PORT CHARLOTTE – Lying on the floor of a Venezuelan mountain hideout as his kidnappers and would-be rescuers exchanged gunfire for more than five minutes, Wilson Ramos, understandably, feared the worst.
"Everything I was thinking in that moment was that I'm not going back home,'' Ramos said of his horrific November 2011 experience.
Two days earlier, Ramos was enjoying a family gathering outside his mother's modest house in Valencia, when the men roared up in an SUV, guns waving.
"We were just all talking,'' Ramos recalled. "I had my back to the street, they came up behind me, they grabbed me, they pushed me into the truck, and boom.''
Ramos' head was covered, and his hands later tied, though he found some relief in hearing the men talk more about their interest in a reward than hurting him.
"They told me, "We want some money, we want some money,' '' Ramos said. "I said, "Who is going to give you the money?" That was my first year in the big leagues (with Washington). They wanted like $400,000. Who's got that money their first year in the big leagues?''
Ramos didn't know then – and doesn't want to think now – what would have happened had the Venezuelan special police not tracked down the kidnappers and safely extricated him from the cabin about 50 hours after he was taken.
News accounts and police reports were unclear and conflicting on some details, and conspiracy theories typically abounded. He thought it was just bad luck he was taken. Others suggest he was targeted since he'd reached the majors, but hadn't made enough money to hire security to protect him, as others players had.
None of that seemed to matter when he shared an emotional reunion with his family.
"Those were the longest days of my life,'' Ramos said. "I can say I'm blessed because not too many people come home after that experience.''
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Heading into his second season catching for the Rays, Ramos tries to the harrowing experience out of his mind. But the memories always lurk.
"I try, but it's hard to forget it,'' he said. "It's hard. I still have some people down in my country, but I try and turn the page."
Those bad vibes surfaced again last week with the news of yet another baseball-related kidnapping in Venezuela. The mother of Pirates catcher Elias Diaz was rescued three days later.
There had been brothers, sons and other mothers – including former Devil Ray Victor Zambrano's – before her.
Ramos is known as the first active big-leaguer to be taken.
"I remember all my days,'' said Ramos, 30. "I felt so bad for (Diaz's) mom, and for him, because nobody knows what you're thinking, what you have in your head in those moments. It's very bad. … I want to say, thank God she's
Like other athletes and celebrities, Ramos eventually acquiesced to the security concerns and political turmoil, where crime is up, the economy is wrecked and corruption prevalent, moving away from his homeland after the 2014 season, settling comfortably into south Florida.
Though scarred, Ramos has not been scared to return, making several trips back to Venezuela, most recently this past Christmas. Besides a holiday to celebrate they also had a new baby, Wilson Jr., now nearly four months old, to show off, along with 3-year-old daughter Antonella.
But they have to take precautions. They keep travel plans quiet. They stay in the bigger, more secure house he moved into shortly after the kidnapping – seven bedrooms and eight armed security guards. Relatives come to them.
Ramos even makes sure to not put anything on social media while there.
"We took a lot of pictures together with the family but I waited I came back here to post them,'' he said. "You have to be smart.''
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This is a big season for Ramos, the second of his two-year deal with the Rays. He is their highest paid player this season at $10.5 million.
Last spring, he was rehabbing from right knee surgery, working hard for a June return and good-but-not-great results, hitting .260 with 11 homers, 35 RBIs and a .737 OPS in 64 games. His work behind the plate was so-so.
He showed up last week in noticeably better shape, having dropped nearly 20 pounds after resuming his five-days-a-week winter workouts alongside other elite athletes at the Bommarito training facility near his home. His diet has improved.
In theory, he should be playing this season for the big bucks contract he was in line for until blowing out his knee late in the 2016 season with Washington. That's when he made his first All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger award and finished in the top 20 of the National League MVP voting, hitting .307 with 22 homers, 80 RBIs, and an .850 OPS.
He is certain he can be that good again.
"I want to show everybody here what I can do fully healthy,'' Ramos said. "Last year, there were always people talking to me, "Don't do too much, don't do too much.' That's not what I like to do. I like to go out there and play at 100 percent, like I've done my whole career. This year will be different.''
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Ramos was overjoyed to be freed and reunited with his family, and relieved that six people had been arrested in what Venezuelan authorities said was a coordinated effort.
But that sense of security lasted only until his phone rang a few days later.
"After I got rescued I got phone calls from them like, 'Hey man, we still want some money,'" Ramos said. "One of them told me, "Okay, you don't want to give money to us, be careful because if I see you again probably I'll kill you.' That scared me a lot. Because I don't want to see those guys again.''
Somehow, Ramos moved on, in baseball and in life. Within two weeks of being freed, and after a quick check-up in Washington, he resumed playing in the Venezuelan league, and then reported as scheduled to Nationals spring training.
GM Mike Rizzo was impressed with how well Ramos was able to handle the horrifying experience "with dignity and class' and re-focus on his career.
"He's gone through something that no one else has ever gone through," Rizzo said. " … I respected greatly the way he came through it and really flourished afterward.''
Think about the "hardships" some players detail, and writers dramatically validate, in overcoming injuries, trade trauma, small town upbringings, draft snubs, below-market compensation, etc.
And think about what Ramos went through, a real-life movie-scene drama of being snatched from his family home, thrown in the back of an SUV, driven into the mountains, worried if he'd be killed, rescued in a hail of gunfire.
Hitting a curveball or blocking a pitch in the dirt suddenly wouldn't seem so important. Ramos said the whole experience actually made him mentally stronger.
"That helped me to go out there and do 100 percent every day and value my life,'' he said.
"I know God has something good for me, and he gave me good things as good reason to do my best. I still have my job, two kids, a beautiful wife, a beautiful family. And I'm still living. I'm still here.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays