IN CRIME-RIDDEN VENEZUELA, EVERY CELEBRITY IS A POTENTIAL TARGET AND BASEBALL STARS HAVE BECOME AN INVITING MARK. NATIONALS CATCHER WILSON RAMOS IS ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES—HE SURVIVED HIS KIDNAPPING. BUT HE KNOWS THAT ESCAPING POVERTY AND FULFILLING MAJOR LEAGUE DREAMS CAN LAND YOU IN A DIFFERENT KIND OF PRISON
To the many levelheaded conspiracy theorists of Venezuela, at least this part of the story rings true: There was a kidnapping on Nov. 9 in a concrete slum of Valencia, a major city near the coast of a socialist republic whose 29 million citizens currently are as likely to be kidnapped or murdered as any population in the Western Hemisphere. Which is not to say that they don't enjoy themselves. At the moment of his abduction Wilson Ramos, the starting catcher for the Washington Nationals, sat in front of his childhood home with his father and brothers, drinking a Polar beer and reminiscing about his day at the beach by the Caribbean Sea. His mother was inside, thinking about dinner, which would have featured thick corn fritters, called arepas, with sausage and eggs, when a Chevrolet Captiva SUV pulled up and two strange men got out. They had guns.
The kidnappers had chosen a rare and dangerous target. It would not be unusual to snatch a Portuguese shopkeeper near Caracas and get away with it, because his friends would take up a collection for the ransom and no one would tell the police. You might even take the relative of a Venezuelan ballplayer, as other kidnappers had done at least five times in the past seven years. But to take the player himself in a nation that loves baseball even more than America does? You would have to be one crazy band of malandros.
But they recognized a narrow window of opportunity. They had found Ramos in the vulnerable space between making the major leagues and buying the security that his fame had suddenly necessitated. This is the devil's bargain of the Venezuelan major leaguer: Success comes with a terrible price. He has two main options. He can stay away from his country altogether, or he can build a fortress. High walls, razor wire, prisonlike security doors, private guards in watchtowers—these things signify realism, not paranoia. Ramos, who was getting ready to spend the off-season playing for the Tigres de Aragua of the Venezuelan winter league, earned $415,000 with the Nationals last season, but he still lived with his mother and five siblings in a small concrete box of a house with a corrugated metal roof and no sink in the bathroom.
A few days earlier he'd bought a new house in a safer neighborhood with seven bedrooms and a garden. But there was no hurry to leave the old place. Here young Wilson and his brothers had played baseball in the street with a broomstick bat and a ball of crumpled tape. Here Wilson had gone from the pudgy kid his family called Pipo to the man of the house after his parents' divorce. Long before he signed his first baseball contract, as a 16-year-old scooped up by the Minnesota Twins, he put food on his family's table. He found a horse wandering in the street and collected money from neighborhood children for rides. He caught tropical birds in a homemade trap baited with honey and sold them to a local pet store. A part of you dies when you start a new life. Wilson had not yet scheduled a moving day.
"Nobody move," one of the gunmen said, according to Wilson's younger brother David. "If anyone moves, they'll get shot."
At first Wilson thought the men were garden-variety thieves who wanted his jewelry and cellphone. He took off his gold chain and offered it up. That didn't help. One of the gunmen shoved him into the Captiva. From the kitchen his mother heard screaming.
"They took Pipo! They took Pipo!"
It happened that a family friend named Reinaldo was holding the keys to Wilson's Chevy Tahoe. Reinaldo and David and two other young men jumped in the Tahoe and sped off to chase the kidnappers. They had no gun and no plan, other than a vague notion of ramming the vehicle, and so it was probably best that they never caught up with the Captiva. Wilson was gone. And now his relatives had little choice but to put their faith in the Venezuelan authorities.
There's a joke in Caracas that goes something like this: "If you get robbed, don't shout. The police might come." The federal government, never known for its timely or reliable statistics, recently estimated that as many as one fifth of all crimes in Venezuela are committed by the police. The line between cops and criminals is further blurred by vigilantes who wear black ski masks and carry out summary executions with tacit approval from the authorities. This duality reaches the upper levels of government. A general might be supplying arms to Colombian drug smugglers. A prosecutor could be running an extortion racket, and the journalist who blows the whistle on him could be accused of plotting his murder. Conspiracy theories run wild, propagated by President Hugo Chávez himself: He has implied that American operatives somehow gave him cancer, and he once exhumed the 179-year-old skeleton of his hero, 19th-century Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar, in a fruitless search for evidence of assassination.