It had been five months and 18 days since Maura Villareal, the mother of Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Ugueth Urbina, had been abducted from her home in Ocumare del Tuy, a small town southeast of Caracas. Four men posing as policemen had forced her into a car, then bundled her onto a private airplane and flown her some 340 miles south of the Venezuelan capital. Deep in the jungle, at an abandoned tourist camp on the Guaniamo River in the mountainous state of Bolívar, she waited to be either ransomed or rescued. Las Nieves, the compound was called. The Snows. ¬∂ As many as a dozen armed men stood guard at the camp, which they'd surrounded with explosive devices. The gang comprised both Venezuelans and Colombians, drug traffickers moonlighting as kidnappers. More than 1,300 pounds of cocaine were stored at Las Nieves. The nearest town was eight hours away by car, so the 54-year-old Villareal had nowhere to run. She slept on a mattress in a tent and did little but bide her time and pray. She wrote letters to her sons, Ugueth, Ulises and Ulmer, and cooperated with her captors in making a videotape to prove to her family that she was still alive. Six million dollars, the kidnappers demanded for her release.
Villareal lost 50 pounds during her ordeal, and her hair, dyed brown at the time of the kidnapping on Sept. 1, grew out white. "You can't say they treated me either well or poorly," she later said of her abductors. "The most hurtful thing was having to hear them saying my rich son didn't love me because he didn't pay."
On the advice of police officials, Urbina had refused to discuss publicly what, if anything, he was doing to get his mother back. A wrong word, a mixed signal might cost Villareal her life. He, too, had to be patient and pray. Six times he spoke to the kidnappers on his cellphone. He stopped shaving and let his hair grow. "She's strong. She's a bull" was all he would say about his mother in a rare interview in early December. "The attitude I have to have to get through this, I get from her. My strength comes from her."
Then, on Feb. 18, acting on a tip from an anonymous source, 30 officers from Venezuela's antikidnapping unit made their move. In a dramatic, impeccably planned operation that lasted eight hours, government forces traveling first by helicopter, then by boat and finally on foot moved in on Las Nieves through the dense, snake- infested undergrowth and caught the abductors by surprise. In the gun battle that ensued one of the kidnappers was killed, two were captured and at least seven escaped into the jungle, some wounded. But Villareal was rescued unharmed. Having been abducted by men in police uniforms, however, she was wary of her rescuers.
"She didn't believe it was actually us," said Efrén Marin, chief of the antikidnapping unit of the CICPC--Venezuela's FBI. "She couldn't tell if it was really the police or just another gang of criminals taking her someplace else. She couldn't be sure."
It seems that no one in Venezuela can be these days.
For venezuela and its baseball players, it is an age of glory, it is an age of tragedy, it is a period of unseemly riches, it is a period of abject poverty, it is an era golden with opportunity, it is an era black with crime and terror. Venezuela is a place where baseball players are worshipped, it is a place where players are preyed upon. It is a country that, irresistibly, calls its players home, and it is a country that drives them away.
A record 66 Venezuelans played in the major leagues in 2004. Six of them--the Phillies' Bobby Abreu, the Marlins' Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers' Carlos Guillén, the Indians' Víctor Martínez, the Angels' Francisco Rodríguez and the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano--were All-Stars. A seventh, Twins lefthander Johan Santana, was the unanimous choice for the American League Cy Young Award. Baseball in Venezuela, in other words, has never been better. But life has seldom been worse.
