Ramos kidnapping, sadly, not an anomaly

If it wasn’t Wilson Ramos, it could have been one of the 80 other Venezuelans who appeared in the major leagues this year.

If it wasn’t Wednesday, it could have happened today, tomorrow, or any day this offseason.

Four gunmen kidnapped Ramos — the Washington Nationals’ starting catcher — at his mother’s home in Valencia, Venezuela. His country, his sport, his fans, his organization, and his teammates were rightfully petrified.

The ordeal ended Friday when Venezuelan police commandos swooped in to rescue Ramos in a flurry of gunfire and arrested five alleged abductors.

But aside from the immediate concern for Ramos’ safety, the most chilling aspect of the incident is that we can’t dismiss it as an anomaly.

Quite the opposite: It was inevitable.

“I’m surprised,” one American League executive told me Thursday, “this hasn’t happened before.”

Venezuela has given baseball some of today’s brightest stars: Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordoñez, Felix Hernandez and Johan Santana, Victor Martinez and Asdrubal Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Elvis Andrus. Omar Vizquel still wows us at 44.

But all is not well in their homeland. Venezuela is an unstable place, because of government corruption and an income disparity cleaved deeper by the policies of President Hugo Chavez. Wealth is concentrated among a relatively small number of people, and major-league baseball players are a large portion of that group.

Baseball superstars are the most visible among the affluent in Venezuela — pop sensations, business moguls, and .330 batting averages all rolled into one. In a country where the rule of law is a myth, they (or at least their loved ones) are also the biggest targets.

I would like to portray Ramos’ kidnapping as a watershed moment for the security of Venezuelan baseball players, a shocking revelation that will force authorities to enact measures that vaporize the chances of this happening again. But that would be fiction. Kidnapping is one consequence of an economic system that won’t change, as long as Chavez is in power.

“Kidnapping is not new — it’s a business,” the AL executive said. “The country has become exceedingly dangerous. The economics of the country are such that everything is going to hell, quite frankly.”

For the most part, kidnappers have captured players’ family members — such as Yorvit Torrealba’s son in 2009 and Ugueth Urbina’s mother in 2004. Whether due to coordination or habit, it has been their standard practice. But that’s the thing about criminals: They don’t follow the rules, even their own.

Ramos, 24, is a player on the rise — a potential All-Star in years to come. This year, though, his base salary was just over $400,000. One might think his captors would have sought a wealthier victim. But actually, Ramos was particularly vulnerable.

Apparently, Ramos and his extended family don’t live in one of the fortress-homes that are popular among Venezuelan stars. One player agent who has spent time in Venezuela describes these structures as being like “military compounds, with high walls, electrified fences, and two or three guys paid to sit outside with machine guns.”

The alternative to that is establishing residency in the United States. It’s an excellent concept — but one that’s hard to implement.

First, consider the rigors of a baseball season: You leave home in February for spring training. You work just about every day until October, rarely (if ever) seeing family. When the season is over, you probably want to go home and visit the loved ones you’ve missed for nine months. That is natural, no matter where you grew up. (Think of it this way: Would you be OK with taking a job in Europe if it meant never coming back?)

Secondly, it’s not easy to become a dual citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. The law of the land doesn’t provide a green card to all those who run, hit, and throw. It takes time. It takes paperwork. There are reasons why, seemingly every spring, at least one player from your favorite team is late to arrive because of a problem with his visa. The federal government makes ballplayers wait in line along with everybody else. Baseball teams secure work visas for their players but rarely undertake the tedious work of applying for citizenship on their behalf.

The only surefire way to prevent another baseball kidnapping in Venezuela would be to enact legislation that affords immediate U.S. citizenship to every Major League Baseball player and his family. And no one is advocating that Congress do that. (At least, I don’t think so.)

In the short term, Major League Baseball’s Department of Investigations is assisting the efforts of Venezuelan authorities to locate Ramos. Going forward, MLB could encourage its clubs to prohibit their players from participating in the eight-team Venezuelan Winter League. Ramos, for example, was due to begin playing for the Tigres de Aragua next week.

Many Venezuelan players view the VWL as their chance to reward fans who watch them on television all summer long. Cabrera, for example, continued playing for Aragua long after he became a star with the Florida Marlins. He only stopped playing after the Detroit Tigers stipulated that he do so as a condition of a seven-year, $141 million contract extension.

Venezuela also has been a place for Americans to launch or revive their careers; Mark Trumbo and Ryan Vogelsong enjoyed breakthrough 2011 seasons after playing there. One American who played recently in Venezuela told me Thursday that he’s had a very positive experience with the country and its fans. “The baseball is awesome, and the fans are the most passionate in the world,” he said. “If I had to come back again, I would not think twice about it.”

For now, the games go on. During the early innings of Wednesday night’s game, the Tigres’ official Twitter feed confirmed the reports of Ramos’ abduction. The next tweet said something about a double by Alex Romero.

“We heard about it before the game,” Edgardo Alfonzo, the former big leaguer and current Aragua infielder, told me in a Thursday telephone interview. “It was sad and scary. We know (kidnapping) is something normal here. People are thinking about it. The players are thinking about it, coming here to play. You worry about the game. You worry outside the stadium. It’s kind of complicated right now.”