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Venezuela prays for kidnapped Major League baseball star

  • @SimeonTegel

Baseball-mad Venezuela is waiting anxiously for news of the fate of one of the country's top players, Wilson Ramos, kidnapped from his family home while on winter break from his US Major League team.

Ramos, 24, a catcher with the Washington Nationals, was enjoying a quiet evening on the family porch with his father, brother and cousin on Wednesday when a car pulled up and two armed men jumped out and frogmarched him at gunpoint into the vehicle as his relatives watched helplessly.

His family, described as hardworking and devoutly Christian, spent Thursday and Friday in the house, in a working class neighbourhood of Valencia, Venezuela's third city, with investigators waiting – so far in vain – for the kidnappers to call. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami vowed to rescue Ramos alive, adding: "We are tackling this investigation with everything we have got."

The abduction has rocked Venezuela, where baseball is a national religion and the country's number one fan, President Hugo Chávez, often puts his anti-American rhetoric to one side to pose enthusiastically for photographers with a bat, ball or mitt in his hand.

On Thursday night, a crowd held a candle-lit vigil outside the stadium of Valencia team Aragua Tigers, for whom Ramos was scheduled to play during the US Major Leagues' close season. Hand painted signs read: "No more kidnappings" and "No more insecurity", references to Venezuela's shocking violent crime statistics, which include the world's fourth highest murder rate. According to official figures, kidnappings in Venezuela have also risen more than 10-fold in the last decade, to 895 abductions in 2010.

A minute's silence was observed before the start of three Venezuelan league games on Thursday and players donned green ribbons to express their solidarity with Ramos and his family. There were also calls for this weekend's games to be suspended but these were rejected by league president José Grasso, who said it was "not a solution" to what he described as an isolated incident.

Although Ramos is the first Major League star to be abducted, relatives of several other US-based players have been targeted in recent years. These include the 11-year-old son of Texas Rangers catcher Yorvit Torrealba and the brother of Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Henry Blanco. Mr Blanco's ordeal ended when he was shot and killed but the other victim was released.

Mr Chávez's government has largely been a helpless bystander to the violent crimewave, although it did pass a law in 2009 that lengthened sentences for kidnappers and allowed the freezing of victim's bank accounts to prevent ransom payments. But the kidnappings have continued to increase.

Ramos, who had just hit 15 home runs in his debut season for the Nationals, is just the latest in a long list of talented Venezuelan players signed up by US clubs. There are currently 62 of his countrymen playing in the Majors.

For those who do succeed in the US, usually earning seven-figure salaries, returning to their family homes, often in Latin America's grittiest shanty towns, is fraught with danger. And although the American clubs have strict security arrangements for their Latin American players when they are back in their homelands, it is accepted it is impossible to shield them from all risks.