Crime and violence in this major league breeding ground are everyday hazards, and few citizens, rich or poor, are untouched. Ask Alfonso (Chico) Carrasquel, who at 77 is the oldest living Venezuelan to have played in the major leagues. An idol in this baseball-mad country, Carrasquel has inhabited the same modest three-story house in Caracas since 1947. It's the one he bought for his mother with the $1,000 signing bonus paid to him by the White Sox; the one he's turned into a museum that he opens free of charge to share the memorabilia he's assembled during 60-plus years in and around baseball. The bats he used in four All-Star games are on the wall. Signed baseballs by the dozen are in glass bookcases. Vintage infielder's gloves, All-Star rings, black-and-white photographs are all handsomely exhibited. Here is Chico with Joe DiMaggio. Here with Stan Musial. Here with his double-play partner, Nellie Fox. It is Carrasquel's way of giving back, of holding out a branch of hope to the impoverished youth of Caracas, and it is one of many reasons that the first Venezuelan All-Star, whose career in the majors lasted from 1950 to '59, is beloved.
In 56 years that Carrasquel had lived in that house, he had never been robbed. Then, one evening in January 2003, he was walking his sister, a pregnant cousin and his four-year-old granddaughter to their car when they were jumped by two armed men. Horrifyingly, the men held a gun to the little girl's head. They demanded the car keys, and the women handed them over. The men then forced Carrasquel, a diabetic who undergoes dialysis three times a week and can barely walk without assistance, to drive them away. When they had gone a safe distance, the men struck Carrasquel and took his gold watch. They drove off, leaving him dazed, injured and miles from home.
"I'm afraid," Carrasquel says now. "I've been attacked. But there are problems all over, and I'm not above them."
Did the young robbers, who were never caught, know who he was? The great Carrasquel? One of the first two All-Stars from Latin America? "These boys didn't understand what they were doing with all the drugs they were on," Carrasquel says. "They'd kill their own mothers. They lack all respect."
The same might be said by Venezuela's other great baseball icon, Luis Aparicio. "Little Looie," the only Venezuelan in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, succeeded Carrasquel as the White Sox' shortstop in 1956, becoming the second in a long line of Venezuelans who were brilliant at that position--a list that includes Dave Concepción, Ozzie Guillén, Omar Vizquel and, now, the Dodgers' César Izt√∫ris. Aparicio, the '56 American League Rookie of the Year, spent 18 years in the majors, made 10 All-Star teams and won nine Gold Gloves. Like Carrasquel, he is revered in his homeland, but that hasn't shielded him from tragedy.
Three years ago Aparicio's 40-year-old daughter, Sharon Iris Aparicio Llorente, was shot during a carjacking in Maracaibo, the city where he grew up. She was paralyzed from the neck down and spent the next two years hospitalized before dying in the fall of 2004. "People are scared," Aparicio says, echoing Carrasquel. "It's dangerous now in our country."
At 70 Aparicio is still active in baseball. He manages the Tiburones (Sharks) of La Guaira, the port city on the other side of the mountains that encircle Caracas. One of his batboys is 11-year-old Gustavo Polidor Jr. The boy's father, a journeyman shortstop, played seven seasons in the majors, for the Angels, Brewers and Marlins, between 1985 and '93. He was only the 38th Venezuelan to have made the majors in the 46 years since Carrasquel's uncle Alejandro Carrasquel became the first Venezuelan big leaguer, in 1939. Being called up was still a rare and wonderful thing for a Venezuelan, an accomplishment that made him a household name in his country.
The Polidor house in Caracas has a room in the back where Gus Sr.'s baseball memorabilia is on display. When Gus Jr. was younger, he always invited visitors back to check it out. His mother, Eduvigis, cannot get the memory of that out of her head. "Here's my dad," Gus Jr. would say, showing the drawings and photos of his father in a major league uniform. "He would show them as if his father were coming back," Eduvigis recalls.
But Gus Polidor wasn't coming back. One day in April 1995, as he was preparing to take Eduvigis out to do errands, he left the garage door open so he could take out the trash. As Eduvigis, holding one-year-old Gus Jr. in her arms, began to get into the car, she saw two men rush at her husband from opposite directions. One man stayed with Polidor, holding a gun on him, while the other approached Eduvigis and the baby. He put a gun to her head. She still has nightmares about it. She can still feel the man's fingers holding her arm. She heard her husband and his assailant raise their voices, and then she heard two shots. Polidor fell, mortally wounded in the head. "He died protecting his family," she says. "He was killed like a dog."
