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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.