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Unsafe at Home
March 07, 2005
Even as Venezuela enjoys huge success as a hotbed of major league talent, the country's crime wave has turned its beloved beisbol stars into prime targets
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March 07, 2005

Unsafe At Home

Even as Venezuela enjoys huge success as a hotbed of major league talent, the country's crime wave has turned its beloved beisbol stars into prime targets

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"This can happen to anybody, if you have money," Urbina notes. After his mother's release he said she would recover in Venezuela for a few weeks and then travel to Europe before spending some time with him at a house he owns in Miami. He assumes that ultimately she will return to Venezuela. "She loves her country," the pitcher told reporters at the Tigers' spring training facility in Florida. "She'll always want to go back. That's the way she is."

Kidnapping has only recently become common in Venezuela. "There used to be maybe one in three years," says Marin, the police antiabduction chief, who told SI in December that he had put 40 agents on the Urbina case. "Then we started getting a lot of copycat kidnappings, like what's going on in Colombia."

Colombia, which borders Venezuela to the west, has an estimated 2,700 kidnappings a year. In 2001, by contrast, there were just 60 abductions in Venezuela. By 2003 that number had risen to more than 300, though Marin claims that in 2004 the number fell to 115. Of those, he says, 95 were safely resolved without paying a ransom. "Baseball players are not the targets of these situations any more than anyone else with a lot of money," Marin says, "but to be safe, they have to start improving the security around them, even if they live in a small town."

Certainly Venezuela's eight winter league ball clubs have gotten the message. The Caracas Lions, whose 2004--05 roster included nine major leaguers, employ a security company that sends four armed guards to every game. They are in the dugout before and during play. They travel on the team bus to and from the hotel. And they give players the dos and don'ts of living in Caracas.

"We tell them to let us know where they're going and who they're going to be with if they leave the hotel," says Jos� El�as Escalona Martini, who heads the security company. "We do background checks on any ladies they bring back to the hotel. We tell players not to follow the same routine every day: Don't drive the same car. Don't take the same route to the park. Don't work out at the gym at the same time. We tell them to take off their jewelry when they go out. We tell them not to get right behind another car when they drive, to leave space to go around it if it suddenly stops. And if they do get robbed, we tell them to give up everything. There are 90 to 100 murders in Venezuela every weekend, and 30 to 35 are in Caracas."

The players listen. "Of course you worry," says Abreu, the Phillies' $10 million-a-year outfielder, who still plays 15 to 20 games each winter for the Lions. "You have bodyguards. My family has people take care of them too. You don't go out too much. But it's our country, and you want to go home after being away eight or nine months."

Cubs catcher Henry Blanco, who also plays for the Lions in the big league off-season, agrees. "You don't go out to eat with your family after a game, even to a good restaurant," he says. "So we just go back to the hotel. We're learning how to live like this."

And still the millionaire ballplayers return to play in the Venezuelan league. They love that the fans are rabid, the rivalries fierce and the loyalties deep. "We don't come back for the money," says Blanco. "The fans here give us so much."

On Venezuelan clubs big leaguers play next to Class A prospects, some in their teens. The teams play to win, and anything less than maximum effort is met with vociferous catcalling and whistling from the demanding fans. The atmosphere in the stadiums is festive and raucous. Beer is sold out of tubs of ice, which is sometimes hurled at umpires or players who fall into disfavor. Bottles of liquor can be purchased and consumed on the premises. Vendors walk the aisles selling whistles and blow horns. Between innings cheerleaders in disco-style outfits dance in cages, illuminated by colored spotlights and shrouded in mist from smoke machines. Fans all over the park dance with them.

"It's a lot more expressive down here," says Tom Evans, a journeyman minor leaguer who's been playing winter ball in Venezuela since 1998. "The fans are wild. They chant. If you're in a slump, they let you know. On a 2-and-0 count, they get loud and excited because it's a hitter's count and they know something might happen."

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