CARACAS (Reuters) - Friends and family of kidnapped U.S. Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos in Venezuela prayed for his safe return on Friday from gunmen who seized him during an off-season visit to the South American country.
The 24-year-old Washington Nationals catcher was at his mother’s home in the city of Valencia on Wednesday when four men dragged him into a stolen car and sped away. He had been due to play for the local Aragua Tigers during the off-season.
“There is still no news. ... The kidnappers have not made contact. We just have to remain patient, pray and have faith,” Tigers spokeswoman Kathe Vilera said.
“It is anguish, yes it is. But there is hope and we have to think positive. We continue to support his family,” Vilera added.
Kidnappings, armed robberies and murders are common in Venezuela, where insecurity routinely tops surveys of voters’ concerns ahead of a presidential election next October.
But Ramos’s case has particularly shocked this baseball-mad nation, putting big pressure on the authorities to find him. He is one of the many players from Venezuela who have found stardom and wealth playing baseball in the United States.
Friends and neighbors flocked to the family’s modest home, a minute’s silence was held at each local league baseball game, and players wore green armbands in a show of solidarity.
Fans at the stadiums waved hand-made signs reading “Free Wilson Ramos” and “Wilson we are with you and your family.”
Police found the vehicle the kidnappers used abandoned on Thursday, and detectives from the CICPC investigative division produced artists’ impressions of two of the suspects.
“The Chavez government is working 24 hours a day to solve this case,” said Deputy Interior Minister Edwin Rojas.
Abductions in Venezuela typically target wealthy local businessmen and landowners, although relatives of Major League Baseball players have been targeted here in the past.
In many cases, victims are taken to cash machines in so-called “express kidnappings” that last a few hours or less. In others, gangs demand big ransoms from relatives. Experts say the majority of cases are never reported to the police.
The abduction of Ramos has been especially distressing for Venezuelan baseball fans, who are hugely proud of local players who make it into the U.S. big leagues.
Seizing on public outrage at the case, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition said it was more evidence of “the overwhelming insecurity that we Venezuelans are suffering due to the negligence of the government.”
The Washington Nationals and Major League Baseball said on Thursday they had been instructed to make no further comment beyond a statement of concern for Ramos and his family. The league said its investigators were working with authorities.
On opening day last spring there were 62 players born in Venezuela on Major League Baseball club rosters.
Baseball was brought to the country by U.S. oil workers early last century. Local TV is packed with games broadcast from the United States, and Chavez himself is a player who once dreamed of pitching in the major leagues.
Ramos is considered one of the more highly regarded catching prospects in baseball. He had a .267 batting average with 15 home runs and 52 runs batted in for the Nationals during the 2011 season, his first in the major leagues.
Editing by Will Dunham