NEW YORK -- Some years, it’s with champagne, straight out of the bottle. Other years call for cocktails. One way or another, Mets catcher Wilson Ramos makes it a point to celebrate every 11th of November “like a birthday.”
That was the day, in 2011, when Venezuelan police commandos freed Ramos from the kidnappers who had taken him at gunpoint in front of his childhood home in the city of Valencia, allegedly with the intention of seeking ransom. After a two-day manhunt that rattled the baseball world and ended with a gunfight deep in the mountains west of the city, Ramos made it back home, his 6-foot-1 frame no worse for the wear.
Ramos was shaken, no doubt. But he was alive and well.
“I feel like I was born again on that day,” says Ramos, in Spanish, on a spring afternoon at Citi Field. “I try to enjoy it to the max because it was a special day -- a wonderful day when I got to see my family, my mother, my father and my siblings again.”
The conversation soon turns to the tattoo on the inside of his left forearm, which features the date of his liberation in numerical form -- 11-11-11 -- and a verse from the Bible, Philippians 4:13. Ramos was 24 and coming off his rookie season with the Nationals when he was abducted. The tattoo was freshly inked when he showed up at Washington’s camp the following spring.
To say that Ramos is lucky to be alive is more than an understatement; the tattoo is there to make sure he doesn’t forget that.
“I know of many [kidnapping] cases in my country in which those people never make it back home, never see their families again,” says Ramos, now 31. “That’s why I say I was born again, because God allowed me to come out of all that unharmed and it was another chance at life.”
In 2011, Ramos hit .267 with 15 home runs and 52 RBIs in 113 games for Washington on his way to finishing fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year Award balloting. But it was another number -- his $415,000 salary -- that presumably caught the attention of the armed men who pulled up in front of his home in the Santa Ines neighborhood of Valencia around 6:45 p.m. on Nov. 9, shoved him into an orange SUV and took off, all while his horrified family looked on.
Kept in a remote mountain hideout, surrounded by what he described as “practically a jungle,” sleep eluded Ramos. He had no appetite for the arepas -- traditional corn cakes -- that his captors offered. He doesn’t recall how many pounds he lost, but he remembers being decidedly slimmer when it was all over, some 51 hours later.
Ramos later told Venezuelan state television that his abductors mocked him and talked about the money they were going to make at his expense. The last moments of his ordeal were among the most harrowing, as the kidnappers and police exchanged gunfire, though, according to the Venezuelan government, no one was killed.
“No one is prepared for an experience like that, to have to think about never going back home, never seeing your family again,” says Ramos. “It was very traumatic for me.”
Ramos is the first known Major Leaguer to fall into the hands of kidnappers in Venezuela. However, the families of big league players have long been targeted in a country where years of economic instability have bred crime and violence. The mothers of former Major Leaguers Ugueth Urbina and Victor Zambrano were kidnapped. For Yorvit Torrealba, it was his son and two other relatives. They were all recovered safely. Henry Blanco’s brother did not survive.
Most recently, in February 2018, Pirates catcher Elias Diaz’s mother was rescued after being held captive for three days.
Kidnappings aren’t the only perils that Venezuela holds for a professional athlete. In December, free agent Luis Valbuena and former Major League infielder Jose Castillo were killed when their vehicle crashed as the driver attempted to avoid an obstacle placed in the road by bandits.
Though he was aware of the dangers, Ramos was blindsided to find himself a target.
“It was something I wasn’t expecting,” Ramos said. “I’ve always been someone who likes to help others. I’ve always been close to my friends, to my neighbors.”
But Ramos also felt plenty of love and support during the ordeal, in Venezuela and beyond. As the authorities searched for him, fans in Washington organized a candlelight vigil for him outside the center-field gates at Nationals Park. The latter gesture took him by surprise, considering he had played just one full season in the big leagues.
“I was really moved by what the fans in Washington did,” Ramos said. “Their support was enormous. I didn’t expect it. That made me really happy.”
Aside from the tattoo, Ramos bears no physical sign of his ordeal; his scars were of the invisible kind.
After the kidnapping, loud noises startled him. At times, he had trouble sleeping. And even falling asleep wasn’t necessarily a reprieve: In recurring nightmares, the kidnappers came back. With most of his immediate family back in Valencia, where they live to this day, he was also plagued by a constant fear of such a horrific experience befalling someone close to him.
“For several years, that was on my mind, thinking about the harm that had been done to me,” Ramos said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone in my family because it would be the same pain.”
Nationals staff recommended psychotherapy. The man nicknamed “The Buffalo” decided he didn’t need it.
