Talk with enough Cuban baseball players who have defected and a pattern emerges. After escaping a homeland renowned for its paranoia, fortified by its laughable wages, defined by its stain on humanity, there is joy and thankfulness and appreciation and all of the requisite emotions. There is also the story they are unwilling to tell.
I saw this almost three years ago to the day, in early March 2014, when a giant man named Jose Abreu stood by his locker at the Chicago White Sox’s spring training complex to talk about life in the United States. Seven months earlier, he had left Cuba as its greatest hitter in this generation that deserted the island, and now he was basking in the glow of his first spring training, his $68 million contract, his new life. Then I asked about his escape. His tenor changed. He told me it “went smooth. Nothing compared to what others went through. I feel very, very lucky.” And with that, he asked to change the subject.
It’s easy to understand why. Only now are details emerging of Abreu’s defection, and they are horrific. What materialized from his testimony Wednesday in the trial of his alleged smugglers can be encapsulated in a headline sure to capture the attention of those who never had heard of Abreu: Baseball star ate his passport. And that much is true: Jose Abreu testified under oath that on a flight to the United States, right before he was to sign his massive contract, he ordered a Heineken, tore up a page of the fake passport he had procured from one of the men who allegedly helped smuggle him and started to consume it.
“Little by little, I swallowed that first page of the passport,” Abreu told the court, according to the Associated Press. “I could not arrive in the United States with a false passport.”
Of all the absurd tales to emerge from the last decade of Cuban baseball players defecting to the United States – the murder and the kidnapping and the human trafficking and the death threats and the use of players as pawns between gangsters and the agents frothing to represent them – a player eating a passport because he knew the United States’ wet-foot, dry-foot policy would allow him to stay without documents sets a close-to-unbeatable standard.
It also serves as a reminder of why Cuban players, raised in a culture of secrecy, are so loath to talk about their journeys. They don’t know whom to trust. They sign usurious arrangements – Abreu testified that 25 percent of his contract would go to two agents, one of whom, Bart Hernandez, was certified by the players’ union – because they have no other choice. They sit as prisoners – as Seattle Mariners center fielder Leonys Martin testified to doing – while their captors try to extract as much money as possible. Some simply never make it, caught up in the depravity of the hustle.
In late 2009, around the time star pitcher Aroldis Chapman defected, a wave of younger Cubans followed, smuggled out by the Zetas, an infamous Mexican drug cartel. A Cuban-American, known as Nacho, became the middleman between the smugglers and agents in the United States. The best players were easy to offload and fetched seven-figure fees. In other cases, Nacho would take one player of value and try to package him with two or three other non-prospects. In one case, hard-throwing pitcher Israel Soto could be had – only if an agent was willing to pay for outfielder Luis Fonseca and catcher Joan Chaviano, too. The cost: $90,000. No one paid. Fonseca carved out a career in the Mexican League. Soto and Chaviano never played organized baseball again.
Nacho later was murdered. A man named Eliezer Lazo, his second in command, took over his business, and the government alleges he partnered with Bart Hernandez, the agent for well over a dozen players, including Jose Abreu. He and Julio Estrada, another alleged associate with whom he’s standing trial, took at least $6.4 million from Abreu, according to court documents, and $15 million in all.
These are the stories they are unwilling to tell. There is a cocktail of fear, anger, even some embarrassment that they were taken advantage of. Compound that with the irrationality of the system – of the hypocrisy in the long-held ban against relations with Cuba while the United States gladly deals with oil-rich countries that commit crimes against humanity; of the MLB rule that forces players to seek out a third country to establish residency or otherwise risk being put into the less lucrative draft; of the revocation of free will that every man, regardless of where he’s born or who he is, deserves simply by being alive – and it’s no wonder it takes a court of law to compel them to speak.
What Abreu and the other players realize, hopefully, is the importance of their stories. To understand the Cuban experience, or understand it as deeply as one who hasn’t lived it can, necessitates hearing about it, painful though it may be. At some point, when he’s ready, perhaps Yulieski Gurriel, the Astros’ first baseman, can explain why after the first World Baseball Classic he turned down a team’s offer of $30 million to hop on a plane only to return to Cuba, where he was rewarded with a silver Lada from the late ’90s as a bonus on top of his $26-a-month salary.
Life in Cuba, in the regime of Fidel Castro, was that suffocating, enough to make ingesting paper with a beer chaser sound downright reasonable. It was the path taken by Jose Abreu, one for which he’ll never apologize, because even having endured that and the theft of his money, he considered himself very, very lucky. And the more time goes on, the more we learn this is the real story of the Cuban baseball boom, a sheen of joy and appreciation and thanks concealing a layer of warts that ultimately was impossible to hide.