Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos’ safe return last week was a relief, but it should not distract us from taking a few simple steps to protect the high-profile athletes – and their families – who hail from violent, unstable nations.
Ramos, a 24 -year-old catcher for the Washington Nationals who recently completed his rookie season, was staying with his mother in Venezuela while preparing to play in the country’s winter league. Two gunmen abducted him and took him to a remote mountainous location, where they held him until rescuers arrived. Five men have since been arrested in the kidnapping, including a Colombian “linked to paramilitary groups and to kidnapping groups,” according to Venezuela’s Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami.
While Ramos was the first major-league player taken hostage in Venezuela, several players’ family members were previously targeted, including Texas Rangers catcher Yorvit Torrealba’s 11-year-old son, who was returned after a ransom was paid; former Mets pitcher Victor Zambrano’s mother, who was held for five months before being rescued; and Diamondbacks catcher Henry Blanco’s brother, who was shot and killed after being abducted in a Caracas suburb.
Kidnappings have been become more prevalent in Venezuela as the country’s economy has deteriorated under strongman Hugo Chavez. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of kidnappings increased by 40 to 60 percent, according to the U.S. State Department. There are now around eight to 10 abductions every day, Mario Marmol Garcia, a Venezuelan criminal lawyer who consults on kidnapping cases, told Bloomberg. Venezuela also has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world.
Baseball players affiliated with American teams, and their families, are targets because the players make relatively large amounts of money and can presumably pay sizable ransoms. Ramos earned the major-league minimum of $414,500 for his first season with the Nationals.
Foreign players are a big part of American professional sports, particularly baseball, basketball and hockey. Our sports marketing machine offers them global fame and, often, a handsome living far beyond anything they could earn at home. But that same fame, coupled with restrictive U.S. immigration laws, turns many of these players and their families into targets.
It would not cost this country anything to create a humanitarian provision in our immigration laws that would allow athletes who play in American professional leagues to live here together with close relatives, including parents, grandparents, siblings, children and spouses. Athletes and their families should have the opportunity to stay and work here for as long as the athletes’ high-profile status could pose a threat, likely at least five years after they stop working for an American team.
I am not proposing that we allow unlimited immigration to Venezuelans, Colombians, Mexicans, Russians and others who face kidnapping threats from criminal gangs in their home countries, though I think a case can be made for doing so. I am simply proposing that if we are going to turn a young man like Wilson Ramos into a target, we have a duty to do what we reasonably can to protect him and his family. Allowing them to live, work and study here is something we can easily do.
At the same time, competitors who play in volatile parts of the world, like Venezuela’s winter league, should have ample security, regardless of their nationality. An American player, Ryan Tatusko, said that when he played in the Venezuelan winter league, he was put up in a well-guarded hotel and was regularly accompanied by security guards. Tatusko is a minor-leaguer in the Nationals organization.
Security is not just a concern for players and their families. We all have a stake in preventing kidnappings and ransom payments before they happen. The practice of paying ransoms funds criminal and terrorist operations and turns kidnap-for-cash into a growth industry in places where growth industries are scarce. It is in our own interest to do everything we can to prevent ransoms from being paid. Keeping those who can afford to pay them from being kidnapped in the first place is best way to do that.
Ramos’ safe return is, of course, great news. This was a story that could have had a much less happy ending, at which point there might have been an outcry demanding that we do something to protect young men like Ramos. Let’s offer that protection before we have a tragedy, rather than afterwards. It’s time to stand up for those who make America’s national pastime so much fun to watch – both Americans and those from other nations.