Not safe at home
TOVAR, Venezuela -- As a soft Andes Mountains breeze meanders through the barred windows of the family's recently renovated home, Jesus Santana delicately fingers the only photo album from the childhood of his youngest son, Johan. There are no more than a dozen pictures locked down under plastic film on the cardboard pages, a reminder of how scarce resources were until Johan turned sliders into cash.
Jesus cries, often, at the mere thought of his son.
"Please forgive my tears," he says minutes later. "The emotion when talking about my son is overwhelming."
Watch ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey's special report on Venezuelan players' fear for the safety of their family back home. The full report airs on Outside The Lines on ESPN at 12:58 a.m. ET Tuesday, 9:58 p.m. PT Monday.
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But with each win and each newspaper headline in the Venezuelan press that lionizes Santana, a little more nervousness sets in. In this troubled South American country, the danger in being related to a famous major leaguer has been made evident.
On Sept. 1, kidnappers abducted the mother of Detroit Tigers pitcher Ugueth Urbina at the family compound in Ocumare del Tuy, a small, violent country town. Maura Villareal Urbina has not been found, as police scour the mountains and encourage the aggrieved pitcher not to pay any ransom.
"I am very concerned about what happened to Ugueth's mom," Jesus Santana says. "With the [success] of my son, I am very worried that something could happen to me or my family."
The Santanas plan to address the new reality when Johan returns to Tovar after the playoffs. Options include hiring bodyguards, buying weapons or moving the parents out of their current, low-income neighborhood.
"It's not fair," says Johan, who makes $1.6 million this season. Through arbitration this winter, he could more than triple his salary next year. "You do things for yourself, and for your family to support them, then people want to take advantage of you. I don't think it's right."
Urbina is the only Venezuelan baseball player known to have had a family member kidnapped, but the risks of living with wealth in that country have been apparent for several years, as the nation's oil-driven economy has worsened. Four of every five citizens live in poverty, and nearly half make no more than $2 a day, stoking desperation and anger toward moneyed elites. Police say they have worked on 80 kidnapping cases this year alone; the newspaper El Universal places the number of abductions at more than 200. Many kidnappings go unreported, as some families place little faith in the police to resolve these crises suitably.
Violent crime in general is a problem, with one of the highest rates on the continent. Two years ago, it touched the lives of a pair of major leaguers when Mets outfielder Richard Hidalgo was shot in the arm by carjackers, and the brother of Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora was murdered by contract for $300. Urbina himself was arrested in January after shooting at a motorcyclist from the passenger window of a car, but was released when police concluded that he fired the gun to prevent himself from being robbed.
The Urbina kidnapping has heightened the security fears of major leaguers who come from Venezuela, prompting some players to reconsider their willingness to play in that country's respected winter league.
"Move them to another area with more security because some of the people in the current area may become jealous or envious and then attack their families," Rengifo said. "And if I could take my family outside the country, I would do it."
Jesus Santana and his wife, Hilda, have no desire to leave their home. They have lovingly improved it over the past three years, adding an elegant staircase, brick interior archways, and a new room dedicated to Johan's memorabilia. They raised chickens in that space before the walls went up, Jesus says.
The family home is a place with history. But in this cramped neighborhood along an alleyway, it also stands out like a gemstone in a handful of pebbles. Just beyond its tiled patio is a neighbor's tin roof, held down by boulders. Another adjacent home is made with exposed cinderblock, indicative of the widening lifestyle gap between the Santanas and their neighbors.
Then there is the reality of Tovar's geographic location. The picturesque town is near the border of Colombia, where that nation's drug traffic meets Venezuela's economic and civic turmoil. Colombia's guerrillas often cross the border into nearby cities.
"Every time Johan calls he says, 'Be careful. Don't stay out too late. Don't give everyone a ride in your car,' " says Jesus, a retired electrician.
Interviewed between starts during the Twins' recent swing through Chicago, Johan says the safety of his family is always on his mind during the major league season. Besides his parents, he has an older brother, three sisters and a bevy of cousins and in-laws to think about.
"You always have to worry," he says. "I mean, you never know what's going to happen. You always have to be careful with things that you do and where you go because things in my country are not too good. The [Venezuelan] people need more jobs so they can support their families and everyone can be happy."
Jesus and Hilda try to minimize their exposure to danger by staying at home and keeping their doors locked. When walking through the streets of Tovar, Jesus, otherwise a friendly man, resists the temptation to stop and talk with strangers, who increasingly recognize him as Johan Santana's father.
Jesus suggests that if Johan decides that he wants his parents to move to the U.S., they would comply.
The famous son said he is inclined to take his chances and have everyone stay put. He is even building a house in Tovar for himself, his wife and daughter for use during the winter months.
"It's getting more dangerous everywhere," Johan says. "But I love my town. That's where I grew up. I always love to go back there and see my family and friends, and I don't think that will change."
For now, the rule of fear only holds so much sway.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com
ESPN producers Willie Weinbaum and Dave Lubbers, and ESPN Deportes reporter Jose Hernandez contributed to this report.