Horrors Cuban players face chasing MLB dreams lost on some fans

By now the harrowing tales of ballplayers defecting from Cuba are familiar, perhaps to the point where, as Americans, many of us take for granted the risks involved as well as the emotional hardship of secretly leaving home without assurance of ever being able to return.

As such an MLB Network documentary, “Cuba: Island of Baseball,” airing Tuesday night, packs some powerful emotion in telling the stories of those agonizing decisions and the perseverance to make good on them.

Or as Cuban baseball historian Adrian Burgos Jr., puts it: “We underestimate the challenge of being men without a country, of being men who have no homeland yet achieve greatness.”

It’s a point well-taken. Maybe you roll your eyes when Yoenis Cespedes flaunts his wealth by parading his tricked-up sports cars into the Mets’ spring training parking lot; just don’t forget the courage it takes to make it to this country and earn all that money.

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In some ways, in fact, most of us don’t know the half of what a dirty, dangerous business it is to make it from Cuba to the big leagues.

At least, that’s the unmistakable impression I came away with after talking on Monday to Paul Minoff, the attorney representing Mariners’ outfielder Leonys Martin in the federal trial against agent Bart Hernandez, who was indicted in February for human trafficking related to smuggling Martin out of Cuba.

The indictment contends that Hernandez conspired with Elizier Lazo and others to smuggle Martin into the U.S. for profit. In a separate trial, Lazo pleaded guilty in 2014 to a smuggling charge and was sentenced to more than 14 years in a federal prison.

As a result — though Martin hasn’t blossomed into the star the Rangers anticipated when they signed him to a $15.5 million contract in 2011, and was traded to the Mariners a year ago — this case has received a fair amount of national attention.

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Yet, as Minoff, a shareholder in the Gray/Robinson Law Firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said, it goes largely unnoticed by the average baseball fan.

“There’s so much the public isn’t aware of that goes on with players trying to leave Cuba,” Minoff said by phone. “There’s a network of people out there who target players and then put them through mental torture until they get their money.”

In fact, as part of this case, in which Martin agreed to cooperate with federal authorities, the player claims he was held hostage in Mexico for several weeks while family members who came with him were shipped on to Miami, and agents negotiated with major league teams. He said he signed an agreement “under extreme fear and duress” to pay the agents $1.5 million as part of his deal.

“These aren’t good guys,” Minoff said, speaking generally about the network of smugglers. “They are guys with guns who will kill you if they don’t get what they want. Leonys and his family weren’t harmed but they went through severe mental torture.

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“The people who brought Leonys over have been shut down. But that’s like taking a drug dealer off the corner. There are plenty more out there. And Leonys is one of the fortunate ones. He made it and got his money.

Mariners outfielder fielder Leonys Martin is at the center of a federal human trafficking lawsuit that claims an agent smuggled Martin out of Cuba and held him in Mexico against his will.

Mariners outfielder fielder Leonys Martin is at the center of a federal human trafficking lawsuit that claims an agent smuggled Martin out of Cuba and held him in Mexico against his will.

(Noah K. Murray/USA Today Sports)

“There are a lot of Cuban players who are in limbo. From what I’ve been told, there are as many as 375-to-400 players who got out of Cuba and are in Haiti or the Dominican Republic (to establish residency as free agents), waiting for agents to make deals. And many of them aren’t going to make it. That’s the really sad part.”

The MLB documentary makes reference to a similar fear of many Cuban players getting left behind these days, but it doesn’t delve into the smuggling world or the Bart Hernandez trial.

Yet it’s impossible to ignore that as a backdrop of sorts, which makes the comments of the players interviewed that much more compelling.

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From the pain of Tony Oliva, Luis Tiant, and others who couldn’t return to Cuba after the Fidel Castro-driven Cuban revolution in 1959, to the harsh consequences Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez faced after his half-brother, Livan, escaped the island to pitch for the Marlins in 1997, all Cuban players have paid a price of some kind.

The 78-year old Oliva, an eight-time All-Star with the Twins, said that every year he wished the baseball season would never end because going home afterward meant “I would get sad because all of my family was in Cuba.”

El Duque, a key figure on those Yankees’ dynasty teams in the late 1990s, recalls that he was suspended from the Cuban National Team as punishment for Livan defecting, making him determined to leave as well.

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Yoenis Cespedes’ family – his father, Crescencio Cespedes (l.), grandfather Valentin Cespedes (c.) and half-brother Yoelqui Cespedes – still live in Cuba.

(Corey Sipkin/New York Daily News)

“I was left with one decision,” he says. “Either I play baseball or I prefer to die. Baseball was my passion. It was life or death. It was the only way I would play baseball again and the decision wasn’t hard to make.”

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Times have changed, of course, to some degree, and that’s at least partly the heart of the matter in the documentary. After President Obama restored relations between the U.S. and Cuba in December of 2014, MLB organized a goodwill trip a year later on which players like Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, and Alexei Ramirez returned home for the first time since defecting, and MLB Network chronicled it.

“We got to tell the human side of the story,” says senior producer Alfonso Pozzo, himself a descendant of Cuban immigrants, who was on the trip. “To see Cuban defectors return to their homeland was extremely moving and humbling.

“My family left Cuba over 50 years ago and I never fully grasped how hard it was for them to leave with a single suitcase and five dollars on Christmas Eve to start a new life from scratch. To see these ballplayers return to their land was something I can’t put into words.”

The documentary takes care of that. The players put it in their own words, in fact, hopeful now that the political climate is changing for the better so that others eventually will have freedom to leave Cuba without punishment.

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Fidel Castro’s recent death adds to such hope. While it isn’t addressed in the documentary, president-elect Donald Trump’s recent threats to roll back diplomatic relations with Cuba creates doubt that players will ever have that freedom.

All of which makes the timing of “Cuba: Island of Baseball” especially poignant.

Tags:
mlb
cuba
leonys martin
seattle mariners
human trafficking
yoenis cespedes
fidel castro

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