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10 Degrees: Cuban trafficking grows into MLB's ugly secret

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Yasiel Puig's Complicated Journey From Cuba To The Major Leagues

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Yasiel Puig's Complicated Journey From Cuba To The Major Leagues

Yasiel Puig's Complicated Journey From Cuba To The Major Leagues
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Baseball's ugliest secret is now out in the open, and it is even worse than imagined. Not only does the sport find itself in the middle of a human-trafficking scheme in which men and women have allegedly been kidnapped, held hostage, forced to sign binding documents at gun- and knifepoint, threatened with mutilation and terrorized by those from some of the world's most murderous gangs, top officials from Major League Baseball and the players' union have shown little inclination to remedy even the smallest of problems in the web of chaos involving Cuban defectors.

More than two decades of misguided policy have left the league in an untenable situation, surrounded by sociopolitical mines. While the past is irreversible, MLB and the union's present misplacement of priorities – of not spending time, energy and resources to better understand what it can do to untie the knot it cinched – is egregious and must soon be remedied. Just because no clear solutions exist does not excuse the sport from shoving the Cuban paradox under the carpet as it has for years, particularly considering the latest news that a gang might want to kill one of its biggest stars.

Los Angeles Magazine and ESPN this past week recounted the story of Yasiel Puig's tortuous path to the United States, which included the bullet-riddled corpse of a smuggler, the involvement of the dangerous Mexican crime syndicate Los Zetas and a knock on Puig's door at Dodgers spring training from a heavy who wanted money – or else. Take that threat, and the alleged kidnapping of Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin and his family, and smugglers warning they would break Yuniesky Betancourt's legs in 2005 when he defected, and story after story of out-and-out mistreatment of Cuban players trying to leave their country and play baseball, and the silence from the league and the union, the two parties charged with protecting the sport's sanctity and the players' health, is deafening.

Baseball's version of human trafficking doesn't resemble the typical atrocities across the world, in which people, particularly women, are sold and traded, often into sexual slavery. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have left the country to escape Fidel Castro's regime, traversing perilous waters in search of freedom. The price for a typical escape today: $10,000 per person. Baseball players are different, prized by smugglers as diamonds to be sold on the secondary market. Simply because the sport's victims often leave of their own volition and ultimately come into millions of dollars does not lessen the crimes committed by those looking to leverage themselves into a cut of the riches.

The problem is very real and very difficult, and the United States' embargo on Cuba only complicates the situation. Still, in no way does it justify baseball spending man-hours fining players for wearing untucked jerseys or the union launching an investigation into which executives might have talked publicly about Kendrys Morales' and Stephen Drew's depressed free-agent values when a system the league endorses invites criminals to play middleman.

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Yasiel Puig spent time in Mexico before coming to the United States. (Getty Images)

In vowing to clean up youth baseball and the pervasive corruption in the Dominican Republic, baseball took a moral stance on a broken system. Whether it was simply lip service or actually helps undo decades of enabling leeches to take advantage of impoverished teenagers, at least MLB acknowledged to the public that, yes, this is something worth trying to remedy.

Neither the sport nor the union has done so regarding Cuba. Nor did either side, when contacted by Yahoo Sports, offer assurances that change was in the offing, even though both surely understand the stakes. During the last collective bargaining talks in 2012, sources said, they discussed the Cuba problem only to table the issue. Late last summer, as the extent of Puig's issues started to leak thanks to a lawsuit against him in Florida, potential discussions ended before they began.

Baseball, then, is left staring at a system it created within the confines of the embargo rules. The evolution of the Cuban smuggling market from what seem like the halcyon days of agents helping players escape from international tournaments to criminal collectives shoehorning themselves into the process – and, often under duress, goading players into signing documents that shave 30 percent off the top of the contracts worth tens of millions of dollars they sign once in the U.S. – didn't happen overnight. Years of inaction from baseball and the union fostered the current system, and the festering wound grows worse by the case.

Part of the current problem involves baseball's policy with Cuban players, whose value skyrocketed when the league capped spending on the draft and international amateurs. Cubans age 23 and older are the last true free agents, encumbered only by the country from which they must escape. And escaping now, with the dollars so mighty, draws even more nefarious characters vying for the lucrative business than in the past.

