Yasiel Puig has never spoken publicly in too much detail about his journey from Cuba to America, a journey that, as we're learning now, could have cost him his life, or at least his baseball career.
Last July, Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan gave us an inside account of one of Puig's many failed defection attempts. He was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard and spent nearly two weeks aboard a ship before being returned to Cuba.
Now, Jesse Katz, writing in Los Angeles Magazine, gives us an even darker tale of Puig's defection — the final one, the one that eventually got him into a Dodgers uniform but not before a stand-off between Puig's smugglers and a Miami man who was fronting the cost to get Puig to the U.S. That led to threats of violence against Puig and his family back in Cuba, as well as a rescue straight out your favorite spy movie. If you think you know Yasiel Puig and all that weighs on the shoulders of baseball's most polarizing player, you might not.
Consider this, from Katz's story:
Puig’s journey, according to claims made in court documents and detailed in interviews, had been underwritten by a small-time crook in Miami named Raul Pacheco, an air-conditioning repairman and recycler who was on probation for attempted burglary and possession of a fake ID. Pacheco had allegedly agreed to pay the smugglers $250,000 to get Puig out of Cuba; Puig, after signing a contract, would owe 20 percent of his future earnings to Pacheco. They were not the first to employ this scheme, a version of which has catapulted many of baseball’s new Cuban millionaires to American shores. It is usurious and expedient, illicit and tolerated. Even if you are as freakishly gifted as Yasiel Puig, there is no humanitarian boat lift delivering you to Chavez Ravine.
Every time the smugglers picked up their satellite phone to call Miami, though, Pacheco seemed unable or unwilling to meet their demands. It was unclear whether he was stiffing the smugglers or whether the smugglers were gouging him. For every day of nonpayment, they upped Puig’s price by $15,000 or $20,000. The calls between Mexico and Florida grew furious. The days turned to weeks. Holed up in that dump of a motel, all four migrants in the same dank room, Puig was so close to the prize—now was not the time to lose faith—and yet having just been liberated, his fate was never more out of his hands. The defector had become a captive.
“I don’t know if you could call it a kidnapping, because we had gone there voluntarily, but we also weren’t free to leave,” said the boxer, Yunior Despaigne, who had known Puig from Cuba’s youth sports academies. “If they didn’t receive the money, they were saying that at any moment they might give him a machetazo”—a whack with a machete—“chop off an arm, a finger, whatever, and he would never play baseball again, not for anyone.”
The three other people stranded in the Mexican hotel room with Puig were a boxer, a pinup girl, and a Santeria priest, according to Katz's story. It was Despaigne, the boxer, who gave Katz much of the inside story, and it's worth noting that Despaigne and Puig have since had a falling out.
The story of how Puig and his companions escaped the Mexican hotel room might be the wildest-sounding part yet, like something out of a Hollywood thriller. The standoff between the smugglers and Pacheco, the Miami man who had hired them, was entering its third week. This is how it ended:
With interest accruing and tempers rising, Pacheco at last took action. The lawsuit alleges that he, with the help of several other Miami financiers, hired a team of fixers to descend on Isla Mujeres. In a scene that could have been cribbed from a thousand screenplays, they stormed the motel and, according to court papers, “staged a kidnapping.” Within days Puig was auditioning in Mexico City.
While Puig soon was auditioning for the Dodgers and agreeing to a record seven-year, $42 million contract, the most a Cuban defector had ever signed, the drama didn't stop once he got to a baseball field. There were still threats to his family in Cuba, as recounted by Despaigne, from the smugglers who wanted the money they were owed. The entire story is worth a read — it's long, but it will give you a ton of new insight into Puig's journey to the U.S.
While none of this startling tale explains away Puig's speeding tickets or his being late to games or the mistakes he sometimes makes on the field, it does show us a different side of Yasiel Puig, one that the ballplayer himself doesn't seem comfortable telling us about.
It's also a good reminder that nothing he does on a baseball field — hitting a cut-off man or trying to take an extra base, even when ill-advised — has the grave stakes Puig faced just trying to get to this country.
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