- Roy S. Johnson, Contributing writer, ESPN.com
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Wilson Ramos was standing in the front yard of his family's yard in Valencia, Venezuela, with his father and two brothers last week when a group of men, some of them armed, suddenly emerged and whisked him away in what we now know was a kidnapping designed to exhort a hefty ransom from the family of the Washington Nationals' rising, young star. Thankfully, two days later, police commandos rescued the catcher from a hideout in the remote mountains about two hours north of Caracas.
He was alive and healthy.
Eight suspects have since been arrested, and police are seeking more.
No money ever exchanged hands.
Relatives of Major League Baseball players have been kidnapped before in Venezuela -- Ugueth Urbina's mother in 2004, Henry Blanco's brother in 2008, Yorvit Torrealba's son in 2009 -- and the frequency of those incidents seems to have increased in recent years. According to that nation's National Institute of Statistics, 17,000 people were kidnapped between July 2008 and July 2009, the most recent timeframe available. Another organization, the Venezuela Observatory on Violence, says there may be as many as 70 kidnappings per day there.
Generally, the people being kidnapped are targeted for the obvious reason that they are connected to someone who has the wherewithal to pay for their safe return. And baseball players earn millions, common knowledge there, from a game that has pulled many athletes -- and their families -- from poverty to plenty.
Yet Ramos is the first known major leaguer to be kidnapped in Venezuela, which makes it easy for us here in the States to consider the scary incident as an aberration. With a shrug that essentially says: Couldn't happen here.
In fact, it could.
With outcomes far worse than the way the Ramos story ended last week.
In 2003, Dernell Stenson, a rising, young rookie outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, was kidnapped and killed outside a Phoenix nightclub where he had been celebrating a teammate's birthday. As he tried to escape, Stenson was tragically shot and run over by his own car, which apparently was what the assailants were after.
"He was not drunk," says Dan Mullin, senior vice president of investigations for Major League Baseball. "He simply left the place on his own, alone, and was grabbed in the parking lot, hijacked and killed."
Today, MLB uses the Stenson tragedy as part of a significant effort to educate and empower athletes to handle (or better yet, avoid altogether) potentially dangerous situations in which they might become targets. The lesson in this senseless case? Move around with your teammates rather than alone, and always be aware of your surroundings.
In fact, the threats in this country are real enough that MLB, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League -- along with the unions in their respective sports (we'll have to pretend for the time being that there's still an NBA players' union) -- share resources and strategies in this area. They even collaborated on a video produced to educate and empower their professional athletes on the dangers of being ... well, professional athletes.
Each league conducts rookie symposia where security is strongly emphasized. They hold early-season meetings with every team, updating them on the latest threats, including how some scam artists use social media to cheat or even impersonate professional athletes.
Also, if an athlete is in any U.S. city, he can learn with one telephone call which nightspots might be problematic and which security or vehicle/driver services are most reliable.
"We try to prepare players and protect them," says Jeffrey Miller, the NFL's VP/chief security officer. "If they're winging it and don't know how they're going to get from Point A to Point B, there could be a problem."
Among the security programs offered by the league, at no cost to athletes:
• Residential security assessment. "We look at their entire home and determine where the security gaps are, then offer solutions on how to close the gaps," Miller says. "People find out where they live, and assume there is money or other valuables on the premises."
• Background checks. Whether an athlete is assessing a potential business partner ("So they don't invest unwisely," Miller says. "Unfortunately it happens a lot."), a contractor for work on his home or even a nanny, the league will conduct a thorough background check.
• Overseas travel intel. When traveling abroad on their own for pleasure or business, athletes are asked to alert their league office, which will reach out to a government agency in the area (most likely the State Department or an arm of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and provide players not only with contacts should they encounter trouble but also with any pertinent information regarding potential security issues in the region. "We try to work as hard as we can on the front end to prevent issues on the back end," Miller says.
Unfortunately, the majority of athletes don't take advantage of these programs, the league says. But many do.
Sports attorney David Cornwell says he's had security-related discussions with four clients in recent months on matters ranging from home surveillance to a situation in which an athlete feared a potential incident in an opposing team's city.
"There were gang activities that overflowed from his home city and gave him reason to believe there was a potential threat," Cornwell says.
To make the player feel more secure, the attorney contacted the NFL and law enforcement officials in that city and pieced together a simple but effective system that provided his client a comfort level. The athlete "checked in" with the local official by telephone each time he was about to leave one location, telling the official exactly where he was going. He then called again when he arrived at his destination. "It's a reality they have to deal with," Cornwell says.
But even that system isn't infallible. One of Cornwell's clients, he says, was flagged by the league for having a banned substance in his system that turned out to be a date-rape drug.
"The player was baffled," the attorney says. "He recalled feeling funny after leaving this particular club not long before. We did some investigating, and the drug was in his body because some guys at the club were slipping it into pro athletes' drinks so they could roll them in the parking lot later that night. We didn't put it all together, but the local police did because there had been two stickups on the night he was there."
The aspect of the Ramos saga that likely resonates most with U.S.-born athletes is the challenge of going home, particularly for athletes who come from socially disadvantaged neighborhoods that might be afflicted with violence. Most athletes do go back, whether for family, friends or familiarity. They don't want to be tagged with the label: He forgot where he came from.
Cornwell says, "I don't like to stereotype, but there are a significant number of guys who come from inner cities where there's, among other things, gang violence and other things young black males face growing up."
Some of these athletes might have been shielded or insulated from the most dangerous aspects of their neighborhood when they were young. They were identified as having potential, so Leave him alone was the rule of the street.
But now? Those same people are looking for their piece of the player's dream.
"They want an attachment to you because of who you are," says MLB's Mullin.
The places where pro athletes were once welcomed and celebrated are suddenly rife with potential danger.
"Now they have people baring gold grilles at them and growling," Cornwell says.
"They sign a big contract, and suddenly they have the Boo-Boos and the Tookies saying, 'How you think you got this? You got to give something back.'"
That might mean investing in a boyhood friend's new nightclub, record company or whatever.
"It's not as earth-shattering or dramatic as being snatched off the street," Cornwell says. "But when your 'boys' want $50,000 here or $100,000 there, it's not much different from a ransom because the premise is, 'You owe us because you came from here.'
"You have to tell them sometimes, 'It's not worth it anymore. You can't go home.'"
Something Wilson Ramos now knows all too well.
Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.
This time a kidnapping of a high-profile Venezuelan athlete, Wilson Ramos, ended well, and thank goodness for that. But it will happen again, and the next time might be closer to home.