Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos remains missing Friday morning, more than 36 hours after he was kidnapped by armed men in his native Venezuela, an unspeakable and ongoing tragedy that underscores the growing dangers for ballplayers in that country.
Just as more and more baseball talent from Venezuela has reached the major leagues in the past decade, so too has crime escalated, making it dangerous for both players and scouts trying to find the next wave of talent.
One international scout detailed to SI.com how on a trip to Venezuela a few years ago, he and his colleague were pulled over by a group of men with machine guns who ordered them out of the car, jostled them around, searched them and inspected the car before letting them go. The scout also said he's been on several ball fields when he heard gunshots in the distance.
"The threats are real," he said, "and the danger's real."
Of the 234 foreign-born players populating rosters or disabled lists on Opening Day in 2011, Venezuelans accounted for 62, which ranked second only to the Dominican Republic's 86; no one else had more than 20. That number of Venezuelan ballplayers includes recent, current and future stars such as Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Gonzalez, Felix Hernandez, Victor Martinez, Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordoñez, Asdrubal Cabrera and Bobby Abreu.
Despite rosy predictions of a turnaround from socialist president Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's economy was hit hard by the recent recession, with its GDP shrinking in 2009 and again in 2010 before posting a mild gain early in 2011. This occurred alongside huge inflation.
"The economy there continues to decline under the current [political] administration," said Dan O'Brien, Brewers special assistant to the general manager, "and I think that's put a lot of pressure on the people in that country, in terms of their day-to-day existence."
O'Brien was the Astros scouting director in 1989 when the club, led by scout Andres Reiner, became the first to open a baseball academy in Venezuela. O'Brien, who said he had never been the recipient of overt violence, used to visit regularly, but now is less inclined to return.
"I would make multiple trips on a yearly basis down there and, quite honestly, looked forward to each and every trip and really was in love with the country," he said. "As time has gone on, just on a personal safety basis, I've become more and more uncomfortable just being out and about in the country."
Many clubs feel the same. Of the 30 major-league teams, 21 operated academies in Venezuela as recently as 2002, a number that has dwindled to just five scheduled to be open for business a decade later in 2012: the Phillies, Mets, Rays, Mariners and Tigers. The Cardinals closed their academy before the 2011 season and, most recently, the Pirates announced that they were closing their academy in September.
"Players' safety is a factor, and I think the biggest is the political instability, which I think are tied hand in hand," Pirates director of player development Kyle Stark said. "With the political instability, we just didn't feel safe operating there, so we pulled out."
There is too much baseball talent to ignore, but clubs have retained a strong scouting presence rather than maintain the infrastructure of an academy.
"You can't stop scouting because there are too many good players," Padres vice president and assistant general manager of player personnel Chad MacDonald said. "There are players who want to play. You've got to go where the players are, and it's there. It's just [that] going there comes with some risks."
Those risks are detailed in on the U.S. State Department's travel advisory website, which notes that the country's per capita murder rate is one of the top five in the world and that kidnappings in 2009 increased 40-to-60 percent over the previous year, a number that's already difficult to track because the majority go unreported.
"Violent crime in Venezuela is pervasive, both in the capital, Caracas, and in the interior," writes the State Department on its website. "... Armed robberies take place throughout the city, including areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists. Well-armed criminal gangs operate widely, often setting up fake police checkpoints. Only a very small percentage of crimes result in trials and convictions."
There have been several recent examples of players' family members getting kidnapped -- the mothers of Ugueth Urbina and Victor Zambrano, and the son and brother-in-law of Yorvit Torrealba were rescued; Zambrano's cousin was killed -- and now Ramos, an active and promising young ballplayer, is the first known ballplayer to be abducted.
Rob Ruck, a University of Pittsburgh history professor who has written extensively about baseball in Latin America, said the situation is deteriorating for baseball because of the crime and the distrust of Chavez. The kidnapping of Ramos will make matters worse.
"It's going to make [baseball clubs] much more nervous about their involvement in Venezuela," Ruck said, "which is a shame because the baseball there has become spectacularly good, the kids are hungry [to play] and we can see the impact of that in the major leagues."
Many ballplayers still return to Venezuela each winter, either because it's home or it's an opportunity to play in an offseason league. The native players are often the bigger targets because they are so well known, but any player with a major-league salary, even one near the minimum, such as Ramos, makes more than the majority of people.
"Some guys have bodyguards and all that, but you can't really trust them, either," Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero, a native of Venezuela, told the
Ramos was back in Venezuela to play in the winter league, though he was reportedly kidnapped while at his family's home in Valencia.
O'Brien said that before the Brewers allow their players to play winter ball in Venezuela, the club vets the situation the players will be entering, checking with the winter-league team there to make sure that housing, transportation and ballpark security are all sufficient.
"It's still a beautiful country and one that has an abundance of potential baseball players," O'Brien said, "and so we continue to monitor what goes on in terms of the political environment there. And we just hope for the best for the country as a whole."