Venezuelan baseball: Kidnapping sadly an occupational hazard

November 16, 2011

SpiritBlog

Souvenir from Maracay: An Aragua Tigers cap

Baseball in Venezuela has been getting a lot of media attention lately, but the news hasn’t been good. Earlier this month, Washington Nationals catcher and former Twins player Wilson Ramos was kidnapped at gunpoint outside his family’s home in the city of Valencia and held for ransom. Security forces rescued him unharmed two days later from a remote mountain hideout.

Father Greg Schaffer, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who serves at the archdiocesan mission in the Venezuelan Diocese of Ciudad Guayana, says kidnappings happen throughout the country, although those involving the families of Major Leaguers get the most press coverage.

The Ramos incident was a bit unusual because more often it’s the family members of ballplayers who are targeted for kidnapping, with the players expected to dip into their deeper pockets to pay the ransom.

According to Father Schaffer:

“Many of the baseball players who play in the United States in the major and minor leagues are from working class families or from families struggling to makes ends meet. When these players return home to visit family during the offseason they stay with their families — many of which live in neighborhoods affected by violence and delinquency. Consequently, the ballplayers and their families become targets. Last year, Luis Rivas, who used to play second base for the Minnesota Twins, was in Venezuela during the offseason visiting family, and he was shot in the leg as guys stole his car.

“Most of the well-known baseball players have bodyguards for themselves and their families. When I baptized the son of [former Twins pitcher] Johan Santana a couple of years ago in his hometown of Tovar, which is a small town in the western part of the country in the mountains, I saw he had six bodyguards at that time that rotated to protect him and his family. I asked one of the bodyguards what was the hardest part of his job and he said protecting Johan’s father, Jesus.”

Before Santana signed a Major League contract, Father Schaffer said, the pitcher’s father loved visiting with people as he traveled around town selling bread for his in-laws. Today, when Jesus returns for visits, he still enjoys visiting with townspeople. But now, because of his son’s fame and fortune, Jesus’ outgoing personality creates a security challenge.

Pumped up fans

Many other ballplayers and their families face similar challenges, and it’s hard to imagine the stress this causes. Currently, 164 Major Leaguers hail from Venezuela, according to the Baseball Almanac, including Minnesota Twins pitchers Lester Oliveros (Maracay) and Jose Mijares (Caracas).

It’s a sad situation for a country that loves baseball — a love I was able to experience firsthand several years ago.

Back in January 2005, my wife and I traveled to the city of Maracay for the priesthood ordination of one of our Venezuelan friends. The Diocese of Maracay, located in the state of Aragua in the north-central part of the country, has been in a partnership since the mid-1960s with the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., where I used to live.

When we visited, Maracay’s residents were buzzing with excitement about their hometown team — the “Tigres de Aragua” or Aragua Tigers (the same team that Wilson Ramos had returned to play for). The Tigers were competing with a team from Caracas in Venezuela’s version of the World Series.

Hours before the start of the series’ deciding game, Tigers fans had already filled the streets, creating a tailgate party of sorts that lasted all the way until game time. That night, my wife and I settled into our room to watch the game on TV — which we did, until the power went out in the stadium and the surrounding area.

We waited for hours along with fans across the city for the power to return before we eventually drifted off to sleep.

The next thing I remember is waking up in the middle of the night to the sounds of people yelling and horns blowing. I half-joked that Venezuela must be undergoing another coup attempt. I say half-joked because a former bishop of St. Cloud — now Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, Iowa — was visiting Maracay in the early-1990s when rebels did, indeed, attempt a coup.

In our case, it was the neighborhood celebrating a Tigers victory that came late in the night after the power finally returned.

“Venezuelans love baseball,” Detroit Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez, a native of Caracas, told kids a few years ago when he announced a new scholarship to help young people from southwest Detroit go to college. Many other Venezuelan players have also given much back to their communities — both their home communities in Venezuela and their new homes in the U.S.

Venezuelans do indeed love baseball, and it’s a tragedy that the players and their families increasingly face threats to their safety. Let’s pray that the successful rescue of Ramos sends a message that will discourage other would-be kidnappers and that Venezuelans throughout the country get to enjoy their national pastime in peace.

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About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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