career, to separate his recent past from his bright future. Ramos, 24, is one of the most promising pieces of the Nationals’ foundation, and he wants to be defined by that and not by his kidnapping. Tuesday, he expressed gratitude that he had survived the abduction and confidence that it would not affect his baseball career.
“I’m really, really happy to be here,” Ramos said.
Ramos wants to make baseball his sole focus, and he received his first spring assignment after the pitchers and catchers stretched: catching Stephen Strasburg’s first side session of the camp.
After 10 minutes, Strasburg had thrown his allotment of fastballs and change-ups. He walked to meet Ramos halfway between the plate and the mound, where they shook hands and half-hugged. “Attaboy, Stephen,” Ramos told him.
Upon his arrival at spring training, the Nationals did not formally address the kidnapping with Ramos. They already received him in Washington back in November, shortly after his rescue, and administered a full medical check-up. Tuesday, they wanted to let him move on.
Manager Davey Johnson barely referenced Ramos’s offseason to him. As Ramos caught pitches from Strasburg, Johnson sidled up to him and asked how much Ramos had played in the Venezuelan winter league following the kidnapping. A month and half, Ramos responded.
“That’s indicative of, he’s more comfortable getting on the field rather than talking to you guys about the kidnapping,” Johnson said. “He wanted to get back in there and go play. It’s over with. And I’m sure it’s over with him.
“He’s dealt with that good. He’s in a good frame of mind. We were all scared to death, but I’m not one that deals too much in the past. I deal in the present. As far as I’m concerned, it’s history.”
Ramos did not hit well at first in Venezuela, but by the end he helped the Aragua Tigres win their playoff series. It was an important step in recovering. For Ramos, playing in Venezuela after the kidnapping – which he did under the protection of armed guards – allowed him a degree of mental stability.
“I tried to clear my mind with baseball,” Ramos said. “If I stayed in my house, I was thinking too much.”
In a country plagued by crime and kidnappings, Ramos became the first major league player to be abducted. The challenge of returning to professional baseball after such an episode, performing under high pressure before thousands, has no precedent.
In one recent winter, Nationals backup catcher Jesus Flores, also Venezuelan, was carjacked at gunpoint in Venezuela. “I couldn’t play well for a week or two weeks,” Flores said. “His situation was harder, more difficult. It was more mental.”
Flores went home to play winter ball this year. Even before Ramos’s kidnapping, Flores traveled with a bodyguard.
“It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be protected,” Flores said. “I’m not really going out or doing too much on the street because of the situation.
“It could happen to anybody. The security is very bad. It’s a very dangerous country right now. Wilson, I thought that he wasn’t going to be alive after that situation. We were thinking the worst. We were thinking the worst.”
After two harrowing days, Ramos emerged, safe and unharmed. His life had changed forever, and not only in bad ways. His family, as families do, had grown divided before the kidnappers snatched him. The incident united his family again, he said, and his brother, sister and mother are attaining visas to visit him.
Ramos’s teammates this weekend greeted him with hugs and smiles. They told him how great it was to see him – “everybody is telling me that,” Ramos said – but they do not directly mention the kidnapping.
“They know I don’t want to talk about that,” Ramos said. “I just want to concentrate on baseball and help my team.”
When he jogged across a matrix of backfields Tuesday morning, Ramos inserted another layer between him and his kidnapping. During a drill designed to improve framing pitches, Ramos dropped a ball. Bullpen coach Nilson Robledo hollered, “Good glove!”
“Thank you, Robledo,” Ramos said, laughing.
“Need some bubblegum on there,” bullpen coach Jim Lett teased.
Ramos finished the workout with batting practice. He focused on shortening the path of his swing, as Johnson had instructed. “He looked good doing it,” Johnson said. After Ramos sprayed easy line drives, he walked out of the batting cage and packed his gear.
Ramos hopped on the rear of a golf cart for the ride back to the clubhouse. He chuckled as he drove by two familiar faces. When Ramos stopped laughing, he looked to his left, at an empty, sun-splashed baseball diamond. The smile stayed on his face.