It took more than nine years for the killers to be convicted. At one point they were captured but set free because of the huge backlog in the courts. Eventually they were caught robbing a bank, and Eduvigis, who'd earned a law degree in the belief that it would help her bring the killers to justice, pushed for them to be tried for her husband's murder. On Oct. 6, 2004, the two men were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison. "They tried to defend themselves by saying they didn't know [their victim] was Gustavo," Eduvigis says. "They said if they had known, they wouldn't have done it."
While that wasn't even close to a valid defense, it made a certain sense in Venezuela. Baseball is the one thing citizens have in common in this deeply divided country, a nation polarized socially, politically and economically. Everyone's a fan. Everyone has a team he roots for. "We talk in baseball jargon," says Alfredo Villasmil, a veteran baseball writer for the Caracas newspaper √öltimas Noticias. "If you don't get invited to a party, the next time you see the host, you tell him, 'Man, you gave me four balls.' If a coworker asks you to do a chore you don't want to do, you say, 'That pitch is down and away.' Baseball means everything to us."
Aficionados of the game like to tell the story of the time Magglio Ordó√±ez was being carjacked, in November 2002, and one of his assailants realized he was the All-Star outfielder for the White Sox. The thieves apologized and let him go. But that incident represents the rare exception. More often Venezuela's major leaguers, with their fancy cars, fat wallets, gold jewelry and beautiful women, are magnets for trouble.
Twins pitcher Juan Rincón was recognized by the men who were robbing him a few years ago, and after he told them he wasn't carrying any cash, he offered to write them a personal check. They accepted. At eight the next morning Rincón got a call from the bank asking for his approval to cash the check. He gave it, reasoning that the robbers knew who he was and where he lived.
Rangers outfielder Richard Hidalgo was shot in the arm during a carjacking outside Valencia in 2002, when he was playing for the Astros. Asdr√∫bal Infante, a prospect in the Tigers' farm system and the brother of Tigers infielder Omar Infante, was shot and killed during a robbery in Guanta in 1999. José Mora, the older brother of Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora, was murdered by a hired killer in April 2002 after he'd been in an altercation. "You can trust nobody," Melvin has said. "Not even a policeman." Mora, who batted .340 last year, the second-highest average in the American League, lives outside Baltimore. "I'd love to live in my country," he says, "but now I don't want to raise my kids there."
So much of what happens in Venezuela, good and bad, is connected to the country's vast petroleum reserves. It was U.S. oil workers who popularized baseball in Venezuela in the 1920s, after they came to drill for the low-grade crude that had been discovered in the Lake Maracaibo region. So while the rest of South America dances in the streets over soccer, in Venezuela beisbol is the national passion.
It's estimated that 78 billion barrels of oil are still recoverable in Venezuela--the most of any country in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and the fourth-largest supplier to the U.S., which buys two thirds of its exports. "Every part of Venezuela's economy is tied to how oil is doing," says U.S. ambassador Bill Brownfield. "It's a one-issue economy."
Which means that every time the price of oil drops significantly, the country is plunged into economic crisis. Venezuela has insufficiently developed its other significant natural resources--aluminum, gold, iron, coal, timber, diamonds and fishing. And because of the high crime rate and political volatility, tourism is a fraction of what it might be. The result, according to the U.S. State Department, is a national unemployment rate of about 20% and an underemployment rate of 30% to 40%. Between 1975 and 1995 the poverty rate in Venezuela soared from 35% to 70%, according to the Poverty Project of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and some estimates today put the rate as high as 80%. A country in such straits is a natural breeding ground for crime.
Hugo Chàvez, Venezuela's president, promised to reverse the downward economic spiral when he campaigned for election in 1998. A burly ex-paratrooper who often wears a red beret, Chàvez led a military coup attempt in 1992, for which he spent two years in prison. He was pardoned and began trading on his notoriety by campaigning on a populist platform, vowing to stop government corruption and to create jobs for the poor.
