The frightening abduction of Washington National’s catcher Wilson Ramos in his native Venezuela probably seemed like a random event in the eyes of American fans. Truth be told, it’s a serious problem that players from that country and their families must deal with 365 days a year.
Most of you are probably aware that Ramos, 24, a budding superstar, was found alive and unharmed in a mountain hamlet by Venezuelan police commandos. He was rescued in a hail of gunfire after an “express kidnapping” that took place in front of his mother’s home in the town of Valencia, presumably for ransom. His safe recovery was announced during a press conference by Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami, who blamed, among others, a paramilitary kingpin from Colombia. That was appropriate, since these two neighbors get along about as well as India and Pakistan. Enough with the propaganda.
The cold facts reveal that there were 618 Venezuelan kidnappings recorded in 2009, the most recent figures available. That’s 12 times more than there were a decade ago. Hundreds more, it is estimated, go unreported by wealthy victims who are reluctant to put family and friends in harm’s way. Unfortunately, popular athletes in the news don’t always have that option.
In 2009, San Diego Padres catcher Yorvit Torrealba, now with the Texas Rangers, learned that his 11-year-old son and brother-in-law were swept away by thugs in the middle of the major league season. The brother of Henry Blanco, a veteran free agent receiver, was killed during an abduction a year earlier.
Venezuelan players have a rich baseball history of success. There were 90 guys in the “show” last season, and dozens more performing in the minor leagues. That is a direct result of 15 organizations that operated academies there just a few years ago. Now there are only five in existence, due to security concerns for players and club employees. Despite these dangers, many Venezuelan stars go home to play winter ball in the off-season, as Ramos planned to do, in appreciation for the support of loyal fans. Most employ a small army of body guards to protect themselves and family members.
Meanwhile, the socialist regime of President Hugo Chavez has tried to curb violent crime by imposing stiffer prison sentences for those convicted of such activities. He pals around with baseball celebrities, pretending to have their best interests at heart. Yet he strives to have more control of professional sports. Just last year, a law was streamlined through Venezuela’s Congress that requires local teams to turn over private advertising revenue to the National Sports Institute, where it will be evaluated. Other rumors are rampant that the government plans to tax signing bonuses, and make it more difficult for players to honor their contracts and return to the United States.
What the Venezuelan government needs to do is take the necessary steps to better protect its national heroes. These icons should be able to safely mingle with their fans without fearing for their life. Professional teams should be allowed to make a profit and help narrow the gap between the wealthy and the poor.
Besides oil, there’s nothing bigger in Venezuela than baseball. Enough is enough, President Chavez. We’re talking about the sport you love, and it’s the bottom of the ninth inning. You’ve already blown the save, but you can still achieve victory.