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11.11.11

Wilson Ramos Kidnapping Highlights Baseball's Dangerous Venezuela Pipeline

Venezuela's hungry, talented, and inexpensive young players have fed Major League Baseball for years, often becoming U.S. stars. But the kidnapping of Washington’s Wilson Ramos shows the perils of returning home.

As Venezuelan investigators try to rescue kidnapped Washington Nationals star catcher Wilson Ramos, the case underscores the uneasy interdependence between America’s baseball industry and Venezuela’s pool of desperate and ambitious teenagers.

A crime-ridden and unstable nation led by a president locked in bitter antagonism with Washington, Venezuela provides a pipeline of talented but inexpensive ballplayers for the $7 billion-a-year business that is Major League Baseball.

The 24-year-old Ramos was kidnapped Wednesday by gunmen in a dangerous section of Valencia, where he was visiting his mother. Valencia is small industrial city about two hours west of Caracas. Though he had just played his first full MLB season in Washington, D.C., Ramos was home in Venezuela to play in what is called the Winter Leagues. As of Thursday, police said, they had found the abandoned car used for his capture, but kidnappers had not made contact with the family.

Venezuelan ballplayers returning from the U.S. for visits are often said to be treated like folk heroes in Venezuela. “More often than not they have a false sense of security because they think everyone is in love with them,” said David Tinsley, a former DEA agent who runs 5 Stones Intelligence, a security company. “But a lot of people just see them as a cash cow, as high-level chattel for exchange.”

Wilson Ramos’s unlikely path to success in U.S. baseball formally began seven years ago, when he was just 16 years old, a Venezuela boy signed up by the Minnesota Twins’ talent scout. It’s an event that most boys in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela can only dream of as a way out of poverty and into glory.

He has become an impressive catcher. “He’s a budding star,” said D.C.-area sportswriter Thom Loverro. “He’s part of the future of the Washington Nationals organization.”

The Dominican Republic and Venezuela export a staggering number of baseball players. Experts say 80 percent of the minor leagues and almost 30 percent of the players in the major leagues come from the two nations.

And in both countries, U.S. major-league teams have set up an elaborate and formalized recruiting network.

“What they do is, they go to Venezuela and they sign 16-year-old kids,” said Arturo Marcano Guevara, a Venezuelan who studies the baseball industry and coauthored a 2002 book on it, called Stealing Lives. “Ninety-eight out of a hundred of those don’t make it to the big leagues.”

Marcano’s coauthor, Prof. David Fidler, a law professor at Indiana University, says the very underpinnings of the relationship between U.S. teams and Venezuelan players are unfair.

“There has been a long list of problems that have been created” in the industry’s use of Latin American players, he said.  Major League Baseball “brings essentially children to play baseball in this country. When we think of children in terms of international law that means people under 18 years of age. That’s how we define them, as children, and you’ve got Major League Baseball signing people as young as 16 years old. Now, we don’t allow that in the U.S. and Canada. Why do we permit that in the Dominican Republican and Venezuela? What is the explanation for that?”

Marcano says the unraveling security situation in Venezuela had already taken its toll on the training routines that once existed. Teenagers signed by American ball clubs usually are routed through a network of baseball “academies.” Marcano says that until the middle of the last decade, there were about 15 academies in Venezuela. Now, he says, there are five. “They have been closing the academies,” he says, “mainly because of the security situation.” Venezuelan teenagers, he says, are now sent to baseball academies in the Dominican Republic.

Major League Baseball and the Washington Nationals did not respond to questions today about the Ramos kidnapping. They issued one joint statement, expressing support for Ramos’s family, and stressing that Major League Baseball’s security team was working with authorities.

Because so many Venezuelan players in the big leagues go back home in the winter to play baseball, just as Ramos was doing, MLB has policies about protecting its players, who represent major investments in training and recruiting.

“Major League Baseball, they have people in Venezuela dealing with issues of security,” said Marcano. “In theory, the league has safety rules and procedures that apply to the players. When they are in the stadium, or traveling to the games. But you can’t control everything.”

Venezuelan crime has increasingly spun out of control during the last decade of President Hugo Chavez’s rule. And it has become more and more clear that Venezuelan players, flush with cash, are the targets of violence.

The first notorious case, in 2002, was when Mets outfielder Richard Hidalgo was shot in the arm during a carjacking in Venezuela. Then in 2004, kidnappers dressed in police uniforms grabbed the mother of Detroit pitcher Ugueth Urbina. The kidnappers held the woman for months, demanding ransom, until authorities rescued her. (Urbina himself was later convicted of attempted murder in Venezuela and is serving a sentence in prison there.)

That year, Venezuelan-born catcher Henry Blanco, then of the Minnesota Twins, spoke up about crime, and told American reporters that he called his family back in Venezuela twice a day just to make sure they were safe. But in 2008, Blanco’s brother was kidnapped, and then killed.

“More often than not they have a false sense of security because they think everyone is in love with them."

The incidents continued when the son of the San Diego Padres’ Yorvit Torrealba was kidnapped. The boy was soon released.

Also in 2009, the mother of a former Mets pitcher was abducted. Omar Minaya, then the general manager of the Mets, had a prospect playing in the Venezuelan Winter Leagues at the time. “We contacted him, and told him there is a situation,” Minaya told The Daily Beast. “We told the player if he did not want to be there, he could leave. The player chose to stay there.”

But Wilson Ramos’s kidnapping Wednesday is the first time that a Major League player, rather than a family member, has been kidnapped.

It remains unclear what can be done to protect all the players who choose to return home—whether they are seen as heroes who triumphed in American baseball, or as cash-rich targets for criminals.