Despite high oil prices, Chàvez has not delivered on his promises. His rule has become increasingly authoritarian. He's cracked down on the press while speaking admiringly of Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. He's alienated the U.S. by buying arms from Russia and providing oil to Cuba. He's also goaded the Bush Administration verbally, characterizing the President as an "a------" and referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "an illiterate." Wealthy Venezuelans have been moving their money abroad so fast that, according to a local joke, Venezuela's largest export after oil is cash. "Baseball is the only unifying factor in this country right now," says Ambassador Brownfield. "It's literally the only subject I can bring up that doesn't get me into trouble."
To Venezuelans, however, baseball and politics definitely mix. Chàvez likes to pose throwing a baseball and, like Castro, brags about his prowess as a pitcher. During a 2002 anti-Chàvez protest in Valencia, Phil Regan, who was managing that city's baseball club, the Navegantes de Magallanes (Magellan's Navigators), saw the marchers approach the hotel where his team was staying and chant, Ni un paso atràs (Not one step backward). "The crowd stopped in front of the hotel, sang the national anthem and began passing their caps to the players for autographs," recalls Regan, a former Orioles skipper who has been managing in Venezuela since 1992. "After a while they marched off. That's how much they love baseball."
Indeed, in the winter of 2003--04, as Chàvez faced a recall election that he would ultimately survive, a popular chant at games that featured his namesake Endy Chàvez, the Washington Nationals outfielder, was ¬°Endy, sí! ¬°Chàvez, no!
If there is one man who knows best that no wealthy Venezuelan is safe from crime, it's Urbina, the Tigers reliever with 227 big league saves. His family was first victimized in 1994, when Ugueth's father, Juan, was killed while resisting carjackers. Then, last year, Ugueth was jolted again when he learned that his mother had been kidnapped. She was the first relative of a Venezuelan major league player to be abducted.
"This can happen to anybody, if you have money," Urbina notes. After his mother's release he said she would recover in Venezuela for a few weeks and then travel to Europe before spending some time with him at a house he owns in Miami. He assumes that ultimately she will return to Venezuela. "She loves her country," the pitcher told reporters at the Tigers' spring training facility in Florida. "She'll always want to go back. That's the way she is."
Kidnapping has only recently become common in Venezuela. "There used to be maybe one in three years," says Marin, the police antiabduction chief, who told SI in December that he had put 40 agents on the Urbina case. "Then we started getting a lot of copycat kidnappings, like what's going on in Colombia."
Colombia, which borders Venezuela to the west, has an estimated 2,700 kidnappings a year. In 2001, by contrast, there were just 60 abductions in Venezuela. By 2003 that number had risen to more than 300, though Marin claims that in 2004 the number fell to 115. Of those, he says, 95 were safely resolved without paying a ransom. "Baseball players are not the targets of these situations any more than anyone else with a lot of money," Marin says, "but to be safe, they have to start improving the security around them, even if they live in a small town."
Certainly Venezuela's eight winter league ball clubs have gotten the message. The Caracas Lions, whose 2004--05 roster included nine major leaguers, employ a security company that sends four armed guards to every game. They are in the dugout before and during play. They travel on the team bus to and from the hotel. And they give players the dos and don'ts of living in Caracas.
"We tell them to let us know where they're going and who they're going to be with if they leave the hotel," says José Elías Escalona Martini, who heads the security company. "We do background checks on any ladies they bring back to the hotel. We tell players not to follow the same routine every day: Don't drive the same car. Don't take the same route to the park. Don't work out at the gym at the same time. We tell them to take off their jewelry when they go out. We tell them not to get right behind another car when they drive, to leave space to go around it if it suddenly stops. And if they do get robbed, we tell them to give up everything. There are 90 to 100 murders in Venezuela every weekend, and 30 to 35 are in Caracas."
