Cuban players face great risks chasing dream
Aspiring big leaguers need not only talent -- they must successfully defect first
GUERRA, Dominican Republic -- It's a breezy sun-kissed morning on a palm-tree-lined back field at Campo Las Palmas, the Dominican home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Alexander Guerrero looks just like a big leaguer.
Guerrero, 26, tugs on his shiny new batting gloves, digs into the batter's box with his black and orange cleats and stares down Javier Rodriguez, the batting-practice pitcher who also serves as one of his trainers.
The pitch is delivered and Guerrero smashes the ball deep over the fence in left field, practically skimming the treetops of the complex's dormitories. He takes off a blue batting helmet, wipes his brow and smiles. Guerrero has style. He carries an extra set of perfectly placed batting gloves in his back pockets just for show.
"I got that one," he said while snapping the top of his skin-tight blue shirt. "Throw another one. I can do that all day."
Guerrero is on track to become the latest addition to a long line of Cuban players in the big leagues. A recent surge in the number of players from the island to Major League fields -- from Los Angeles to Boston and Oakland to Miami -- has put the country back into the international spotlight.
For every Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, there is a Guerrero waiting to be found. But for every Guerrero, there are dozens of players like infielder Yosmany "El Congo" Guerra in the Dominican Republic who have fallen through the cracks.
The Cuban baseball experience is a mixture of politics, passion and sport, where the level of success varies greatly, but the levels of risk are always the same: The escape from Cuba is fraught with peril and far from a certain path to a future in the big leagues.
"I don't think at any time you have seen so many Cuban players come here and have the kind of impact that they are having." -- longtime scout Rudy Santin
There's an age-old adage that says the best Cuban ballplayers are not in the Major Leagues, but back on the island playing for the country's national team. In recent years, the adage has lost some of its mythical status in part because the Dodgers' Puig has burst onto the scene in Los Angeles, while Oakland's Cespedes blasted his way to the Chevrolet Home Run Derby title at this year's All-Star Game in New York, and Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman is in his second year of lighting up radar guns as the Reds' closer.
The 22-year-old Puig has made an immediate impact in Los Angeles while simultaneously drawing the fury and admiration of the baseball world for his take-no-prisoners playing style. Puig, who signed a seven-year deal for $42 million last summer, is a five-tool player -- six, if you count his attitude
Then there's Cespedes, 27, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal with Oakland not long after defecting from Cuba in 2012. He's made a reputation as the hard-working, humble family man of this new generation of Cubans.
Chapman, who signed a six-year, $30.25 million deal in January 2010, is the rebel of the group, but he's coming into his own in Cincinnati. Marlins rookie Jose Fernandez, 21, is another Cuban player on the rise. Fernandez and Chapman were National League All-Stars this year and among the 17 Cuban players who have played in the Major Leagues this year.
There are other Cubans making their mark in the big leagues: Texas outfielder Leonys Martin, White Sox teammates Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez, Seattle's Kendrys Morales, Miami's Adeiny Hechavarria, Tampa Bay's Yunel Escobar and shortstop Jose Iglesias, who was recently traded from Boston to Detroit.
And there is another wave of Cuban players on the way. Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, who hit .360 with three home runs and nine RBIs in six games in this year's World Baseball Classic, reportedly defected from Cuba earlier this week. He's a former MVP in Cuba, where he had one of the best seasons in league history in 2010-11, hitting .453 with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs in just 66 games. Various reports have placed Abreu, 26, in the Dominican Republic or Haiti.
"Until he gets his paperwork and takes care of everything he has to do, it's not wise to say where he is," said Baltimore outfielder Henry Urrutia, a longtime friend of Abreu who defected from Cuba two years ago. "He has to take care of himself. He tells me a lot of agents are interested in him. They know there's a lot of money to be made with him, but he's deciding what to do and what is best for him."
Also available is right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, who had been close to a deal with the Phillies but remains unsigned. Former Cuban national squad teammate Dariel Hinojosa, a right-hander, is expected to sign a multimillion-dollar deal soon. Odrisamer Despaigne, 26, a right-hander, and 24-year-old left-hander Misael Silverio are among the recent Cuban defectors expected to hit the free-agent market sometime this year. There's also right-handed pitcher Leandro Linares, 19, who recently signed with the Indians for $950,000.
"The Cuban player is at its peak," said former scout Rudy Santin, who represents Guerrero. "I don't think at any time you have seen so many Cuban players come here and have the kind of impact that they are having. They are all starters, and some are making a big difference. Some are contributing as everyday players. There's never been so many contribute like that, and I was a scout for 30 years."
It's been more than two decades since right-hander Rene Arocha became the first player to defect from Cuba's national team in 1991. He later signed with the Cardinals and debuted in 1993 when he was 27 years old. Brothers Livan and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez followed their big league dreams in 1995. "El Duque" was 32 when he made his big league debut, and Livan was 21. Right-hander Jose Contreras defected in 2002 and was 31 when he made his debut with the Yankees the next year.
