After spending half a century shut out of the big money wheelings and dealings of major league Baseball, Cuban peloteros are officially the next big thing. It’s a half century that’s seen considerable changes in baseball culture both on the island and in the States – with Cuba’s own athletic tastes shifting toward more accessible international sports like soccer, and peloteros from nearby Dominican Republic thoroughly dominating the game at all levels of play. But, in apparent lock-step with other transformations taking place between the two nations, US baseball has opened in dramatic fashion to the island’s passionate and idiosyncratic take on the sport, with an unprecedented number of Cuban-born players currently representing in the MLB.
The original disconnect began soon after the revolution, when Fidel Castro and the Communist Party dismantled the island’s professional leagues in favor of an amateur sports culture where players couldn’t simply be bought and sold like “slaves.” To complicate things further, Cuba’s repressive travel restrictions made it all but impossible for athletes to join overseas clubs with the same ease of players from countries like Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or Panama. Yet, over the last decade, a steady wave of defections from Cuba’s national league has begun filling up the rosters of the league’s biggest teams, often with hefty eight-figure contracts to sweeten the deal.
Of course, this development has brought with it a great deal of controversy on both sides of the straight of Florida. For its part, Cuba’s official policy continues to hew closely to its vision of professional sports as corrupted by money and greed, while the MLB is still unable to elaborate an official recruitment policy for Cuban players. That means on one end, Cuba’s former baseball heroes are stigmatized for going the route of personal enrichment, while on the other they’re often forced into the arms of human traffickers, shady agents, and other interested parties profiting off of their vulnerable situation.
As any faithful reader of sports journalism will know, one byproduct of this highly irregular situation has been a series of harrowing, heroic, and just plain head-scratching tales of defection that have brought the big leagues some of their brightest new stars. So, in a effort to look into the human side of the ongoing tensions between the US and Cuba, we’ve rounded up a handful of these stories for your reading pleasure.
Photo: Otto Greule Jr. for Getty Images
Even the most knowledgeable baseball fanatics may not have a clear recollection of this one-time St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, but Arocha’s importance to Cuban-American baseball goes beyond his lackluster major league career. That’s because Arocha is widely credited as the first Cuban defector in modern US baseball. As the star pitcher for Havana’s amateur team Industriales, Arocha earned a reputation for his 92 mph fastball and maintained a stunning .600 winning percentage. After contemplating defecting on several occasions, Arocha finally bit the bullet during a layover in Miami back in 1991 and simply walked out of the airport hotel, where he announced his decision to stunned family members who had stopped by to visit.
At the time, Arocha was more concerned with his personal freedom than with continuing his baseball career, and major league scouts were doubtful about the possibilities of Cuban ballplayers at the highest levels of the game. But a chance encounter with a Cuban-American marketing agent ultimately led the native of Regla, Havana, to give it a shot, but after one solid season, the overworked pitcher was sidelined by injuries and exhaustion.
Yet, despite his brief and forgettable run on the mound, Arocha proved to doubters that Cuban peloteros could hold it down with the best and brightest the sport had to offer. The rest is history.
The tragic death of José Fernández earlier this year shook the baseball community to its core – and not just because Fernández represented a once-in-a-generation pitching talent. In the outpouring of sentiment that followed his passing, it also became clear that Fernández was a deeply caring person, devoted to his family and loved ones. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the saga of his own desertion at age 15.
Fernández’s decision to make the dangerous journey was inspired by his stepfather, who had left for Tampa after facing career setbacks on the island. Once he had settled in, he sent money for Fernández and his mother to follow suit – but things would not work out so easily for the ambitious young athlete. After four failed attempts – including one that brought him within 10 miles of Miami – the 14-year-old was jailed in Cuba alongside hardened criminals for the better part of a year.
That, however, was not enough to deter Fernández, and after changing strategies, he and his mother made it onto a speedboat headed for Cancún from the island’s southern coast. But after switching over to a more comfortable houseboat, the group hit choppy waters and Fernández’s mother was thrown overboard. Without even realizing it was his own mother, Fernández reacted, throwing himself into the “stupid big” waves and swimming nearly sixty feet to her rescue.
After making it to the mainland, mother and child’s journey still wasn’t over, and their bus was pulled over by Mexican immigration authorities while driving toward the border. Luckily for Fernández and the other Cubans onboard, the agents were more interested in requisitioning their jewelry than in sending them back to Cuba, and before long they safely crossed the Texas border as political refugees.
