CARACAS, Venezuela – Former Major League players Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo were killed in a car accident in Venezuela by highway gangsters who robbed them, officials said Friday.
33-year-old Valbuena and 37-year-old Castillo died last Thursday when their SUV crashed while trying to veer around an object on the road, Yaracuy state governor Julio Leon Heredia said on his Twitter account. Officials have said that some bandits place or launch items on motorways to force vehicles to stop or crash in order to rob occupants.
Heredia said that four people were detained after being found owned by the athletes.
Valbuena and Castillo were team-mates of the team of Cardenales de Lara in the Venezuelan winter league and were returning from a game in the capital when the incident en route to the city of Barquisimeto occurred.
Third baseman Carlos Rivero was in the car and survived, according to the beisbolplay site.
Valbuena, an 11-year-old league veteran, hit 1999 with nine homers and 33 RBIs in 96 games this year for the Los Angeles Angels, who released him on 7 August.
"I will miss Luis's lines, the smile, the genuine love for his teammates and, of course, the headshots," Astros director AJ Hinch said in a statement. "He was a loved person whether he was in our team or in the field."
Valbuena hit 226 with 114 home games in 11 major seasons with Angels, Seattle, Cleveland, Chicago Cubs and Houston.
"Luis always smiled and was one of the happiest players in baseball," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said in a statement. "It gave joy to his teammates and to our fans, he helped our franchise to turn a corner in 2015 and provided many fond memories."
Castillo has played five seasons with Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Houston. He had an average of .254 with 39 home runs.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said in a tweet: "I join the mourning that has overwhelmed the Venezuelan baseball family and all its fans".
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement calling it "a very sad day for our sport".
"It's clear from all of today's stories that they loved baseball and impacted their teammates and the clubs they represented," he said, expressing "my heartfelt condolences to their families, friends and fans, especially those of their native Venezuela. "
Late Friday afternoon, the coffins with the players' bodies had arrived at the Antonio Herrera Gutierrez stadium in Barquisimeto, where they were received in tears by their teammates. A mass was held to greet them.
The professional league of Venezuelan baseball has announced that all three scheduled games on Friday have been canceled and said that the flags will fly at half-mast in all stadiums for three days.
League president Juan Jose Avila told Union Radio that he was considering banning players from traveling in private cars to move from one game to another, saying that if the players had been on the team bus, " nothing would have happened to them ".
Venezuelan teams tend to travel by bus protected by security forces.
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