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Not Safe at Home
Melissa Segura
November 21, 2011
The kidnapping of Wilson Ramos points up the dangers players face in Venezuela
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November 21, 2011

Not Safe At Home

The kidnapping of Wilson Ramos points up the dangers players face in Venezuela

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When Nationals executives made a trade-deadline deal for Wilson Ramos in 2010, the scouting report on the rookie catcher was something like: athletic, strong arm with excellent game-calling skills. Clearly, the kidnappers who abducted Ramos at gunpoint from in front of his family's home on Nov. 9 in Valencia, Venezuela, had a scouting report of their own on the catcher: perfect target.

The 24-year-old Ramos makes good money—$415,000, just over the $414,000 MLB minimum—but not enough to afford a private security detail like the ones some prominent Venezuelan players employ when visiting home. Ramos was recognized but not as famous as Mets lefthander Johan Santana, whose high profile once forced the Venezuelan government to station a national guard detail outside his parents' home in Tovar. For Ramos there was no such safeguard against the threat of abduction, which has increased an estimated 470% over the past 11 years in his native country. (According to officials, Ramos was the first major league player known to have been kidnapped, but relatives of several big leaguers have been taken for ransom in recent years and two have been killed.)

After being held for two days in the mountains, Ramos was rescued in a raid by police and government commandos, who exchanged gunfire with the kidnappers before taking six suspects into custody. "I didn't know if I was going to get out of it alive," Ramos (left, in cap) told reporters after being returned to Valencia. Reunited with his family, Ramos said he planned to join his Venezuelan team, Tigres de Aragua.

The emergence of promising young Venezuelan players like Ramos—a record 62 of whom appeared on MLB's 2011 Opening Day rosters—is in some ways a result of the soaring violence at home. Says one National League international scouting director who has spent decades in Venezuela, "I have parents telling me, 'Please take my son, there's nothing good here for him.' The players from poor families see baseball as their way out." For some, at least, it is: The number of Venezuelan prospects signed has doubled from 100 in 2005 to 202 in '10, and signing bonuses have increased from $2.6 million to $17.1 million in that time.

That very success, of course, brings its own dangers. In an effort to protect players, most Venezuelan winter league teams now employ hefty security details for players. In addition, Major League Baseball hired Joel Rengifo, the former head of Venezuela's antikidnapping unit, as a security consultant for the MLB's players and employees. Despite his ordeal and the ongoing danger in his home country, Ramos has no plans to return to Washington soon. "I want to stay," he said on Saturday, as a gesture "to the Venezuelan people ... so that they can see me play here."

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