VALENCIA, Venezuela — In the modest, aqua-colored house where Wilson Ramos grew up, his close-knit family hunkered down on Thursday, grappling with his abduction as President Hugo Chavez’s government launched a high-profile investigation to bring home one of the country’s newest, brightest baseball talents.
Only hours before the kidnapping, the Washington Nationals’ 24-year-old catcher, fresh off his rookie season, had enjoyed an outing at the beach with relatives. Home for Venezuela’s winter league, Ramos planned to debut next Wednesday for the Aragua Tigers. The coming weeks meant reunions with old friends and Christmas holidays with his family.
But all that has, for now, been dashed after heavily armed men snatched Ramos from the patio in front of his home on Wednesday, as his father, a brother and cousin watched helplessly. The family, said Tamara Corredor, a friend of the family who has been accompanying them through the ordeal, is shattered.
“He grew up here, he felt calm here, and he felt safe,” she said, stepping outside of the family home. “His mother is now just crying, and then for a moment she calms down. They are very religious, evangelicals, very, very religious. . . . They are very united. They always look out for each other.”
Corredor, as well as Gustavo Marcano, an agent for the ballplayer who has known him five years, said that the family has yet to receive a demand for ransom. The family spent the day in their living room with investigators from Venezuela’s judicial police, as well as officials from other law enforcement agencies, they said.
“We are just waiting for that phone to ring,” Marcano said.
In a country with 895 officially registered kidnappings last year, 13 times the 67 abductions that took place a decade ago, kidnapping for ransom has become a big business, said Luis Cedeno, director of Active Peace, a think tank in the capital of Caracas that studies crime.
He said with a big target like Ramos, a ballplayer who earned $415,000 in 2011, the culprits are likely to be part of a criminal organization, rather than a fly-by-night team. If they do make contact with the family, Cedeno said, it will likely not be to demand a dead-drop location but rather to give instructions in the first stage of a complex operation in which money is deposited in foreign accounts.
“Ten to 20 million dollars in this case,” he said, “that is what I would expect.”
Friends of the Ramos family said that on Wednesday, Ramos had been enjoying the early evening with his father, Abraham, one of his brothers, David, and a cousin when two vehicles drove by their house and circled. The small, one-story house is located on a narrow street in a working-class neighborhood of small cinderblock homes that push up against a woodsy area.
Suddenly, one of the vehicles stopped and two men ran out, guns drawn and lunged toward Ramos, friends of the family said.
“They hauled him up by his neck, a gun to the head and that is how they took him away,” Corredor said.
People across the neighborhood, many of whom remember the skinny kid who loved playing baseball at the sports complex down the road, ran out of their homes and into the narrow streets. Some stood around quietly. Others tried to reassure Ramos’s mother, Malena Campo. Still others, like Maia Rosa de Padron, simply cried.
“Everyone came out into the street, and it was filled with people until 3 a.m.,” she said. “People cried. People prayed.”
The police here have said little, though a 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.”
In a news conference Thursday morning, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami announced that police had discovered the vehicle the armed men had used to abduct Ramos, a vital find he said could net important clues. The car was found in the town of Bejuma, about 25 miles west of this industrial city in central Venezuela.
He also said evidence collection teams had been at the scene of the abduction and that the “best kidnapping investigators” had been assigned to the case.
The abduction was felt far beyond the Santa Ines district, where Ramos was last seen. Media coverage has been intense in Venezuela, a country that is both obsessed with baseball and its stars and also painfully aware of the growing scourge of kidnappings and other violent crimes.
The U.S. State Department, which in the past has criticized drug trafficking through Venezuela, is monitoring the case but has not been contacted by Venezuelan authorities or Major League Baseball, a State Department spokesman 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 MLB 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.
The league, though, rejected the idea.
And so the games went on. Some players chose not to play, longtime Venezuelan baseball official Enrique Brito said. But most stayed. Nationals backup catcher Jesus Flores, who occupied the locker next to Ramos this year in the Nationals’ clubhouse, was in the lineup for Magallanes, batting fifth as the designated hitter.
Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Barry Enright, an American playing for La Guaira, tweeted a picture of the green ribbon players wore on their sleeves to support Ramos. At one Venezuelan winter league game, in Anzoategui, a banner hung in the stands that read, “Liberen A Wilson” — in English, “Free Wilson.”
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 is to stay or leave the country, Tatusko said.
Back at the Ramos family home, a full day after the abduction, family and friends of the ballplayer said they were hoping for the best.
“There is sadness and worry, of course,” said Marfa Mata, a friend of Ramos and also his spokeswoman. “But we also are hoping for a happy ending.”
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report. Kilgore reported from Washington.