Wilson Ramos Is Home. Now What?

It’s been a week since Wilson Ramos was kidnapped and rescued, in what was one of the most shocking baseball stories in a long time. In a certain sense, the Wilson Ramos kidnapping was not an isolated incident: just in the past five years in Venezuela, kidnappers have abducted Yorvit Torrealba’s son, Henry Blanco’s brother, Victor Zambrano’s cousin and mother, and Ugueth Urbina’s mother. (Blanco’s brother and Zambrano’s cousin were killed.) Money appears to be the basic rationale: baseball players are relatively wealthy, and have a supreme incentive to pay whatever the price for the safety of their loved ones.

But Ramos was a major leap from what had happened before. He’s the first major leaguer every kidnapped in Venezuela, and some Venezuelan major leaguers have begun to question whether they can continue to return to Venezuela in the winter, year after year. Ramos was rescued a couple of days after being kidnapped, in a commando rescue operation personally authorized by President Hugo Chavez. Still, the question remains: what will be the long-term aftermath of the Ramos affair?

It’s no surprise that Chavez got involved. The Venezuelan state has a major stake in resolving a matter like this as quickly and forcefully as possible. Venezuela’s baseball players are some of their most famous and important global ambassadors, both inside and outside the country. And baseball is a major part of the country’s economy. The Venezuelan Winter League benefits from the star power of the many major and minor leaguers who return home, the Venezuelan economy benefits from the remittances of professional players making huge amounts of money in the States, and baseball is a large part of Venezuela’s public image in the United States and throughout the Americas.

(Hugo Chavez is also a large part of that image. Venezuela has had a number of baseball-related kidnappings in the last five years, and, according to the Washington Post, it is “a country with 895 officially registered kidnappings last year, 13 times the 67 abductions that took place a decade ago.” Moreover, as Roy Johnson wrote on ESPN.com, the actual number is likely far higher: “According to that nation’s National Institute of Statistics, 17,000 people were kidnapped between July 2008 and July 2009… there may be as many as 70 kidnappings per day there.” That has something to do with Chavez, the supreme leader of the state who took power in 1999. But that is part of a larger discussion outside the scope of this article.)

In this particular case, money still appears to have been the cause, as that’s what the kidnappers told Ramos himself. We haven’t heard much from the shadowy Colombian paramilitary figure who appears to have masterminded the affair, or anyone else of the eight people that authorities arrested. Nor do we know exactly why they targeted Ramos, rather than a family member, as had happened in the past. But it’s likely that they were trying to get money from someone other than the Ramos family. A Venezuelan analyst predicted a possible ransom demand in the tens of millions of dollars. “When the kidnappers make ransom demands, they aren’t hoping the player’s family comes up with $10 million to $15 million,” writes The Washington Post’s Tracee Hamilton. “They are hoping the team or MLB does.”

The fact that Ramos was a major leaguer qualitatively changed the profile of the crime, as Venezuelan journalist and official Astros writer Rafael Rojas Cremonesi told me. “None of those kidnappings were as notorious as this one,” he told me, and it’s hard to disagree. After all, how many of the other five kidnappings I mentioned in the first paragraph did you remember? “They were all kept under wraps and low-profile. This case was so highly publicized [that] it resurfaced the debate on kidnappings, [which was] something Venezuelans started to take for granted, sadly.” No one is taking it for granted now.

One result of this is that as players feel less safe, they will feel less able to spend time in regular society; if they return to Venezuela at all, they may want retreat to high-security compounds, figurative or literal, protected by a bodyguard at all times and effectively walled off from the rest of society. Ramos was snatched right after signing an autograph for a boy as a birthday present. Security concerns can only widen the distance between rich and poor, and growing inequality often leads to growing instability. There is a lot more at stake for that society than the inescapable fact that fewer birthday boys will get to meet their heroes. But that’s where it starts.

After the kidnapping, Miami Marlins Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante had different reactions to the idea of returning to their home country: Sanchez canceled his plans to return and Infante did not, but he acknowledged that he would be more careful than ever. As Sanchez said:

If I don’t need to, I don’t go. I love my country. It’s beautiful. I want to be free, be comfortable. If I go there I need to be with a lot of bodyguards. That’s not free.

Said Infante:

I’ll take care of myself more, not leave the house too much and be alert to what’s happening outside… it scares you to be in Venezuela. When I heard the news I got nervous because I live there and a lot of players live there.

Many players appear to have had a reaction closer to that of Infante than that of Sanchez, including Ramos himself, who played in a winter league game last night. He set a clear example by deciding to play, and the Washington Nationals set an example by allowing their players to decide what to do. So for the moment, it doesn’t look like the Ramos incident has destroyed Venezuelan baseball. But the repercussions may continue to percolate for a long time hence. And you can bet that every player will continue to think long and hard about how long they want their family to live there.

