“We are just waiting for that phone to ring,’’ said Gustavo Marcano, Ramos’ agent who is with the family at its home in Valencia, an industrial town in central Venezuela.
Ramos was on the porch of a small, one-story, cinderblock house on a narrow street in a working-class neighborhood when he was snatched. It’s part of a national trend in Venezuela, where last year there were 895 reported kidnappings, according to the Washington Post 13 times more than a decade earlier.
The Post interviewed Luis Cedeno, director of Active Peace, a Caracas-based think tank, about the trend. Cedeno speculated that whoever grabbed Ramos is part of an organized crime group, not small-timers, and said that the ransom demand could come in at $10 million-$20 million, set to be deposited in offshore accounts in a complex (and hard-to-trace) financial transaction.
Ramos is wealthy by the standard of his neighborhood, but earned only $415,000 last year. If kidnappers do come in with such a high demand, they would be expecting the Nationals or Major League Baseball to help come up with cash.
This is hardly the first time Venezuelan violence has touched baseball. Gus Polidor, an infielder with the California Angels, was killed defending his young son from a kidnap attempt in 1995. The trend has picked up in recent years, with Victor Zambrano, Yorvit Torrealba, Ugueth Urbina and Henry Blanco among the Venezuelan players who have had family members abducted.
Urbina’s mother was grabbed in September, 2004, and held until February, ’05, when she was rescued in a military-style raid. Blanco’s brother was taken and killed in 2008.
It’s a shame, but the Ramos story would be huge if he was a better known player. Imagine if this was someone like Ozzie Guillen, Miguel Cabrera or Carlos Zambrano. The story would have knocked Paterno to the bottom of the sports page.
Ramos is a very good player. He hit .267 with 15 home runs while throwing out 32 percent of base-stealers in his first full big-league season. But he’s still a rank-and-file guy, and outside baseball those guys get only so much attention.
In the game, this is a huge story that could have a lasting impact. Teams are discussing and monitoring the safety of their players traveling to Venezuela for winter ball, and fear from families will almost certainly cause some North Americans to return home.
But this kidnapping trend isn’t about North Americans. It’s Venezuelans kidnapping Venezuelans. While Ramos did plan to play for Aragua, he hadn’t yet started playing. He would have been home with his family if Venezuela didn’t have a winter league.
Venezuela has a problem, and it’s not a baseball problem. Major League Baseball does have to do – and has long been doing – everything it can to protect its Venezuelan assets. There were 62 Venezuelans on Opening Day rosters a year ago, the second largest group only to Dominicans in a census of international players. Tapping into this pipeline of talent brings with it the chance for collateral damage.
MLB could throw its weight around and bar clubs from sending players – or at least non-Venezuelan players — to winter ball there. You can bet this will be discussed next week, when general managers gather in Milwaukee for their annual meetings.
For what it’s worth, here are the White Sox and Cubs players in Venezuela this winter:
White Sox: SS Eduardo Escobar, OF Jose Martinez, RHP Gregori Infante, RHP Justin Cassel, RHP Duente Heath, RHP Jean Duque and RHP Leopoldo Sanchez.
Cubs: Carlos Zambrano, 1B-OF Bryan LaHair, INF Marwin Gonzalez, SS Jonathan Mota, RHP Eduardo Figueroa and RHP Hector Mayora.
2) The Washington Nationals, who have money to spend, are among the teams expected to make a strong offer to sign Mark Buehrle. They view Buehrle as a valuable leader and innings eater on a pitching staff led by Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Keep the Jayson Werth contract in mind with the Nationals. This is a team that is willing to pay heavily for a guy it really wants. Other teams who have interest in Buehrle include the Marlins, Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and maybe the Cubs. When ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick surveyed major league executives anonymously, he found that almost twice as many (14-8) believe Buehrle will “perform over the course of his free agent deal’’ better than C.J. Wilson, viewed through conventional wisdom as the top arm in the crop of big-league free agents. “I know C.J. Wilson is a great story, and he’s obviously pitched well,” one GM said. “But I don’t see knockout stuff, and his arm action concerns me a little bit. Buehrle quietly has been pretty rock-solid for a long time. He works fast and throws with no effort. His recipe seems built to last.” One other White Sox piece to note – they did something unusual on Thursday, signing two minor-league free agents to big-league contracts. Pitchers Donald Veal and Jose Quintana were added to the 40-man roster, not just the pool of minor-leaguers under control. That’s a sign of either widespread interest in them or a strong desire by the White Sox not to lose them in next month’s Rule 5 draft, if not both. Quintana, a lefty from Colombia who turns 23 in January, is an interesting guy. He worked in the Florida State League last year for the Yankees, going 10-2 with a 2.91 ERA between the rotation and bullpen. He’s been slow to develop in the Yankee system but has 293 strikeouts in 251 1/3 career innings. The White Sox will send him to Birmingham and see what they have.
3) Speaking of LaHair, wow. His hitting has helped Magallanes get off to a 14-9 start, tied for first in the league, and you wonder if it is impacting the Cubs’ decision on whether to re-sign Carlos Pena. He’s hitting only .278 but has seven homers (including one off Carlos Zambrano) and six doubles in the 21 games he’s played. He has a 1.014 OPS and is being treated with an unusual amount of respect for an unproven guy playing in a winter league, already drawing three intentional walks. The downside to LaHair’s start in winter ball is 23 strikeouts, showing that he’s expanding his strike zone after seeing 4.3 pitches per plate appearance with the Cubs, second only to Kosuke Fukudome. It’s only natural that he’s feeling the pressure to have an impact, not take a walk. The Cubs may have to make a decision on LaHair sooner rather than later because he’s drawing a lot of interest from Japanese teams, who will probably offer a lot more than he can make with the Cubs. At that point, it becomes a question of how badly LaHair wants to succeed in the big leagues, as this is probably the best chance he’ll get.