Of all the players he coached during his year and a half in Washington, Dan Radison had the most unique relationship with Wilson Ramos. The wiry first base coach, born in St. Louis and long past his playing days, was separated by a generation and a continent from the thick 24-year-old catcher. But they shared Venezuela.
Radison had spent eight seasons managing in Ramos’ home country, falling in love with its weather and its sometimes manic baseball fans and watching it suffer under controversial president Hugo Chavez. When Ramos was traded from the Twins to the Nationals in July 2010, he found a kindred spirit in Radison, whose best stories from a life in baseball revolved around wild games in South America.
“He knows that I’m a gringo that’s gone to his country, loves his language,” said Radison, who was cut loose by the Nationals after Davey Johnson took over as manager following Jim Riggleman’s surprising resignation. “We had a little extra bond there. It’s a tough one.”
When news of Ramos’ kidnapping reached Radison last night, it hit him on two levels. He’d come to know Ramos as a humble, respectful catcher with a wry sense of humor. But he also knew, better than most Americans in baseball, about the dangerous currents swirling beneath ballplayers in Venezuela.
He remembers managing Alex Diaz, a young player who was driving his car when he was assaulted; Diaz pulled out a gun to confront his attackers and wound up shooting himself in the leg. Radison was with the Bravos de Margarita in 2008 when catcher Henry Blanco’s brother was abducted, and later killed. He knows all too well what Venezuelan natives face during the winters in their home country, and what they have to do to keep themselves safe.
Ramos’ abduction is the latest in a line of incidents affecting major league players in Venezuela, particularly since Chavez became president in 1999. In that time, Venezuela’s murder rate has surpassed that of crime-ridden Colombia, and kidnapping has become an epidemic But while all the other baseball-related kidnappings were against members of a player’s family, Ramos’ case is believed to be the first where a player himself was kidnapped. It is less a progression than it is an escalation, but it is one that Radison could see coming.
“They know who’s got the money,” Radison said. “If you’ve got a nice car, you’re a target. If you’ve got a nice house, you’re a target. If you have anything that catches somebody’s eye, you’ve got a problem.”
It wasn’t always that way, Radison said.
Before Chavez took over, he could walk the streets without trouble, go anywhere he wanted to go without much worry. “That rhetoric (of crime), people weren’t even talking about it,” Radison said. “But when he took over, the climate of the whole country changed. The spirit changed.”
Since then, Radison has been robbed once, getting a truck stolen from him while he wasn’t in it. He’s seen Americans “hire somebody who’s willing to risk their life to go to the bank” and withdraw cash on their behalf. But for the most part, he said, American ballplayers aren’t the ones who need to worry; they stay in well-guarded hotels and travel with security as part of a team. Additionally, they’re not an ideal target.
“We don’t take anything with us of any value,” he said. “We have no family there, so if they kidnap you, who are they going to call? There’s nothing you’ve got that they want. I think the problem is, major league native players, they know where they live, they know where the families are. Those are the guys that get targeted.”
It’s likely Ramos’ abduction will cause Major League Baseball to re-evaluate its relationships with winter ball leagues in Latin America, and Radison said baseball may need to think about providing additional security for players, particularly native citizens, in Venezuela. Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen and Diamondbacks infielder Melvin Mora routinely hire private security when they travel to Venezuela; other players resort to simpler methods.
“They carry guns themselves,” Radison said.
Like many people around the game, Radison is watching the Ramos story with rapt attention, hoping and praying one of the game’s bright young talents is returned to his family safely. He’s hoping a little harder than most, though, if only because he knows what players like Ramos are up against, every single day, in Venezuela.
“I’m probably particularly fond of Ramos because of being over there, talking to him, watching him play,” Radison said. “We have an affinity for each other.”
Follow Ben Goessling on Twitter: @MASNBen