March 31, 2005


THE GREATEST SAVE: The inside story of the daring rescue of a Tiger's mother (TAMARA AUDI and MICHAEL ROSENBERG, 3/31/05, Detroit FREE PRESS)

He went over the plan again in his head.

Sixteen men on the ground, armed with M-16 rifles and newly sharpened machetes. Four men in the chopper, three more in the plane. The ground force would split into six Jeeps floated by boat across the Orinoco River. They would drive into the Amazon jungle as far as the Jeeps could go, then hike into the mountains the rest of the way, a two-hour march, each man weighed down by weapons and flak jackets. They would reach camp at sunrise and attack immediately.

He hoped she would be alive when they got there.

It had been five months since gunmen seized Maura Villarreal, the 54-year-old mother of Tigers pitcher Ugueth Urbina, whisking her away in a worn, green Ford Fiesta.

Even in a country with an alarming rise in the number of kidnappings, this one was unlike any other. The brazen, daylight abduction of a sports star's mother showed kidnappers were getting bolder. Maura's captors had even dressed in the official uniforms of the federal police.

The case stunned Venezuelans and dominated the life of Joel Rengifo, a fit, balding 48-year-old federal police commander with a methodical mind and crooked front teeth, lying now on an uncomfortable bed in a rented room, replaying the rescue plan, disobeying his own orders to sleep.

In a few hours, Rengifo and his men would leave this village outside Caicara, a last outpost before the mountainous jungle that consumes lower Venezuela, and embark on the most important mission of their careers and one of the most dangerous of their lives. [...]

On Sept. 2, Urbina boarded a flight from Miami to Caracas, the chic, turbulent capital of his home country.

It was a backward journey for Urbina, who had spent a decade trying to escape Venezuela's slums for a major league life in North America. In a scant three hours and 15 minutes -- the time it took to fly from Miami -- Venezuela's troubles would claim him, again.

In 1994, when he was 20 and barely holding a spot on a Double-A roster in Harrisburg, Pa., Urbina received what was then the worst news of his life. His father and biggest supporter, Juan Manuel, had been shot and killed trying to resist four young robbers on the streets of Ocumare del Tuy.

Urbina went home, devastated. He told his mother he would never play again. Maura would not hear of it. She reminded him that his father always thought he would make the big leagues and wanted him to be a star.

Five weeks after his father's murder, Urbina was back in the United States, playing ball. Friends said he returned with new purpose -- to make his father proud and give his mother and brothers a secure, comfortable life. In 1995, a year after his father's death, Urbina pitched in his first game for the Montreal Expos.

Three years later, already known for his fastball and intimidating on-mound sneer, Urbina signed a long-term contract with the Expos for $10 million.

He moved his mother and brothers out of a rough, cramped apartment complex in Ocumare del Tuy into a large white stucco house in a middle-class neighborhood of pastels, palms and new American cars.

Urbina installed himself in a gorgeous, bright-yellow mansion in a fashionable neighborhood of Caracas. He bought a gold Mercedes, a motorcycle and a few off-road four-wheelers. His first neighborhood was just a few miles away, rising above Caracas in the form of massive, jail-like apartment buildings and burnt orange ranchos -- tiny, hand-built concrete huts stacked every which way.

The spray-painted face of Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara is still found throughout the January 23 barrio -- named for the date Venezuelans won democracy. Political unrest and gang violence are still common. Parents command children to be in by 6 p.m. Elderly people walk with snarling dogs on ropes for protection.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 31, 2005 11:37 AM

Be sure to post part 2.

Posted by: Ptah at March 31, 2005 11:52 AM