Kevin Gorman: Elias Diaz ordeal has Pirates countrymen concerned
BRADENTON, Fla. — Francisco Cervelli comprehends the culture of corruption and violence amid the political unrest in his native Venezuela.
What Cervelli can't relate to is how Pirates catcher Elias Diaz dealt with his mother being kidnapped last week.
"If someone would take my mom, I'd die," Cervelli said Tuesday. "Simple. I can't live without her."
Thankfully, after being kidnapped by gunpoint by three men Thursday in her hometown, Ana Soto, 72, was returned safely Sunday.
Diaz and his ordeal are on the minds of pitchers and catchers at Pirate City, especially countrymen Cervelli, closer Felipe Rivero, outfielder Jose Osuna and bullpen catcher Heberto "Herbie" Andrade.
"That was a relief, for me and all the Latin guys," Rivero said of Soto's return.
"That's your catcher. It was good for everyone, to know that everyone was OK and he was going to be able to come."
The Pirates have done the right thing, promising to support Diaz and his family and extending his report date to spring training so he can spend time with his mother.
While the Pirates expressed shock over the ordeal, their Venezuelan players aren't as surprised about the kidnapping as they are scared for the safety of their own families.
Venezuelan major league players and their families are marks for a ransom:
• In December 2008, former San Diego Padres catcher Henry Blanco's brother, Carlos, was kidnapped and killed.
• In June 2009, former Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba's son was kidnapped but later rescued.
• In November 2011, then-Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos became the first MLB player to be kidnapped for two days before being rescued.
"If they know you have a little bit of money," Rivero said, "you become a target."
Listening to the Venezuelan Pirates makes you wonder what was going through Diaz's mind while his mother was missing.
Torrealba said his son's kidnapping is something he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy, describing the three days of negotiations as a time when he couldn't sleep, couldn't drink and felt like his hands were tied.
"The thing is, you guys only see Elias' mom kidnapped. But every day it's something," Cervelli said. "Venezuela is like a bomb right now. It's crazy. I feel scared to say something now because, you know, we're dealing with people with different ideas. It's hard."
What worries Rivero is that by signing a four-year, $22 million contract extension, his family could be in danger. His mother still is in Venezuela and is afraid to fly to the U.S. alone.
"I signed that contract, so my mom and my whole family is going to become a target because everyone thinks that we have money," Rivero said. "They're going to try to take advantage of that."
Venezuela has one of the world's highest rates for crime and kidnapping, even though many go unreported.
Cervelli has a small family, which he moved to Colombia out of fear for their safety.
"Remember, my family is one last name. Everybody knows," Cervelli said. "I haven't been there in almost three years because I'm scared. I don't feel safe. I love my country. I would love to live there but not in this condition. You're dealing here with a real thing. It's not safe, in many ways.
"It's deeper than what you think, what's going on there, the corruption."
The corruption is a consequence of poverty and drug cartels, and it was illuminated in the case of Diaz's mother when five police officers were reportedly among the six men arrested.
That's why, despite their seven-figure salaries, Venezuelan MLB players feel helpless to protect their families in their homeland.
"The same people that get paid to take care of you are going against you," Rivero said. "There's no reason to hire security. They're going to do something bad to them anyways."
Cervelli was even more blunt: "You need an army. That's what you need. Venezuela! It's crazy."
Cervelli spearheaded a social media campaign among Venezuelan major league players last year to support the protesters on the streets in his homeland but now is fearful for retribution.
"I would love to do more, man, but I'm scared to keep doing things," Cervelli said. "It's crazy. What happened to (Diaz) happens to a lot of people every day. People don't know what is going on there, and it's real, something real. It's deeper than what people think."
Deeper than we can comprehend, especially when you imagine your own mother going missing.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.