“I tried to be tough,” Ramos said. “I told myself that I was going to get over it, that my job and coming to the United States were going to help me move on, because you don’t see those kinds of things in this country.”
Ramos wasn’t quick to leave Venezuela in the aftermath of his ordeal, however. He traveled to Washington a few days after his rescue but stayed just long enough to undergo a physical evaluation and give a press conference before returning to Valencia. The quick turnaround was motivated largely by his desire to be back on a baseball field.
Just 11 days after clinging to the ground as bullets flew around him, Ramos was in the lineup for his season debut with his winter ball team, the Aragua Tigers, as had been his plan when he went home that fall. He hit just .218 with a home run and five RBIs in 25 games for the Tigers that season, but the healing had begun.
“A lot of people told me to leave the country. [They asked] why I hadn’t left,” Ramos recalled. “I told them that I simply wasn’t ready to leave, despite the psychological harm I endured and what had happened to me. One of the things that was going to help me was continuing to play baseball, and it did.”
Back to baseball
On November 9, 2011, Ramos was living a dream.
He had signed with the Twins seven years earlier, just a few weeks before he turned 17. A trade had sent him to the Nationals in July 2010. When Ramos debuted with Washington later that season, his childhood hero, Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez, became his teammate. Ramos had used his first earnings to buy a new house for his family, but they hadn’t yet moved in.
The cruel irony of having his life threatened as a by-product of achieving his childhood ambitions was not lost on Ramos.
“It was really painful because from the time we are young we work for the dream of playing baseball, of playing in the Major Leagues, and then something like this happens to me because I’m a ballplayer,” Ramos said.
Ramos ultimately credits baseball with showing him a path forward.
“Being here, playing the game I know how to play, doing what I know how to do, helps clear my mind a lot,” Ramos said, surveying his surroundings from the Mets’ dugout at Citi Field -- though he’s had his share of lows on the field, too.
In 2012, he tore both the meniscus and the ACL in his right knee in mid-May and needed two surgeries. As a result of those and other injuries, he played in just 191 big league games from 2012-14. Then, with five regular season games left to play in '16, an All-Star year in which he slashed .307/.354/.496 with 22 home runs and 80 RBIs in 131 games for Washington, Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee for a second time. It was a much more devastating injury, as he was poised to cash in on his career year as a free agent.
The Rays still signed Ramos for two years that offseason, giving him an opportunity to rehab and re-establish his value. That he did, earning his second All-Star nod last season before Tampa Bay traded him to the Phillies. In December, Ramos signed with the Mets for two years and $19 million with a team option for 2021.
Ramos' attitude towards the adversity he’s had in his career strikes a familiar chord.
“Even though I went through such an awful moment in my career [in 2016], other doors opened that made me continue to work hard, stay focused and give 100 percent,” Ramos said. “After a lot of bad things, good things come, too.”
A happy ending
Over the years, as the ligaments in his right knee snapped and healed, then snapped and healed again, Ramos found that his mind also recovered.
Time and baseball helped. So did becoming a husband and father.
These days, painful memories of his ordeal no longer haunt Ramos in his sleep. Flashbacks don’t intrude when he’s at the beach or the pool with his kids, Antonella, 4, and Wilson Jr., 1, who enjoy being around water as much as he does. Ramos and his wife Yely celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in January. The family lives in Miami during the offseason.
Ramos' life is full, and he’s got the tattoos to show it: Antonella’s name is emblazoned on the inside of his right forearm, Wilson Jr.’s on the outside. Both are larger and more conspicuous than the 11-11-11 on his left arm.
“Day to day all I think about is their well-being and working hard to give them a good future,” Ramos says of his family. “Those are the kinds of things that have helped me not to dwell on that awful moment anymore.”
That doesn’t mean Ramos is detached from the turmoil back home. Like his fellow countrymen, he monitors developments in Venezuela, where the collapse of a once-prosperous economy has led to civil unrest and a humanitarian crisis marked by shortages of food, medicine and other necessities. During Spring Training, the worry for his loved ones became such that he asked manager Mickey Callaway for a day off to clear his head. He used it to take his kids to a water park.
But more often than not, the abduction is something Ramos only thinks about when someone else brings it up.
“For me, that’s like a closed book,” Ramos says.
November 11 is the exception.
“I learned that day to value life more, the day to day,” says Ramos. “I had a chance to build a life with my wife, to get married, to have my kids. That’s really a beautiful way to look at life from another point of view.”
Nathalie Alonso is part of the editorial team of LasMayores.com, the official MLB page in Spanish. Follow her on Twitter @NathalieMLB.