Tigers' Brayan Villarreal eager for family reunion after terrifying hostage ordeal in Venezuela

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LAKELAND, Fla. – Maybe it feels like they're always coming, the men with the guns and bad intentions. Maybe it's just your turn. And maybe your security guards, if you can afford them, by their bearing alone will convince the men to leave and not come back. To just drive by.

Maybe you've got too much. Or they have too little. Or it's just the nature of things in places such as San Diego, Venezuela, where, it seems, if you're not the men with the guns and bad intentions then you're the mark.

"People in Venezuela always think that," Detroit Tigers reliever Brayan Villarreal said late Monday afternoon here. "It's a dangerous place." 

He received a text message from his mother during dinner at Red Lobster three nights ago. It had been her turn, along with Villarreal's father's and 14-year-old brother's. They'd returned to the family home to discover three men inside. The men were searching for televisions, jewelry, car keys, anything of value. And they were armed.

He called his mother. They were safe. His father and brother had been tied up. Tipped by a neighbor, police arrived. There was a shootout. The men had considered taking Villarreal's mother hostage, according to reports, but fled instead. One man was shot, police told Villarreal. All three escaped.

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Fifteen hundred miles away, Villarreal was angry. He was frightened. He sent for his family. His mother and brother should arrive in Florida soon. His father must wait. The men had taken his wallet and therefore his identification, which could require two weeks to be replaced. While convinced the robbery had been a random act, Villarreal knows the game there.

His fastball, his big-league uniform, his wealth had made him a target. Another mark.

In Venezuela in recent years, Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos has been abducted, as has former major leaguer Ugueth Urbina's mother and then-Colorado Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba's son. Perhaps the events in San Diego on Friday night were just that – a robbery foiled by a neighbor and an overworked police force – and nothing more. Police won't know until they capture the men, if they capture the men.

"I'm pretty sure they didn't know anything about me," said Villarreal, who has another younger brother with him here. "If they knew about me, they would have taken my brother."

He said it matter-of-factly. These are understood as the rules of the game, the men vs. the marks. It is why Major League Baseball has hired a team of officers who work for the league's Department of Investigations in Venezuela, a group that last winter helped locate and free Ramos.



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Pitcher Freddy Garcia, a Caracas native, told the New York Daily News a year ago he must limit his time in Venezuela during the offseason.

"I get to my house and I stay there," he said. "I don't go anywhere. I know guys that have bodyguards. Definitely it's not secure in Venezuela. A lot of stuff happens.

"You've got to be aware all the time, what you're doing, what roads you take. It's not fun to live like that. I know guys that have bulletproof stuff. For me, I really want to play in Venezuela, but I don't want to put my family at risk. It's sad. Really nice country, nice stuff to do, but you're not able to enjoy it."

Villarreal, 25 years old with barely more than a season in the major leagues, hardly slept Friday night. His family moved to a different home, where they'd feel safer. He spoke to his parents often. He wants them here so they can sleep without fear and he can stop thinking about what happened, then what might have happened. He loves his country. But, the men with the guns are there, too.

"I thought about it," he said. "We actually talk about coming here one day."

Permanently, he seemed to mean. Villarreal said he will return to Venezuela, of course. He said he will pitch in the winter leagues there, as he did this offseason, when he occasionally stayed in that house with his family.

It's a lot for a young man trying to make his way so far from home. He pitched an inning Monday afternoon against the Houston Astros, and afterward laughed with his brother. Soon, he hopes, the family will be together, away from home, and away from all that's there, the good and the evil.

"I was mad," he said. "And I couldn't do anything."

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He nodded his head. That was his story, one he'd share with many others from home. His ended well. It's all he could ask when his turn came around.

"Thank God everything is fine," he said.

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