When former Nationals manager Jim Riggleman was working as a field coordinator in the St. Louis Cardinals' minor league system, he took a handful of trips to Venezuela to scout the team's players that were largely without incident. Upon arriving in the national capital of Caracas, Riggleman got the usual warnings - about choosing neighborhoods wisely at night, arranging transportation ahead of time and the like - but heeding that advice gave him all the security he needed.
"You never felt like you were in any danger," he said.
Neither has Nationals pitching prospect Ryan Tatusko, who is playing for the Bravos de Margarita and staying at a tony hotel on the island north of the country's mainland. Tatusko blogged about his experiences in Venezuela yesterday, after news broke that Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos had been kidnapped in his hometown of Valencia, and said in his blog post that the island has "done nothing but solidify its holding as the safest place in Venezuela." When Tatusko and his teammates travel off the island to play in other cities, he wrote, it is often in a chartered jet or bus with plainclothes security. His safety isn't guaranteed, but he's living within a structure that makes it more likely.
But the Venezuela that Riggleman or Tatusko experienced is in stark contrast to the country where Ramos was reared as an up-and-coming baseball player, destined to travel to the United States and make scads of money. When a Venezuelan native like Ramos comes back to his home country as a major league ballplayer, it's under a different set of circumstances. He's well-known by all sorts of people - good and bad - in his community, and that means he's returning to a different standard of security than the one under which he grew up. If Venezuela is a rough place to grow up poor, it may be an even rougher one to return rich.
According to the Associated Press, Venezuela had a staggering 618 kidnappings in 2009, and an estimated murder rate of 60 homicides per 100,000 people that is nearly double that of Colombia, long considered to be one of the most dangerous countries in South America. And while Ramos is believed to be the first active player to be kidnapped, he's certainly not the first major leaguer whose life has been ravaged by the crime.
Venezuelan players often express fears for their safety and that of their families when returning to their homeland. Florida Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen and former Baltimore Oriole Melvin Mora routinely hire security guards to accompany them when they return to Venezuela.
There have been at least four cases since 2004 where family members of Venezuelan major leaguers have been kidnapped, and not all have ended peacefully:
* In February 2005, Venezuelan police stormed a mountain camp to rescue the mother of then-Detroit reliever Ugueth Urbina, who had been kidnapped and held for a $6 million ransom. At least one of the alleged abductors was killed in the raid. Urbina's mother had been taken the previous September from her home near Caracas.
* In December 2008, the brother of current Arizona catcher Henry Blanco was kidnapped and killed.
* In June 2009, then-Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba was placed on the restricted list after his 11-year-old son and two uncles were kidnapped. Torrealba's son, also named Yorvit, and the two men were set free without the kidnappers picking up the agreed-upon $50,000 ransom. Torrealba then moved his son from Venezuela to Miami.
* In November 2009, the mother of ex-major league pitcher Victor Zambrano was kidnapped and held for three days before being rescued.
Incidences of kidnapping have extended to soccer players and wealthy businessmen, as well, according to Prof. Erick Langer, the director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. "They are seen as meal tickets," he said. And what's worse, Hugo Chavez - the country's controversial president - has not tried to control crime because his power base comes from Venezuela's poor, Langer said.
"It's the No. 1 problem society in Venezuela faces right now," Langer said. "People live behind bars. The streets are for the criminals right now."
Most ballplayers are wealthy enough to afford security, like Guillen and Mora use in Venezuela, while others might feel safe enough in their home country not to employ guards. Ramos was at home with his family when four armed men broke in and took him last night and it is unknown what security measure may have been in place at his Valencia home.
Whatever the cause, Ramos' kidnapping could have far-reaching ramifications for other players in Venezuela. Major League Baseball's Department of Investigations, founded during the Mitchell Report, is working with the Nationals and authorities in Venezuela on the case. Nationals officials have told the organization's seven other players in the country - Jesus Flores, Sandy Leon, Adrian Sanchez, Hector Nelo, Henry Rodriguez, Josh Wilkie and Tatusko - that the decision is theirs if they would like to leave Venezuela or continue playing baseball this winter.
Many might choose to stay, wanting to get extra work this winter that could pay off come spring training. But more often than not, the ones who need to look out for their safety the most are the ones who call Venezuela home.
"For native players, if you're a major league player and you're in Venezuela, you're going to be a target," Riggleman said. "It's not so much that you're playing winter ball. It's that you have a high level of income and people know who you are."