MLB's rules offer a twist: Cubans who defect straight to the United States are thrown into the June draft, whereas those who instead establish residency in another country – Mexico, like Puig and Martin, or anywhere else – are exempt and can sign with no limits. For potential frontline players, the likes of whom have been guaranteed $289.9 million over the last 4½ years, according to Y! Sports research, the incentive to involve a third country is enormous. The highest-paid player in the 2013 draft was Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant at $6.7 million. Less than four months later, the White Sox gave Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu a six-year, $68 million contract.

Never mind that Abreu was represented by Bart Hernandez, the same agent who, according to Martin's lawsuit, worked with the smugglers – the sort of alleged behavior that warrants an investigation far more than some executives spitballing free-agent value.

The teams are plenty culpable, too, engaging in baseball's version of the don't-ask, don't-tell policy. When Puig defected, Dodgers scout Paul Fryer told the Los Angeles Times, the team "had to find the real decision-maker" because Puig and his agent apparently weren't choosing where he would play. It takes no logician to surmise Puig's smugglers steered him toward the biggest payday, and when a $2 billion corporation like the Los Angeles Dodgers opens itself up to the possibility of doing business with a homicidal cartel, and it's sloughed off with a wink, it speaks to passive acceptance of something nobody in the sport should tolerate.

MLB and the union must get together immediately and hatch a plan that at the very least does better than their present-day do-si-do. That, after all, was the idea seven years ago when former MLB executive Lou Melendez told the L.A. Times the pervasive smuggling could "require us to take a good look, hard look at the policy."

Each concern, unfortunately, comes with its own set of similarly tricky – or at least unpalatable to one side – repercussions. One MLB official raised the possibility of eliminating the foreign-residency rule, which theoretically would eradicate organizations such as the Zetas from involving themselves with ballplayer smuggling. That, of course, presumes the U.S.-based criminals who partake of the human trafficking will be any less dangerous or harmful than those from other countries, a flimsy-at-best premise. Moreover, one source familiar with the Cuban-smuggling trade said getting into Mexico or Haiti is far easier than evading the U.S. Coast Guard, and that the risk of getting caught by authorities might keep the third countries as preferred destinations.

Another solution works in theory: If baseball were to lessen the money offered to Cuban players, it could likewise disincentivize the larger-scale criminal enterprises, which seek higher-margin business, from continued involvement in ballplayer smuggling. Already some players question why those in their prime years are granted free agency simply because they were born in Cuba. The union, on principle alone, would object to this idea – not just to tightening any free market but opening the Pandora's Box to an international draft – and the recompense it would demand in loosening the market elsewhere would make it either a non-starter or an exceedingly difficult compromise to strike.

Baseball can sit around hoping the problem works itself out through attrition – that the great talent drain to the U.S. over the past five years robbed Cuba of top-flight talent. It's true; many of the best Cuban players are in the big leagues today. And yet for every Puig and Abreu and Martin, there are just as many lower-level talents who leave Cuba in the hands of smugglers hoping to reap millions and end up stranded, victims of their captors' greed and ignorance toward how baseball truly values defectors.

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Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin was held hostage in Mexico, according to a lawsuit. (Getty Images)

Value comes from talent, and the influx of talent has been great for baseball. Aroldis Chapman throws harder than anyone. Puig inspires more chatter and debate. Yoenis Cespedes won last year's Home Run Derby. Abreu someday may win a home run title. Martin throwing out baserunners from center field is a thing of beauty. Cuban ballplayers enrich baseball. The wake their defections leave behind, however, turns great stories into sordid ones and commingles the game with characters in any other situation it would outright reject.

The Catch 22 comes in taking a stand, and it's why MLB and the union must get together and hammer out the best tack, the right solution for something that will take years to fix. Too much, too soon will not work; it has the potential to endanger the players, the last thing anyone wants. Remember: When Puig's ransom allegedly wasn't paid, smugglers suggested he might get a machete whack to show their seriousness.

This starts with targeting agents who pay smugglers. MLB and the union have nothing to lose by cleaning up that area. Dry up the market for smugglers to make massive profit off ballplayers, and the behavior could evolve as well. If it encouraged the defection of players on trips with the Cuban national team – the far safer route taken by past players – all the better.

Baseball and the union can affect change. It's time. Stop playing uniform police. Cut the nonsense about some loose-lipped executives. Don't waste everyone's time with fake problems when a real one exists and could lead to people losing their lives. It's a situation with which …

1. Yasiel Puig must live every day, an unfathomable and unfortunate truth with a dark background. Again and again Puig tried to escape, one of his failures documented by Yahoo Sports in the first story that detailed his efforts to leave Cuba. He got caught time after time, too, and ended up on the wrong side of the Cuban baseball apparatus.

