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November 10, 2011 at 12:50 PM

Only surprise in Wilson Ramos kidnapping is that it doesn’t happen more often

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PHOTO: The city of Caracas, Venezuela is nestled alongside some beautiful mountains and is quite picturesque. It’s also one of the most dangerous places this side of the planet to go walking around by yourself.
Many of you have already heard about Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos being kidnapped down in his native Venezuela. MLB isn’t making many comments about it, largely out of concerns for the player’s safety.
But all I can say is, having been to Venezuela and traveled within the country, it’s a surprise this type of thing doesn’t happen more often. Kidnapping is big business in Venezuela and not just to fund drug traffickers. You have a bunch of “express kidnappings” that occur daily, where ransoms as low as $1,000 are paid and the victims released within a day.
MLB teams do worry about the safety of their players in that country and everybody who goes down there to play winter ball is briefed on the situation.
My last time in the country, in 2006, I was speaking at a sports conference in the capital city of Caracas. Walking around on your own was not encouraged. Whenever we went out at night, our conference organizer and a driver (a hulking mass of humanity who doubled for a bodyguard) would take us to specially designated outdoor malls, which were rimmed with police and security guards so you could walk around safely to restaurants and clubs within its confines. Venturing out alone to restaurants and nightspots anywhere outside of these malls was heavily discouraged because of the kidnapping risk. Locals were regularly snatched off the street and held. As for foreigners? That was big bucks, so, like I said, not encouraged.
The one time I did get to see the city on my own was when there was a huge opposition rally of about a half-million people marching right past the main thoroughfare outside my hotel. I figured nobody would try to snatch me amid such a large mass of witnesses and with a tan, I actually looked pretty local if you didn’t stare too long. For about five hours, I walked the downtown streets with these folks as my security blanket. The conference organizer wasn’t all that thrilled, but since his dad worked for the opposition party, he was at least a little happy.
That said, when we traveled to the city of Valencia, about three hours away, to visit Felix Hernandez, we took a lot of precautions. The driver was armed and we were always conscious of where we were stopping — even for a quick lunch in a small town — and who was watching us. We were especially concerned about being stopped at police roadblocks, since not all of them involve real cops. During my first visit to Venezuela in 2005, I arrived just after midnight and my cab was stopped at a police roadblock on a dark sidestreet in downtown Caracas. My cab driver was cursing under his breath and visibly nervous, not knowing what was coming. I was made to get out and hand my passport to police, who had their guns drawn. Turns out, they were real cops looking for foreign drug traffickers. I got my passport back. Needless to say, it was spooky, given what could have happened if the police weren’t real.
Anyhow, the next year, when we got to Valencia from Caracas to visit Hernandez, he couldn’t really give us directions to his place by phone because of all the unmarked streets in the area. He simply told us to stop somebody on the street and ask them. So we did. Some older woman told us exactly where to find Hernandez’s parents’ house. We drove up to it, parked across the street and walked right up to the front door. No gates stopped us. No guards. We could have walked right into his living room.
And that’s the problem.


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PHOTO: The wealthier Venezuelan elite in Caracas lives in neighborhoods like this one, perched high atop the city’s foothills with iron gates surrounding homes. You have to pass through a gated security checkpoint just to access this neighborhood, so it’s relatively safe to walk around in. But not all MLB players, especially younger ones, can afford this level of security.
Hernandez these days has bought new homes and no longer lives with his folks. But at the time, in 2006, he was already worth seven figures. In other words, a huge potential windfall for a kidnapper.
Venezuelan players who aren’t worth that much money — the ones pulling in six-figure minimum MLB wage — can’t afford to barricade themselves behind armed fortresses as do some of the judges and politicians whose homes I got to see in the foothills of Caracas. Instead, they continue to live in the neighborhoods where they grew up, in modest homes you can literally walk in the front door of.
And even at six figures of worth, those players make attractive targets.
It isn’t as easy as simply telling them to leave the country. It’s the place where they grew up. Where their entire family continues to live. Many Venezuelan players, even after adapting to life in the United States, miss the staples of home. I remember how Hernandez, Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt used to splurge on the road to import some of their Latin American staple foods to the clubhouse via caterers. When you grow up with certain things, all the riches of a foreign country don’t always have the appeal you’d think.
So, it’s not an easy problem to address.
But I’d have to think that this kidnapping — the first involving an MLB player directly — could be a watershed moment. The tipping point where many Venezuelan players swallow the hardship and simply get out.
I remember covering pitcher Kelvim Escobar in 1999 when his best friend, Roger Blanco — a minor leaguer and the brother of MLB catcher Henry Blanco — was shot and killed near his Caracas home by robbers who stole his gold chain. Escobar was living just outside Caracas at the time and wound up moving to the Venezuelan coast simply to get away from the crime plaguing the capital.
When I caught up with him a few years ago while he was pitching for the Angels, Escobar told me he’d moved to Miami. He’d had enough. And believe me, when he first broke in as a teenager, he was about the most homesick for his homeland as I’ve ever seen a player.
But everybody has their breaking point. After this Ramos abduction, I’m pretty sure we’ll see more Venezuelan players reaching their limits a lot sooner.
Venezuela has been plagued by a serious breakdown in its internal security for far too long. And with modern internet, tweeting and everybody knowing everybody’s daily whereabouts and business far too easily, these ballplayers are walking targets.
My prayers go out to Ramos and his family. But it’s not surprising that this happened. It’s surprising that it took this long.

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