The dangers of MLB stardom

BOSTON -- Franklin Morales sensed the fear in his agent's voice.

Thirteen months ago, the Red Sox pitcher was enjoying his offseason back home in Venezuela until he received the call. It was his agent, Gustavo Marcano, calling to deliver terrifying news regarding his other client.

Marcano received word that Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos had just been kidnapped by four gunmen in Valencia, Venezuela, a city roughly two hours from Morales' hometown in San Juan de los Morros.

So on the heels of Ramos' sudden abduction, Marcano issued an urgent warning to Morales. It was a message the 26-year-old would never forget.

"Keep a close eye on your home and be careful wherever you go," Morales said, reciting his agent's words verbatim. "You have to be aware of every situation because you just never know when danger is coming your way."

Living in fear is the new reality for Venezuelan major league players in the offseason. With the crime rate rising in the country, ballplayers are victims of their fame and becoming primary targets for kidnappings.

'People with money are easy targets'

They are called secuestros in Spanish. According to the Overseas Security Advisory, there were 1,034 documented kidnappings in Venezuela in 2011, the highest total since Hugo Chavez took over as president in 1999.

While the abductions reached a peak in 2011, they have plagued Venezuelan major leaguers for years. The mothers of former MLB pitchers Ugueth Urbina and Victor Zambrano were kidnapped in 2004 and 2009, respectively, but were eventually rescued.

Midway through the 2009 season, then-Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba's brother-in-law and 11-year-old son were abducted on the way to school. They were held for ransom for a day and a half before being released.

But on Nov. 9, 2011, Ramos became the first known major league player to be kidnapped. It took two days and a massive gunfight with the abductors for the Venezuelan police to rescue the catcher.

The harrowing circumstances sent shockwaves around the baseball world. It was particularly frightening for Boston's two Venezuelan players -- Morales and Felix Doubront; each considers Ramos a friend.

"It's people looking for money, and people with money are easy targets," Doubront said of the abductions. "It's absurd that they kidnapped Wilson because in reality, he had just one year of major league experience, so the money wasn't exactly there.

"I was really upset by the situation because that shouldn't be happening to any person, baseball player or not. Something needs to be done to put a stop to the kidnappings because it's becoming so common and it's all for money."

A native of Carabobo, Doubront no longer resides in Venezuela. The 25-year-old Red Sox pitcher now spends his offseasons in Greenville, S.C., where he lives with his wife and two children.

Despite the state of affairs in his country, Doubront still takes his family to visit every offseason. He planned to celebrate the holiday season in Venezuela and stay for roughly two months.

But Doubront maintains a very low profile during his homecomings. In fact, he spends the majority of his vacation at home. Whenever he does explore town, Doubront always aligns himself with a large posse, typically friends who serve as bodyguards.

"Walking around, especially by myself, is dangerous," Doubront said. "It's scary to think that there may be a criminal, maybe not going after me, but going after one of your loved ones. Even if you just go to the beach, you have to be careful. It's frightening."

For some players, those concerns permeate into the season. Morales -- who lives in Venezuela during the offseason -- admitted to feeling uneasy about the lengthy separation from his extended family while playing in Boston.

"We're living in the [United States] for seven to eight months, so we don't know what's going on or what's changed during that time," Morales said. "We don't know what's happening -- if your friends have gotten into trouble with the wrong people. You just never really know who you can trust."

Cautious by nature, Morales is very protective of his family at home. Each time he travels outside his mother's house in Venezuela, Morales almost always brings them along for their own safety.

It's also why Morales keeps a small circle of friends. Over the course of his six-year career in the majors, he has seen several people try to associate themselves with him for the wrong reasons.

"You have to know who you're hanging out with, who your real friends are and the people you should really trust -- but not 100 percent trust," Morales said. "There's so much going on there that you just never expect it, so you have to be attentive."

Being cautious is a way of life

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington is aware of the safety concerns in Venezuela. Once the 2011 season ended, he approached Morales -- acquired in a midseason trade with the Rockies -- to discuss his plans for the offseason.

Morales informed Cherington that he wanted to play winter ball in the Venezuelan league for Leones del Caracas. Before granting Morales permission, however, Cherington made a point of inquiring about his living situation.

"We talked about safety measures and he felt comfortable with where he was going to be and that he'd be safe and careful," Cherington said. "We pay close attention to [the issues in Venezuela]. We've got players who live there and we're concerned about their well-being."

Those worries are shared among all 30 major league teams. Last year, Venezuelans made up about 8 percent of the league's rosters on Opening Day, ranking second behind the Dominican Republic with about 27 percent of the 243 players born outside the United States.

Between the Giants and the Tigers, the World Series alone featured nine Venezuelan players. Before his team's postseason push, Tigers infielder Omar Infante empathized with Morales' and Doubront's plight.

"I know a lot of fellow players that have had to hire bodyguards, buy pistols and drive cars with tinted windows [in Venezuela]," said Infante, a native of Puerto la Cruz. "It hurts to have to go back to your own country and have to watch yourself like that -- and have bodyguards on call -- because you're never comfortable."

Marlins pitcher Henderson Alvarez understands the stress. Just two years ago, he could saunter the streets of Venezuela without concern as a minor leaguer. Since debuting for the Blue Jays in 2011, he has been forced to change his lifestyle.

"I have to be even more careful since people are starting to recognize me as a big name," said Alvarez, who hails from the same city as Doubront. "I'm no Felix Hernandez, Freddy Garcia or Johan Santana, but I still have to be prepared to protect myself and my family."

That trepidation haunts many while in the United States. When approached for this article, Orioles outfielder Endy Chavez and Braves infielder Martin Prado politely declined to comment, citing the fear of endangering their families with public remarks.

Morales understands their apprehension. Many players avoid drawing added attention to their families.

"If you're looking for danger, danger will find you," Morales said. "Even if you're careful about where you go, stay with your family and have bodyguards, you still have to be aware of what's going on because you just never really know people. As a public figure, you have to be very cautious when you're just walking around the streets."

So the question is: Why do players continue to live in Venezuela over the offseason? It's an inquiry that Infante constantly received from his American-born teammates in the Marlins organization.

The answer, he said, is pretty simple.

"It's hard to leave your family, your friends, your country, your loved ones over there," Infante said. "Plus it's tough to get visas for all your family members to come to the United States. And living here isn't easy either. Life is expensive."

In Doubront's case, he chose to live in the United States after meeting his wife in Greenville. Still, despite leaving his old stomping grounds, Doubront is committed to visiting Venezuela frequently.

After all, he wants to spend time with his family. He wants to catch up with his hometown friends. And most important, he wants his two sons to learn about their Venezuelan roots.

"The first few days that I'm back over there, yeah, I am nervous," Doubront said. "Especially with my kids and my wife with me. But after a few days, I adapt and get used to being back. That's home. I love being there. I need that support from my family.

"You can build a good life there, but you just have to be very careful."