The million-dollar trafficking of Cuban baseball players
Athletes end up paying middlemen huge sums of money to play in the big leagues.
By Francys Romero
Lately, experts, scouts, analysts and staff close to Major League Baseball have been heard saying, “Cuban baseball players are getting paid a lot of money.”
And it’s true: Major League Baseball teams have unleashed the fever of millions for several years, not only in the Cuban market, but in general. But most people are unaware of the misadventures behind each signature.
In 2015, more than 150 players left Cuba, representing an annual record in the migration of Cuban baseball. The average age of this migratory wave didn't exceed 23 years old.
Countless prospects have signed substantial contracts of $5 million or more. But the question that remains is this: how much money do players really earn?
“That thing about millions of dollars is just a myth. It's the 'sharks' who are left with most of the money and the other person, the taxes,” says a source, a former Cuban player who's lived in France for thirteen years. “The only person who can represent a player is someone who's an attorney and is licensed by the MLB to represent players. The Dominicans who take Cubans [to the big leagues] aren't agents; they're hustlers who agree with the ballplayer to receive 45 percent to come back and sell him to a real agent who will ask for a minimum of 15 percent plus expenses. We're talking about 70 percent of the total bonus.”
To get an idea, when the player is on the MLB's 40-man roster, the maximum agents are allowed to take is 5 percent. “But in the case of Cubans, there are no limits, and that feeds the abuse by agents. Sometimes they keep 50 percent and sometimes the contracts are worse,” says Arturo Marcano, an ESPN writer and lawyer.
“Things aren't like they were before. Since I came to this country almost a year ago, everyone has been telling me about 25 to 30 percent. And for most renowned players, the cut is bigger,” says catcher Oscar Valdés, from Havana, who just days ago was declared a free agent.
With the emergence of the migration of Cuban baseball, the number of loan sharks and unlicensed agents shot up.
Extortion and deportation
The scale of the problem is seen in unexpected places. While players of higher quality, like Yasmany Tomás, Héctor Olivera and José Dariel Abreu, had to immediately hand over a higher percentage of their contracts, in theory they escaped up-front advances from their own wallets that players of lesser value must deliver to hustlers.
“Here some agreed to up to 40 or 45 percent, even at the risk of deportation, which happened to Carlos J. Viera and Alain Tamayo,” says Holguín first baseman Lerys Aguilera, based in the Dominican Republic for three years.
According to a source, the father of a young Cuban prospect, both of whom are DR residents, “this happens because the police catch them and since they're illegal, if they don't pay up, they get deported. The Dominican police are the most corrupt ever seen.”
To date, there have been several deportations. A Tamayo and Viera — pitchers from Granma and Las Tunas, respectively — joined Industrialistas players Julio Montesinos, Eddy Abel García and David Mena.
“Without any kind of legal immigration status, they can stop you for anything. It's also the mishandling of representatives. Many (Cubans) have chosen to go to Puerto Rico, taking advantage of the political choice to reach the United States. But if it doesn't work out, they deport them,” says Aguilera.
Currently, about 200 Cuban baseball players are in the Dominican Republic. Some are well represented, with professional agents of value. Others are adrift.
“They're not the only ones nor the last who will be deported,” says Dael Mejías, a pitcher from Las Tunas based in the DR. “A Jeans Rodriguez, Yadir Rabí and two more players were arrested and I don't know what happened. They were detained at migration and they were about to be deported. [The authorities] asked them for a lot of money to let them go and apparently they didn't have enough. The navy caught them, which means they were going by boat to Puerto Rico.”
The last deportation from the DR was on April 12, which was that of Julio Alfredo Martinez, a left-handed pitcher from Pinar del Rio, who refused to pay the $30,000 they demanded from him. Players of a certain level like him are extorted and blackmailed to pay high sums (more than $20,000).
Today, about 15 Cuban players have been deported, mostly because many officials, hustlers and agents are plotting and conspiring with corrupt elements of the police and high levels of government.
Background and diagnosis
Twenty years ago, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez thought he was signing with his agent Joe Cubas for 5 percent when in fact he was doing for 30 percent. Also, this was around the time of the case of Gus Hernández, convicted for trafficking players and people.
More recently, agent Bart Hernández, associated with Miami agency Praver Shapiro Management, was charged with smuggling baseball players like Leonys Martin, and the phenomenon could continue to grow, due to two main factors:
- These types of agents, hustlers and traffickers are not within the MLB's reach.
- The emigration of Cuban baseball has been increasing every year since 2010 and doesn't show signs of slowing.
There is another trend which exacerbates the deportation problem, and that's the lack of focus and bad behavior of Cuban ballplayers. “There are some who've come here and have seen it as enjoyment, and on that count they've failed,” said Mejias, close to signing with a major league organization.
Behind a contract of thousands or millions of dollars is a story similar to that of the Odyssey. It's a secret that wouldn't suit the many parties enriched by this business to get out.
What is spent on paperwork to get players out of Cuba with their families, plus coaches, meals, hotels, rental houses, medicine, clothing or birthdays, are later paid for with the contract at an increased interest rate.
“Players, even experienced ones, are signing whatever. Some sign from Cuba, and don't think that contracts are signed abroad. They sign from their own home, in the presence of their dad, mom, grandma, everyone all together. And they're deceived, because they don't even know where they stand,” says the Cuban former ballplayer living in France.
Will there ever be a law prohibiting a contract in which the players have to give up more than 40 percent? In the near future, could Cuba and the MLB resolve the essence of this phenomenon?
“So far there is no rule of this kind. The same thing happens to Dominicans and Venezuelans. It's a business where the player and his family must be very careful. That's how it is, and it's not only Cubans, it's a general problem in Latin America,” says Arturo Marcano.
The generation of Cuban emigrant talent has had to face dilemmas and uphill battles. For now, among so many contradictions, there are those who clearly benefit and others, on the inside, who remain silenced.
Translated by Rachel Glickhouse