It had been five months and 18 days since Maura Villareal, the mother of Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Ugueth Urbina, had been abducted from her home in Ocumare del Tuy, a small town southeast of Caracas. Four men posing as policemen had forced her into a car, then bundled her onto a private airplane and flown her some 340 miles south of the Venezuelan capital. Deep in the jungle, at an abandoned tourist camp on the Guaniamo River in the mountainous state of Bol�var, she waited to be either ransomed or rescued. Las Nieves, the compound was called. The Snows. � As many as a dozen armed men stood guard at the camp, which they'd surrounded with explosive devices. The gang comprised both Venezuelans and Colombians, drug traffickers moonlighting as kidnappers. More than 1,300 pounds of cocaine were stored at Las Nieves. The nearest town was eight hours away by car, so the 54-year-old Villareal had nowhere to run. She slept on a mattress in a tent and did little but bide her time and pray. She wrote letters to her sons, Ugueth, Ulises and Ulmer, and cooperated with her captors in making a videotape to prove to her family that she was still alive. Six million dollars, the kidnappers demanded for her release.
Villareal lost 50 pounds during her ordeal, and her hair, dyed brown at the time of the kidnapping on Sept. 1, grew out white. "You can't say they treated me either well or poorly," she later said of her abductors. "The most hurtful thing was having to hear them saying my rich son didn't love me because he didn't pay."
On the advice of police officials, Urbina had refused to discuss publicly what, if anything, he was doing to get his mother back. A wrong word, a mixed signal might cost Villareal her life. He, too, had to be patient and pray. Six times he spoke to the kidnappers on his cellphone. He stopped shaving and let his hair grow. "She's strong. She's a bull" was all he would say about his mother in a rare interview in early December. "The attitude I have to have to get through this, I get from her. My strength comes from her."
Then, on Feb. 18, acting on a tip from an anonymous source, 30 officers from Venezuela's antikidnapping unit made their move. In a dramatic, impeccably planned operation that lasted eight hours, government forces traveling first by helicopter, then by boat and finally on foot moved in on Las Nieves through the dense, snake- infested undergrowth and caught the abductors by surprise. In the gun battle that ensued one of the kidnappers was killed, two were captured and at least seven escaped into the jungle, some wounded. But Villareal was rescued unharmed. Having been abducted by men in police uniforms, however, she was wary of her rescuers.
"She didn't believe it was actually us," said Efr�n Marin, chief of the antikidnapping unit of the CICPC-- Venezuela's FBI. "She couldn't tell if it was really the police or just another gang of criminals taking her someplace else. She couldn't be sure."
It seems that no one in Venezuela can be these days.
For venezuela and its baseball players, it is an age of glory, it is an age of tragedy, it is a period of unseemly riches, it is a period of abject poverty, it is an era golden with opportunity, it is an era black with crime and terror. Venezuela is a place where baseball players are worshipped, it is a place where players are preyed upon. It is a country that, irresistibly, calls its players home, and it is a country that drives them away.
A record 66 Venezuelans played in the major leagues in 2004. Six of them--the Phillies' Bobby Abreu, the Marlins' Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers' Carlos Guill�n, the Indians' V�ctor Mart�nez, the Angels' Francisco Rodr�guez and the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano--were All-Stars. A seventh, Twins lefthander Johan Santana, was the unanimous choice for the American League Cy Young Award. Baseball in Venezuela, in other words, has never been better. But life has seldom been worse.
Crime and violence in this major league breeding ground are everyday hazards, and few citizens, rich or poor, are untouched. Ask Alfonso (Chico) Carrasquel, who at 77 is the oldest living Venezuelan to have played in the major leagues. An idol in this baseball-mad country, Carrasquel has inhabited the same modest three-story house in Caracas since 1947. It's the one he bought for his mother with the $1,000 signing bonus paid to him by the White Sox; the one he's turned into a museum that he opens free of charge to share the memorabilia he's assembled during 60-plus years in and around baseball. The bats he used in four All-Star games are on the wall. Signed baseballs by the dozen are in glass bookcases. Vintage infielder's gloves, All-Star rings, black-and-white photographs are all handsomely exhibited. Here is Chico with Joe DiMaggio. Here with Stan Musial. Here with his double-play partner, Nellie Fox. It is Carrasquel's way of giving back, of holding out a branch of hope to the impoverished youth of Caracas, and it is one of many reasons that the first Venezuelan All-Star, whose career in the majors lasted from 1950 to '59, is beloved.
In 56 years that Carrasquel had lived in that house, he had never been robbed. Then, one evening in January 2003, he was walking his sister, a pregnant cousin and his four-year-old granddaughter to their car when they were jumped by two armed men. Horrifyingly, the men held a gun to the little girl's head. They demanded the car keys, and the women handed them over. The men then forced Carrasquel, a diabetic who undergoes dialysis three times a week and can barely walk without assistance, to drive them away. When they had gone a safe distance, the men struck Carrasquel and took his gold watch. They drove off, leaving him dazed, injured and miles from home.