The players listen. "Of course you worry," says Abreu, the Phillies' $10 million-a-year outfielder, who still plays 15 to 20 games each winter for the Lions. "You have bodyguards. My family has people take care of them too. You don't go out too much. But it's our country, and you want to go home after being away eight or nine months."
Cubs catcher Henry Blanco, who also plays for the Lions in the big league off-season, agrees. "You don't go out to eat with your family after a game, even to a good restaurant," he says. "So we just go back to the hotel. We're learning how to live like this."
And still the millionaire ballplayers return to play in the Venezuelan league. They love that the fans are rabid, the rivalries fierce and the loyalties deep. "We don't come back for the money," says Blanco. "The fans here give us so much."
On Venezuelan clubs big leaguers play next to Class A prospects, some in their teens. The teams play to win, and anything less than maximum effort is met with vociferous catcalling and whistling from the demanding fans. The atmosphere in the stadiums is festive and raucous. Beer is sold out of tubs of ice, which is sometimes hurled at umpires or players who fall into disfavor. Bottles of liquor can be purchased and consumed on the premises. Vendors walk the aisles selling whistles and blow horns. Between innings cheerleaders in disco-style outfits dance in cages, illuminated by colored spotlights and shrouded in mist from smoke machines. Fans all over the park dance with them.
"It's a lot more expressive down here," says Tom Evans, a journeyman minor leaguer who's been playing winter ball in Venezuela since 1998. "The fans are wild. They chant. If you're in a slump, they let you know. On a 2-and-0 count, they get loud and excited because it's a hitter's count and they know something might happen."
"Venezuelan fans don't get to see their favorite players in the big leagues, so this is their chance," says Abreu. "You go to a game between Magallanes and Caracas, and 25,000 to 30,000 people are screaming on every out. It's like Boston-Yankees every time."
"It's so much fun playing in front of your family and friends," says Yankees third base coach Luis Sojo, a Caracas native whose hero growing up was Reds shortstop Concepción. Sojo enjoyed a 13-year big league career. For the last 19 years he's also played winter ball in his home country, though mindful of the dangers.
"This is a big country, and there are a lot of bad people around," Sojo says. "Still, I don't have a bodyguard. I don't carry a gun. I drive my own car. You don't walk the streets at two in the morning. You stay in the hotel and order room service. You've got to take care of yourself. That's what I tell my family."
Ironically, the grim economic conditions of the past 20 years have been partly responsible for launching Venezuelan baseball's golden age. With little wealth trickling down to the lower classes, a large segment of the population has come to see the sport they love as a way out of poverty.
"From the 1950s to the early 1980s the country was blooming," says Andrés Reiner, 69, the godfather of the surge in Venezuelan major leaguers. Reiner, now a special assistant to the Astros, persuaded the team's general manager, Bill Woods, to open Venezuela's first baseball academy in 1989. "Everybody [here] was happy then, everybody was making money," Reiner recalls. "Youngsters were told to go to university. When I went to talk to parents to try to persuade them to let their sons go to the baseball academy, they'd laugh. It was tough. Now it's pretty easy. It's the parents who want me to look at their sons."
Reiner, who moved with his family to Venezuela from Hungary when he was 10 years old, believed that Venezuela's reputation for producing only one great player every 10 years was nonsense. "I was sure it was just the way the country was scouted and the way the players were developed," Reiner says. "We had to change completely the way things were done."
Some of the more notable graduates of Reiner's academy, which is located in Valencia, make up a major league honor roll: Abreu, Carlos Guillén, Freddy García, Mora, Hidalgo and Santana. Venezuela, it turned out, was a mother lode of talent. The Astros' academy recruited players as young as 14 from all over the country and taught them everything from how to hit a cutoff man to how to speak English. "I was 15 when I went to the academy," says Abreu. "I lived there. I took English classes. They taught me the way they play baseball in the U.S. We practiced from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and they paid for your hotel and food and gave you a small salary."
