Nationals won’t shy away from Venezuela in the future, Rizzo says

Mike Rizzo boarded a plane for Milwaukee this afternoon, as he’d been planning to do for months and as most general managers in baseball were doing this week for the annual GM meetings. It’s a routine trip that, as of Friday morning, Rizzo didn’t know if he’d be making.

At that point, Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos’ whereabouts were still unknown, and the team’s front office had morphed from a baseball operation to a crisis center. Rizzo quickly started working phones and directing his staff, calling all of the Nationals’ major league and minor league players in Venezuela to ensure their safety and getting updates from Venezuelan police and Major League Baseball’s Department of Investigations. He called Ramos’ agent, Gustavo Mercado, who was with the catcher’s family and acted as a translator as Rizzo sought to reassure Ramos’ father and brother. It all happened on no more than two to three hours of sleep a night.

“I remember (owner Mark Lerner) emailing me at 2:30 in the morning, saying, ‘Are you up?’” Rizzo said. “He got a return email at 2:31.”

If Ramos hadn’t been found by Monday morning, Rizzo had made up his mind he would be flying to Venezuela, not Milwaukee.

“We were going to go down there, and I was going to see if I could shake something loose,” he said.

The follow-up question was obvious: What would Rizzo have done, or even been able to do? What was a baseball executive going to be able to effectuate in this situation, where the circumstances were so far beyond the game?

Rizzo, though, knew he had to try. He’s hands-on and punchy to the core, never backing away from a fight he believes is worth having. And in Venezuela, he knew what the circumstances were.

In 12 years of scouting the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, Rizzo had become intimately familiar with both the country’s enormous reservoir of talent and the dangers it exacts on that talent. All but five major league teams have pulled development academies out of Venezuela, fearing for the safety of their players as violent crime increased in the country and a series of kidnappings affected the families of several major leaguers. Ramos’ kidnapping was the first incident where a player was abducted, but Diamondbacks catcher Henry Blanco’s brother was killed in 2008, and former major leaguer Ugueth Urbina’s mother was held for nearly six months before authorities rescued her from kidnappers.

But the country is a fertile enough ground for major leaguers that the Nationals will continue to develop a presence there, particularly as they try to expand their footprint in Latin America. Rizzo hired Johnny DiPuglia away from the Red Sox after the 2009 season to run the team’s Latin American scouting operation, and just hired former Dodgers scout Ron Rizzi, who has a long track record of finding players in Venezuela and was in the country at the time of Ramos’ kidnapping. Rizzi will spend four to five weeks scouting players in Venezuela, and the Nationals have no intentions of backing away from the country in the wake of the Ramos incident.

“There are instances that happened all the time down there. I’ve been involved in several; I don’t want to go into them, but there were several times where I was put in positions where it was very uneasy, very dangerous to be in,” Rizzo said. “But that’s part of your job. You have to scout down there. You try and be as safe as you can, take as few risks as possible and try and get your job done.”

Rizzo said the Nationals will re-evaluate their protocols for players in Venezuela, particularly those who grew up in the country. Like Ramos - who plans to start playing for the Tigres de Aragua on Wednesday - many Venezuelan natives want to play winter ball there, and all the Nationals can do is ramp up their efforts to put security in place for those players and their families.

“They’re iconic players there in their country. They have a high profile,” Rizzo said. “They grew up watching Venezuelan baseball, and they want to participate in that. We’re certainly not going to tell them they can’t participate, but we’ll take the steps to ensure they’re secure.”

The Nationals told their two American players in Venezuela (minor leaguers Ryan Tatusko and Josh Wilkie) to come home after Ramos’ kidnapping, Rizzo said, but both said they felt safe enough to stay. Most American players stay in secure hotels and have team-provided transportation to get from place to place, whereas Venezuelan players often stay in their homes, as Ramos was doing when he was kidnapped.

And the Nationals’ scouts who go there will continue to mine the country for talent, even as they know they need to watch their backs, too.

“You have people who really don’t realize what scouts go through to sign the players and get them on major league fields. That’s why they really are the backbone of the sport,” Rizzo said. “It often gets dicey there. You hear stories all the time of things that are dangerous and uncomfortable. But you have to fish where the fish are. There are a lot of good players in Venezuela, and for us to be afraid to go there would put us at a disadvantage.”