What helped him get in their good graces, according to a Florida lawsuit, was turning state's evidence. The suit accuses Puig of ratting on a Cuban citizen who he said wanted to help him defect. The man, sentenced to seven years in Cuban jail thanks to Puig's testimony, denies the accusation and is suing Puig for $12 million under the Torture Victims Protection Act. It's the same law by which …

2. Aroldis Chapman is being sued in Florida. U.S. resident Danilo Curbelo Garcia, a Cuban citizen, sits in a Cuban jail today serving a 10-year sentence after testimony from Chapman and his father suggested he hatched a plan to smuggle Chapman to the U.S. In his complaint, Curbelo Garcia admits only to telling Chapman that worse players than him were making millions of dollars in the major leagues.

Like Puig, Chapman tried multiple times to escape Cuba before defecting at an international tournament in Andorra. Before that, according to court documents, some suspected Chapman served as a government informant to stay in the good graces of Cuban baseball authorities.

Though the likelihood of the lawsuits succeeding is unclear, they establish a pattern among Cuban players who escape: Almost always is there some entanglement with the law, whether it's about one person allegedly helping jail another to foment his own freedom or, in the case of …

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A's outfielder Yoenis Cespedes ended up in the Dominican Republic on his journey to the U.S. (USA Today)

3. Yoenis Cespedes fighting over money owed. The 30 percent figure mentioned above is not far-fetched. Cespedes ended up in the Dominican Republic under the stewardship of Edgar Mercedes, the gambling-hall owner turned teenage-prospect "trainer," and agreed to give him a 17 percent cut of his first contract, plus a 5 percent agent's fee.

A month after he sued Cespedes for nonpayment, Mercedes was arrested in the D.R. on suspicion of human smuggling. Charges were not filed, and the suit continued for nearly a year until a judge ruled Cespedes owed nearly $8 million of the $36 million deal he signed with Oakland. Cespedes contended he owed less because of taxes, union dues and other payments.

His case resembles others only in the litigiousness. When in the D.R., Cespedes attended barbecues in which whole hogs roasted on spits and seemingly avoided enduring the dread …

4. Leonys Martin lived during his voyage from Cuba to the U.S. He was held hostage in Mexico and his family in Florida, according to the lawsuit he filed against his alleged smugglers as well as Hernandez, his agent, and the agency that employs him, Praver-Shapiro Sports Management. And even after he escaped their clutches, reunited with his family and started playing for the Rangers, Martin has been the subject of suits seeking payment on the contract he signed when held by armed men.

The fear hasn't abated, even though two of the alleged smugglers sit in jail today. Martin said in his suit he believes they have sent threats from jail. His case might be the worst made public, though the alleged warnings to Puig by Zeta-affiliated men compare quite unfavorably.

It shows the incredible desire to leave behind Cuba for the riches of MLB, and the lengths to which players will go to succeed. Martin, 26, is beginning to resemble the player Texas hoped he would, adding a .322/.385/.441 slash line to his center field defense and ensuring the $15.5 million Texas guaranteed him doesn't turn into a …

5. Noel Arguelles-type situation. Since Jose Iglesias started the recent wave of defections in 2009, 13 players have signed major league contracts. Arguelles might be the biggest bust of all. He signed for the second-lowest amount – $6.9 million for a five-year deal with Kansas City, higher only than his best competition for most disappointing, Chicago Cubs pitcher Gerardo Concepcion – and following a strong first season in 2011 has walked more hitters than he has struck out.

This season has been particularly ugly. In each of his six outings at Double-A, Arguelles has allowed at least one run. Over 7 2/3 innings, he has allowed 13 hits, walked 13, allowed 12 earned runs and struck out eight. Opponents are hitting nearly .400 off him. At 24, Arguelles is a non-prospect, his near $7 million cost sunk.

And he is proof that just because a player is Cuban doesn't make him good, despite all the success stories in the game. Considering …

6. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez still has not thrown a pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies, they may be the latest to call their import a lemon. Gonzalez's original deal, a six-year, $48 million blockbuster, fell apart when Philadelphia discovered problems with Gonzalez's arm. The term was halved and the dollars quartered, and even still, after a spring training in which Gonzalez's velocity dipped and his command was nonexistent, three years and $12 million may end up spiraling clockwise into the Philadelphia sewer system.

