Lips sealed in investigation of kidnapped MLB catcher

CNN Wire Service

Venezuelan authorities, baseball officials and family members Friday were keeping a tight seal on any developments in the investigation of the kidnapping of major league catcher Wilson Ramos.

Ramos, a rising star for the Washington Nationals as a rookie this past year, was back in his native country to play in Venezuela’s winter league.

But before his first game with the Aragua Tigers, gunmen kidnapped him from his mother’s home in Santa Ines in Carabobo state.

Baseball fans are observing a minute of silence before games in solidarity with Ramos, and players are wearing green ribbons or bracelets.

On Thursday, authorities said that they found the SUV they believe was used in the kidnapping and that they had created police sketches of two of the gunmen.

But on Friday, news about the federal investigation was tightly guarded.

“It’s understandable that everyone wants to know what is happening with Wilson and how the investigation goes, but remember that in these cases, patience is key,” Tigers spokeswoman Kathe Vilera said on her Twitter account. She added that keeping the details sealed could help the investigation.

Ramos, 24, emerged as the Nationals’ top catcher this past season. He had a .267 batting average with 15 home runs and 52 runs batted in.

Unlike most Latin American countries, it is not soccer that rules in Venezuela, but baseball. A number of Venezuelan players make it to the major leagues in the United States.

The pipeline that sends players from Venezuela to the majors -usually baseball academies managed by American teams – itself has been transformed in recent years because of violence.

As Venezuela’s economy has stagnated in recent years, crimes such as kidnapping and murder have risen. According to the National Institute of Statistics, 16,917 people were kidnapped between July 2008 and July 2010, or about 23 kidnappings a day.

Baseball players who play professionally in the United States, whether in the major or minor leagues, are targeted for their money, though Ramos’ case is the first time a player himself has been snatched. Usually, a family member is held for ransom.

“Government, please do something because Venezuela is crumbling with so much insecurity while you say that Venezuela is safe,” Venezuelan baseball player Jose Castillo wrote on his Twitter account.

Melvin Dorta, a Venezuelan playing professionally in the U.S. Atlantic Independent League, told CNN that there are lots of opportunities in Venezuela, but also pitfalls.

Dorta has played for the Aragua Tigers and is a friend and former teammate of Ramos.

“Venezuela does have one of the best winter leagues, but it is one of the leagues where the Americans ask before going because of the insecurity and the dangers that one faces,” he said.

Those dangers have led many American teams to abandon their baseball academies in Venezuela, Arturo Marcano, a lawyer and sports columnist who co-authored a book about Venezuelan recruitment of players, told CNN.

When major league teams noticed the amount of talent sitting in places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, they increased their investment in the region. Instead of relying simply on scouts to find players, they instituted the academies to find, train and sign players, Marcano said.

“The goal is to identify the players and sign the players, and if you can do it as cheaply as possible, all the better,” he said.

As crime in Venezuela increased, however, operating the academies became dangerous for its managers and scouts.

“All of a sudden, with these safety issues, teams started to leave,” Marcano said.

At its peak, about 16 major league teams operated baseball academies in Venezuela, he said. Today, that number is only five or six. Teams have returned to the practice of sending only scouts, and then sending potential players to academies in the Dominican Republic.

Venezuelans who make it to the big leagues in the United States and return home become targets because there is a perception that they make a lot of money, Marcano said. But for the minor leaguers and nonsuperstars in their first major league years, that is not necessarily the case.

Another aspect that may have influenced the Ramos kidnapping is that even for players from humble backgrounds who make money in the pros, their families in Venezuela remain in rough neighborhoods.

Working-class families often don’t want to leave their neighborhoods and their friends, and they feel they don’t belong in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Ramos, for instance, was kidnapped from his family home in a tough area, despite his success.