Since bursting onto the Dodgers roster in 2013, Yasiel Puig has been the poster boy for a new wave of Cuban players storming the major leagues; and his story in many ways epitomizes the intrigue, dirty money, and deep underworld ties floating under the surface of their multimillion dollar bonuses.
After first making his name as a star of the Cuban national team, Puig made several attempts to defect to the United States, resulting in his being suspended from play for the 2011-12 season. A year later, he set off once more toward Cuba’s swampy Ciénaga de Zapata to meet a Cancún-bound speedboat together with a childhood friend, his girlfriend, and a Santero priest who had predicted his safe passage.
When they encountering police officers at the entrance to their original pickup location, the group spent 30 hours hiking through unforgiving marshland, finding themselves exhausted, dehydrated and without provisions. After returning to their designated location under the cover of night, the group waited until dawn before giving up the wait and resolved to turn themselves in at the nearest police checkpoint.
On their way back toward civilization, the babalao realized he had left behind a statue of the deity Eleguá, and the group turned back to recover the icon. Back on the beach, they caught sight of an approaching cigarette boat that turned out to be their ride.
But this apparent stroke of divine providence was just the beginning of Puig’s adventures, and once in Mexico, he was held captive by a cartel-affiliated human trafficking operation while his Miami sponsor tried to scrounge up the money for their services. When things went south, a sort of underworld bidding war went down that had Cuban-American investors competing with shady Dominican consortiums for “ownership” of Puig, all of which ended in a high-stakes extraction operation that rescued Puig and his coterie from the traffickers, and brought them into the hands of an MLB scout notorious for his work with Cuban deserters.
After his handlers dished out several hundred thousand dollars in bribes and payments for illicit services, Puig landed himself Mexican residency, a $42 million signing bonus with the LA Dodgers, and a slot in the 2014 All-Star Game.
Photo: Troy R. Bennett for BDN
While Puig’s story has been thoroughly investigated, corroborated, and documented by law enforcement and journalists alike, Yoan Moncada’s suspicious origins in the MLB remain shrouded in mystery. All we do know is that the the 21-year-old native of Cienfuegos province left Cuba legally in June of 2014 to an unknown country that some speculate was Argentina. After several months he made his way to Guatemala, where he kept a low profile while MLB agents and recruiters speculated furiously on his whereabouts.
That’s all simple enough, but things get hairy when we begin to consider a few other factors involved in his story. Namely that the man signed on to represent him is a St. Petersburg-based accountant named David Hastings, who had never served as a MLB agent before in his life. Though incidentally, he does represent an MLB agent by the name of Nicole Banks, who was pregnant with Moncada’s son Robinson before he even left Cuba. Both Banks and Hastings maintain that they had nothing to do with the young shortstop’s exit from the island.
Be that as it may, word eventually got out that Moncada was in Guatemala and the country was quickly flooded with nearly 100 MLB scouts, which forced hastings to hire two armed security guards to accompany the young prospect in case local criminal gangs caught wind of his market value. Ultimately, he was signed by the Boston Red Sox, where he made his big league debut this fall after over a year in the minor leagues.
Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel Jr.
With their father, uncles, cousin, and another sibling all deeply involved in the Cuban national league, these two brothers are as close to Cuban baseball royalty as you can get. Which is why the symbolic weight of their defection was perhaps heavier than any of the previous cases, regardless of how harrowing or high-profile the stories may have been. In fact, like Rene Arocha before them, the Gourriel’s actual defection was rather mundane: the duo simply walked out of the Cuban national team’s hotel in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic during the Caribbean Series earlier in 2016.
But when one considers their apparent faithfulness to the Cuban revolution – photos abound of Yulieski meeting with Fidel Castro, and he famously confronted a New York Times reporter with a book about the Bay of Pigs in 2006 – it’s understandable that their sudden defection sent shockwaves throughout the island. To be sure, both brothers had previously expressed interest in playing for the major leagues, but only if the MLB were able reach an agreement with the Cuban government regarding the recruitment of national talent.
While there has been a lot of recent talk about normalizing the relationship between Cuban players and Major League Baseball – which would allow players to maintain their Cuban citizenship and be recruited just like any other foreign player – such a deal is still nowhere near concrete. It seem for the Gourriels, and perhaps more so for the 30-year-old Yulieski, simply waiting it out was no longer an option. Ultimately, their high profile gamble paid of: Yulieski now plays third base for the Houston Astros, while Lourdes holds down infield and outfield positions for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Meanwhile, for many in Cuba, the loss of the two shining stars of an athletic dynasty can mean only one thing: “[Cuban] baseball is falling apart.”