The latest reports are that Gonzalez is "feeling good" and "close to getting on the mound," and perhaps once he does, he'll prove the negativity much ado about nothing. Still, the presence of arm troubles before Gonzalez has thrown a single major league pitch does not portend good things, and anything the Phillies get out of him at this point will be a bonus. The organization tamping down expectations publicly says as much.

Gonzalez is just 27, so there is time for him to improve. At 27 …

7. Alexei Ramirez was in his second season since defecting and signing with the Chicago White Sox, the landing spot for so many Cubans. And his ascent toward his spot as one of the better, and most underappreciated, shortstops in baseball was beginning.

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White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez leads the AL with a .360 batting average. (AP)

Ramirez certainly doesn't look the part. Now 32, he is still skinny bordering on emaciated. His power defies physics, though seeing as he's approaching 100 career home runs, it's very real. And while his incredible start this season is likely more anomaly than emergence of a great hitter – his .360 batting average leads the American League and his four homers and 14 RBIs are near the top – it speaks to Ramirez's staying power.

Barring injury, he'll cross the 4,000-plate appearance mark this season and jump past Yuniesky Betancourt to move into the top 15 of Cuban-born players. Carving out a career that long – and well productive – is the sort of thing …

8. Jose Abreu need not worry about at this juncture. He's in that adjustment stage every Cuban goes through, when life in the U.S. is so overwhelming, such a bounty of wonders, that excitement and temptations run the risk of bubbling over. Some players have trouble with those vices. Puig and Chapman, the two enfant terrible among recent defectors, love racing their cars fast. Abreu, 27, could well be past the youthful indiscretions.

His biggest change now is at the plate, where he fell into his first slump before a monster opposite-field home run highlighted a 3-for-6 day. It was the sort of home run only Abreu and a handful of other hitters can muster, a cannon shot propelled by the power purer than Ivory soap.

Abreu's arrival in the major leagues is what makes the human-trafficking implications so bittersweet. The embargo forces players of Abreu's talent to take shady routes, and even if he said his defection went smoothly, such instances are rarities. Those who go risk everything, and those who stay, out of loyalty or fear, end up like …

9. Alfredo Despaigne, playing in a lower-level league instead of the big leagues, where he belongs. Despaigne, a power-hitting outfielder, may return to the Mexican League, considered Triple-A. Frederich Cepeda, another longtime Cuban star, just signed with the Yomiuri Giants. They're two of the 10 or so players whose talents would assure them major league spots were they to defect.

Second baseman Jose Fernandez may be the best pro prospect left in Cuba, alongside infielder Yulieski Gourriel and young outfielder Yasmany Tomas. Pitchers Vladimir Garcia, in his early 30s, and Norge Ruiz, not even 20, would draw significant interest as well.

Plenty remain in the U.S., awaiting their certain arrival in the big leagues. The Dodgers' $53 million middle-infield combination of Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena bide their time at Triple-A and Double-A, respectively. Aledmys Diaz is with the Cardinals' Double-A team, and perhaps the best of the bunch, outfielder Jorge Soler, could join the wave of great Cubs prospects that will hit Chicago within the next two seasons.

Soon enough, an outfielder named Rusney Castillo could join them. Castillo, 26, reportedly defected in January. Since February, mentions of him publicly have disappeared. Part of that could be due to standard paperwork delays. Silence also could mean something else. When a player disappears, whether it was Leonys Martin or, for a shorter period of time …

10. Yasiel Puig it tends to bring out the worst thoughts. Because we now understand what it means for a Cuban baseball player to get here. There were always rumors, always stories, always the frightening idea that they might be half-true, because half of it – of death, kidnapping, threats – would be bad enough.

Now, from Puig's story, we know it's all true, and worse than imaginable. And considering it's far from unique, it is the latest clarion call for baseball. Seven years ago, the sport saw an agent, Gus Dominguez, convicted for smuggling ballplayers into the United States. No longer is he a certified agent. A conviction, it seems, is the threshold for revocation, which is an awfully low standard.

The league and union can change that. They don't have the solution, not yet, maybe never as long as the U.S. embargo exists and the Castro regime does not let its citizens leave, forcing them to seek alternate options. Baseball can go public with a statement it should've long ago: supporting a system that puts players in danger is not an acceptable standard, and they will do everything they can to ensure their ugly secret gets no worse.

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