The news that Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped late Wednesday night in Venezuela came as a disappointment but not a shock to St. Louis Cardinals scouting director Jeff Luhnow.
Luhnow knows firsthand about the dangers presented in Venezuela. A series of incidents at the Cardinals' baseball academy there, including the kidnapping of the landlord, forced the team to close the facility a few years ago.
"There (were) three or four things that happened over the course of a few years that made us take pause and think about whether or not it made sense to be down there, and we decided ultimately not to," Luhnow said. "It happens a lot, but most of the time you don't even hear about it. But obviously, if it's someone you know or have feelings for, it can be scary.
"Our academy administrator, her boyfriend — who became her husband — he was kidnapped at one point. A lot of them are what they call express kidnappings, where they take you and basically demand a low sum; they aren't asking for a million dollars, just one or two thousand dollars and then they return you. It's desperate times down there. A lot of people are struggling economically and that's what they have to resort to, which really is unfortunate."
Cardinals reliever Eduardo Sanchez is a Venezuelan native, and several other players in the organization hail from there as well. The Cardinals have a number of players playing in the Venezuelan Winter League and additional players scheduled to report there in the coming days.
Asked about the dangers presented to their players living in Venezuela in the offseason and those participating in winter ball, Luhnow said the team spends time educating them on what to expect and how to act.
"These guys are used to it," Luhnow said. "Our landlord was held for ransom, and he was ultimately returned after the ransom was paid. We also have a player who was in our system, Jose Martinez, whose father and grandmother were basically murdered in his home in Venezuela. These guys are used to it.
"This isn't the first kidnapping they've heard about. They know how to take care of themselves. Unfortunately, if someone has the desire to come after you and get you, there's really not a lot you can do to protect yourself. We just hope it doesn't happen to any of our guys, but they are very well aware of the situations and the dangers and how to protect themselves."
Luhnow is in Los Angeles for a series of scouting department meetings but said he's been following the Ramos story closely. There's even talk of suspending the Venezuelan Winter League for the rest of the season.
The Cardinals have no immediate plans to pull their players from Venezuela, but Luhnow said they may rethink the way they handle the situation in the future.
"This is an unusual situation but not completely surprising," Luhnow said. "Crime in Venezuela is always a concern for us and has been a concern for a while. Clearly just reading the notes on this story, it seems like they knew who he was and went after him with the intent to get money. I think, even though they haven't heard from him, that's my guess what it was about, and ultimately he will be returned safe and sound, I hope. It is a very difficult situation and I really hope, as does everybody, that it resolves itself soon.
"It's a situation that you worry about, and this is the worst-case scenario happening right here where a player actually gets kidnapped. The economy is really driving a lot of that down there. Venezuela is a beautiful country filled with many wonderful people, but the economic situation is dire down there and a lot of people are desperate. When people get in desperate times, they do desperate things. There has been a real increase in kidnappings across all sectors down there."
Asked if he was concerned for his players, Luhnow said, "We always have concerns for our players, both the local players who are playing winter ball as well as the import players we send down there."
Luhnow also expressed the danger that he and baseball scouts from across the league take each time they must travel to Venezuela and other Latin American countries.
While most of the focus is on the players and their families, front office and scouting personnel put themselves as risk when they travel there as well.
"Everybody scouts down there; we all have to take our chances and travel down there. It's part of our jobs," Luhnow said. "And you just hope that nothing happens to you because you never know.
"We actually struggle with sending our scouts down there from the US at times because we're asking them to go into an environment that possibly could have some dangers. Fortunately, the Dominican (Republic) seems to be a very safe place, but Venezuela continues to turn toward the negative and it's something that all major league teams and Major League Baseball as a whole is going to have to deal with because we're all down there scouting players.
"I thank God nothing has happened to any scouts or personnel from any clubs, but given it's now happening to players themselves, who knows what the future is going to hold. We really have to think about how we operate down there."
Make sure you catch all the St. Louis Cardinals news from beat reporter B.J. Rains, exclusive videos, commentary and much more at FOXSportsMidwest.com.