Carlos Gonzalez’s reaction may be representative of many players. He returned home to Venezuela in October, his publicist Fabiola Bohorquez told me. And though he has no plans to leave any time soon, he has been a crime victim — he had his car stolen two years ago — and his plans could change some time down the line. “Maybe in a future not so far he is gonna take his family with him to [some] other place safer,” she said. “Meanwhile they have a lot of precautions… [and] the service of a bodyguard.”

The broader implications aren’t just confined to baseball in Venezuela, though. As Roy Johnson wrote on ESPN, similar tensions are raised every time an player in any of the major leagues who grew up poor goes home to see the people he grew up with. In the last decade, Sean Taylor of the Washington Redskins and Dernell Stenson of the Cincinnati Reds were both killed in apparent robbery attempts. And even if they aren’t being kidnapped, Johnson writes, these players can face tremendous pressure from former friends who still live in poverty who believe that they are owed. That is universal, and it leads to some depressing conclusions. As a sports attorney quoted by Johnson says: “You have to tell them sometimes, ‘It’s not worth it anymore. You can’t go home.'”

For now, Wilson Ramos is home. But his home has changed forever.

We hoped you liked reading Wilson Ramos Is Home. Now What? by Alex Remington!

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.

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delv
Guest
delv

Great article, as usual, Alex. A few questions/beefs though:

1) It would’ve been great if you could offer some sense of the political dimensions of these kidnappings. Who tend to be the victims? Given the U.S. government’s desire to take down Chavez’s govt, what role might the CIA have?
2) The issue of “high security compounds” is a complex and politically sensitive issue in a state currently run by a democratic socialist political party…

delv
Guest
delv

Sorry, just in case I wasn’t 100% clear, I meant “Given the U.S. government’s desire to take down Chavez’s govt by any means necessary, what role might the CIA have had in kidnappings in the past or supporting/abetting certain fringe groups that might be responsible for the kidnappings?”

Big Oil
Guest
Big Oil

What proof do you have of the government’s desire “to take down Chavez’s govt by any means necessary”? You don’t believe that if we desired to, we wouldn’t have already made an attempt?

As for the rest, complete and utter speculation.

sheath1976
Member
sheath1976

For REAL? I know our governments hands get dirty internationally. And NO, we don’t love Chavez but how does Ramos figure into this? If your theory is right did we not just make Chavez look good by allowing him to put the orders forward to save Ramos. Maybe Chavez set the whole thing up so he could look good when Chavez was returned safely.

Chair
Guest
Chair

I don’t know why you would ask such a question on a Fangraphs page, it’s not like the author knows how to answer such a question any better than you or I. I guess you are just bringing up the subject.

As for Big Oil, they have indeed already made an attempt…..the US may not have taken credit publicly for the failed 2002 coup, but they were definitely backing it, if not orchestrating it.

maguro
Guest
maguro

Pretty sure the Freemasons were really behind it. That’s the message I’m receiving through my tinfoil hat, anyway.

delv
Guest
delv

Chair – How do you know what Alex knows or doesn’t about politics? This stuff isn’t all super-secret, as you yourself demonstrated to Big Oil. Maybe he’s had an interesting thought or a certain insight after interviewing some Venezuelan players. Your response is pretty inane, to be honest.

“Don’t ask questions because no one knows the answers anyways!”

??? How do you find our unless you ask? If you’re mad at my very verbalizing of the question, then get mad at yourself.

delv
Guest
delv

LOL, wow. that was not what I was asking. thanks for squelching academic inquiry by having reactionary responses to phantasms. very uncharacteristic of you, Mr. Remington.

DCN
Guest
DCN

I really think it’s more likely that the groups were connected to the Venezuelan government, given strange circumstances of the rescue – – heavy gunfire, no deaths. Police are often connected with kidnappings, and the violent crimes prosecution rate is incredibly low. I doubt Chavez ordered the kidnapping, but I think it’s certainly possible that his government had connections to them, and pressured them to end this in the most favorable way possible.

williams .482
Member
Member
williams .482

As that is not at all related to baseball players, I would prefer it if that discussion happened elsewhere.

sheath1976
Member
sheath1976

No IT HAS EVERYTHING to do with baseball players. A baseball player got kidnapped. All you care about is stats not baseball players. If you are gonna be such a sabrenerd at least keep up with the times and use wOBA instead of OBP. You know like Williams.493. A baseball player got kidnapped. This article deals with baseball players without the mention of advanced metrics. Pehaps you are commenting on the wrong article. Williams.482 needs to understand baseball players are people to.

sheath1976
Member
sheath1976

Excuse me, when Wilson Ramos not Chavez was returned safely.