The graduates of the academy had an easier time than many other Latin American players adjusting to huge cultural differences when they arrived in the U.S. "Major League Baseball could do a much better job of supporting Latin players when they get to the big leagues," says Regan, who this winter managed the Cardinals of Lara. "They basically say, 'Here's your salary. Be at the ballpark at four o'clock.' The baseball academies really help. The players they turn out are quality people. Most speak English. They're hardworking. They understand baseball, and they play the game right. They play more of a control-type game. They aren't explosive. You don't see a lot of 39-homer years, but they can hit and manufacture runs. They're sure-handed, and they don't throw the ball away."
Houston's success inspired other major league teams, and today there are nine baseball academies in Venezuela financed by U.S. franchises. It's proved a wise investment: 96 Venezuelans have broken into the big leagues since 1995, second in number only to players from the Dominican Republic. Reiner believes the gap is closing fast. "The Dominican Republic is small and easy to scout," he says. "It has just nine million people. Venezuela has 25 million people and is bigger than Texas. I think it's still an untapped area. There are places that don't even get looked at. The numbers are going to increase, there's no doubt in my mind."
Aparicio believes there was always plenty of baseball talent in Venezuela. "The difference now is, the scouts are here," he says. "We played only two or three times a week. Now [Venezuelan prospects] play almost every day. They eat better than we did, and they take vitamins. Their fitness is better. They're stronger."
Significantly, Venezuelan parents also push their kids to play baseball now. "My mother hated that I was a ballplayer," Aparicio says. "The hardest day of my life was when I told my father I was going to quit school and play baseball. And he owned the Maracaibo team! Now you see fathers at little league games yelling at their seven- and eight-year-olds to play harder."
"We just played for fun," agrees García, 29, the White Sox righthander with an 85--54 career record. "Our parents pushed us to go to school. Now Venezuelans see they can make good money playing baseball. I've got friends who graduated from college, and they can't get jack. They're driving taxis."
arcía grew up in a poor hillside district of Caracas, in a ramshackle house that overlooked a highway. His father drove a taxi. His mother was a nurse. They were always working, too busy to take him to ball games. So he sneaked in.
Today he lives in one of the best sections of the city, where he's a neighbor of Urbina's. They're best friends. García's house is at street level, protected by a 12-foot-high stone wall topped by an electric fence. There are bars over his windows. A neighbor's attack dog barks savagely when anyone approaches.
Urbina's house, built two years ago, is perched high above the street, with a commanding view of the surrounding hills. A ladder connects his pool deck with García's patio, and they use it to go back and forth between the houses, as if they were living in a very, very fancy boys' treehouse. Urbina was best man at García's wedding in December, the bride a cousin of Ozzie Guillén's. The two players like to hang out together during the day and watch Mexican soap operas. "I like to stay home," García says. "When you go out, you have to go out with a bunch of people. Ten years ago you could do whatever you wanted. Now, if you have money, you're a target." A third house is situated to the side of Urbina's property and above García's, and they are planning to buy it and one day connect the three houses to create one huge compound.
"There are two kinds of people here: rich and poor," says Urbina. "No middle class. Thirty years ago Venezuela had a middle class. I don't want my kid to try to be a baseball player. I don't like this trend. I want him to go to school. Then he will have a choice. The problem is, it's really hard to find a regular job now in Venezuela."
Urbina said in December that he was looking forward to counseling young Venezuelan players at spring training. "We all come from the same background," he said. He remembers what it was like to be a carefree boy playing baseball in the street, hitting a taped cabbage with a piece of wood. "We come from the bottom and make our way to the top. I tell young guys, 'Work hard every day, respect the game. Play defense. Listen to the managers and coaches. You represent everyone who went before you.'"
Spring training. It is a time of hope. It is a time to scream at the heavens in despair. ‚ñ†