Tattoos are commonplace among athletes these days, with all kinds of messages of love and devotion to friends and families expressed in body art. None of them, however, are as poignant as the simple inscription Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos carries on his arm:
04/19/2012 1:17 PM ET
Ramos moves on after kidnapping
Nats catcher sought refuge in baseball after being held captive
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
The numbers refer to Nov. 11, 2011, the date Ramos was rescued by Venezuelan authorities after he was kidnapped by bandits and held hostage for two days. It was a frightening episode, a time when Ramos and his family feared for his life. It is not a subject he likes to discuss, preferring to talk about his team and its prospects. But the ordeal is always there, buried in the recesses of his mind.
Members of ballplayers' families have been kidnapped there before, but Ramos was the first active Major Leaguer to be taken. The crime against a high-profile athlete triggered an emotional response by the people of his country. Prayer vigils were held and rescuing the catcher became a major priority for the government.
Ramos was sitting in front of his home with his father and two brothers. His mother was cooking in the kitchen when the 24-year-old catcher was taken by two armed bandits in a country where law and order does not always prevail. The Chevrolet SUV pulled up in front of the house, and the gunmen seized the catcher. It happened so fast, in an instant, really, but the memory will last a lifetime.
The kidnappers switched cars, all the time with Ramos blindfolded. The second car weaved its way into a remote mountainous area near Montalban, Venezuela, finally ending up at a mud hut where four more kidnappers waited. Ramos offered his jewelry, but the gunmen weren't interested. They wanted ransom.
Now, the battle of nerves began -- the kidnappers who held Ramos against the government plotting a rescue mission.
It took 51 hours before the authorities, using information culled from cell-phone calls, found the catcher and with guns blazing, Ramos was retrieved. Eventually, eight men were charged in the kidnapping. Ramos was grateful beyond words. He returned home, and a few days later flew to Washington where team physicians gave the catcher a clean bill of health.
And then the catcher returned to his refuge -- baseball.
Less than two weeks after the rescue mission, Ramos was in the starting lineup for the Winter League Aragua Tigres. He struggled during the Tigres' regular season but went 9-for-20 in the playoffs, helping his team win the championship. Baseball had provided a sanctuary for the Ramos.
"I played because I wanted to get my mind on baseball," he said. "I played because I wanted to clear my mind."
Ramos has been regarded as one of baseball's top catching prospects. He grew up in the Minnesota system, but the Twins had Joe Mauer in front of him and sent the catcher to the Nationals. There he benefitted from coaching by Pudge Rodriguez, who was near the end of a Hall of Fame career.
"Watch him," Rodriguez advised clubhouse visitors who asked about Ramos. "He's going to be a good one."
In his rookie season, Ramos produced a club record for catchers with 14 home runs, as he established his big league credentials.
When he came to Spring Training this year, teammates avoided the subject of the kidnapping. There was no need to open painful wounds. Ramos was grateful for that and the chance to put the ordeal aside as he prepared for the new season.
But he acknowledges the affair and his gratitude for the way it turned out with his tattoos. Besides the date of his rescue, Ramos has a Spanish phrase. The translation: "I put everything in Jesus because he has my back."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.