(Updates with Chavez’s comments in 13th paragraph.)
Nov. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Wilson Ramos, the 24-year-old Venezuelan catcher for the Washington Nationals, was rescued yesterday in a mountainous area of central Venezuela two days after being kidnapped in front of his family’s home.
Venezuelan commando units, under orders of President Hugo Chavez, rescued Ramos after exchanging gunfire with his captors in a rural area of Carabobo state, Interior and Justice Minister Tarek El-Aissami said. Six people were arrested.
Ramos, who was the first Major League Baseball player to be kidnapped in Venezuela, said earlier today that he was still shaken from the incident and thankful to the police for their swift action, according to comments on state television. The case highlighted the South American country’s crime problem where murders have almost quadrupled since 1999, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
“I’m still pretty nervous but, thank God, everything went well,” Ramos said on state TV. “When they rescued me, it was a harrowing moment due to the gunfire but they did a great job.”
Ramos said his kidnappers, who spoke with Colombian accents, didn’t talk to him much although they said they were going to ask for a large ransom. The captors didn’t contact his family or police during the more than 50 hours he was held.
In addition to the arrests, El-Aissami said police are searching for four Colombian citizens who fled during the shootout. A fifth Colombian, who lived close to Ramos’ parents, is being sought for his role in organizing the abduction, he said.
Ramos, who is 6 feet tall and 220 pounds, played his first full major league season in 2011 and hit .267 with 15 home runs and 58 runs batted in while supplanting 14-time All-Star Ivan Rodriguez as the Nationals’ regular catcher.
Ramos made a major-league minimum $414,500 with the Nationals last season. He was preparing to join his local winter league team, Tigres de Aragua, when he was abducted.
“The news from Venezuela tonight is reassuring,” Mike Rizzo, the general manager of the Nationals, said late yesterday in a statement. While “we have not yet talked directly with Wilson, we are thrilled with reports that he has been rescued and is being safely returned to his family.”
Ramos said that he still expects to play with the Tigres, the Associated Press reported.
“As soon as I feel all right, I’m going to start playing,” Ramos said. “They didn’t physically harm me, but psychologically, I underwent a great deal of harm.”
Ramos was kidnapped while visiting his mother’s home in Santa Ines, Carabobo state, on Nov. 9. Gunmen entered the house at about 7:15 p.m. local time and forced him into an orange SUV, according to a government statement. Ramos said today that he was moved to a second vehicle and led to a mountainous area, where he was thrown on a bed with a blindfold.
Chavez said today on state television that it was a “clean operation” and that his government is working to combat “mafias” dedicated to organized crime in Venezuela.
The 57-year-old socialist leader, who played amateur baseball during his teenage years as a left-handed pitcher, said that he spoke with Ramos by telephone and invited him to play a softball game soon.
“Beware of my curve ball,” Chavez said. “Not even Wilson Ramos can hit that pitch.”
While Ramos was the first major leaguer to be kidnapped in Venezuela, family members of players recently have become targets.
In 2009, the 11-year-old son of catcher Yorvit Torrealba was kidnapped and returned after a ransom was paid, while the mother of ex-pitcher Victor Zambrano was rescued after being taken. The previous year, the brother of Henry Blanco, another major league catcher, was shot and killed by kidnappers after being abducted in a Caracas suburb.
Anibal Sanchez, a Venezuelan starting pitcher for the Florida Marlins, canceled his December trip home after hearing of the kidnapping, the Sun Sentinel, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida- based newspaper, reported yesterday.
Venezuela has the second-highest number of Latin American players in the major leagues after the Dominican Republic, and baseball has been the national sport since U.S. oil workers introduced the game at the beginning of the 20th century.
Many players return home during the off season to spend time with family or play in the winter league that runs from October to January.
“We’re enormously happy,” Rafael Rodriguez, president of the Tigres de Aragua, said on state television. “The important thing is for him to be with his family and to check on his emotional state. The baseball issue is secondary right now.”
Venezuela has the third-highest homicide rate in the Western Hemisphere after Honduras and El Salvador, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
While veteran Venezuelan players who receive higher salaries use armored cars and bodyguards when they return in the off season, younger players are more at risk, Jose Grasso, president of the Venezuelan Baseball League, said yesterday in a telephone interview.
“We can’t look after every Venezuelan player on holiday with their family or at the beach but I think that after this incident Major League Baseball will include security advice in its training to local players,” Grasso said. “Some players with higher salaries have bought armored cars but that’s not going to resolve our crime issue either.”
--Editors: Paul Tighe, Sylvia Wier
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