Decades earlier, Minnie Minoso helped integrate the Major Leagues in the 1950s. Players like Tony Perez, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva and Camilo Pascual left Fidel Castro's communist island and thrived in the big leagues in the years that followed.
It was Esteban Bellan, who was born in Havana and attended college in New York, who was the first Latin American to play Major League Baseball in 1871. But the circumstances surrounding the Cuban market have changed dramatically in the last decade, much less the last 142 years.
Just ask Guerrero or Guerra.
"My thing is baseball, but there was always the thought that I couldn't be taken out of Cuba because my family was against the government and I would defect." -- Cuban infield prospect Alexander Guerrero
Santin and Manny Paula, his business partner at MVP Sports Management and Consulting Agency, can thank Uncle Tuto and his connections to "Mafia" for Guerrero.
Tio Tuto was riding his bike in the parking lot of Sedano's Supermarket in Miami when he overheard Santin and Paula talking baseball over coffee and pastelitos in the outside café. The 60-something-year-old Tuto proceeded to tell Santin -- well known in South Florida for signing Latin players, including Mike Lowell -- that a relative named Edgar "Mafia" Valdes was escaping Cuba with a group of men that included a baseball star named Alexander Guerrero.
Nobody is sure of Tuto's last name or how he is related to Valdes, but Santin and Paula figured it was worth a look.
"Manny looks [Guerrero] up and we are like, 'Wow, this guy is really good,'" said Santin, 52, who, like Paula, was raised in Miami and is of Cuban descent. "I call some of my scouting buddies to get a report, and we got a lot of mixed reviews. But one thing that everybody told me is that this guy could hit, and there was no question about it. Guerrero called us when he got to Haiti, and the rest is history."
Guerrero's story actually begins in Cuba. It starts with his father, Melquiade Guerrero, and his strong anti-communist and anti-Fidel Castro demonstrations in the 1980s. Guerrero's older brother Mikail, who was also a ballplayer, joined his father in an anti-government movement that eventually cast a shadow over young Alexander.
"I was never too involved in politics, because my thing is baseball. But there was always the thought that I couldn't be taken out of Cuba because my family was against the government and I would defect," Guerrero, 26, said. "I always had to deal with that. I had incredible years in Cuba, and I was doing things no other infielder had ever done. But I was never one of the regular ones selected for the national team. I went a couple of times, but I didn't play much and everybody was watching me closely."
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Guerrero began playing in La Serie Nacional, the country's top amateur league, in 2009, and was an All-Star in 2010 and '11 with Las Tunas. In 2012, he hit .290 with 21 home runs and 51 RBIs, and he made a name for himself with his long home runs. Guerrero was part of the team that won the title at the 2012 Haarlem Baseball Week tournament in the Netherlands, but he felt slighted when he was the only player from the championship team left off the Cuban team roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
A distraught Guerrero stepped away from baseball -- a sport that paid him $17 a month -- for four months, and he plotted his escape with Mikail and friends Yisuani Avila and Valdes. He left behind Anisley, his wife of seven years, along with his 8-year-old son Enrique and 1-year-old daughter Alexandra when he departed on the clandestine 100-mile boat trip to Haiti in the middle of the night in January.
"The first thing you think of is your family, and then your safety," Guerrero said. "Nothing is certain when you leave. There's a 50 percent chance you make it and a 50 percent chance you don't. Maybe you get arrested or maybe you drown. It's worth the risk to make a better life for yourself and your family, but it's a very hard decision."
Guerrero gained residency in Haiti in June, and he was granted free agency by Major League Baseball in July. He trains six days a week with Rodriguez, the third partner at MVP Sports Agency, during his stays in the Dominican Republic. An armed guard is always in the background nearby. Guerrero is waiting to be unblocked by the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) before he can enter into a contract with a Major League club.
"There's nothing to indicate that this is going to be any problem whatsoever and that there will be an issue there," said Paula, whose background is in risk management and insurance. "We have done everything by the book. We contacted MLB and we told them it was the first time we represented a Cuban national, and we want to make sure we do everything right. I told them I'm going to be a pain in the butt and a pest, because I want to make sure we are not doing anything illegal and we are not doing anything wrong."
The Dodgers are considered the favorite to sign the infielder, but as with all Cuban players, there is an element of risk and the unknown with Guerrero.
"These guys are good, but they are not in the best shape of their lives in Cuba, because there is no incentive," Santin said. "They leave Cuba and come to the D.R., and the next thing you know, they are shredded with muscles, because all they can focus on is baseball. Look at the Cubans right when they get here and then a few months later: It's stunning how much improvement they make when they are working toward a goal. Alexander has a totally different body now."
When Santin, Paula and Rodriguez created MVP Sports Agency in 2011, their goal was to scout teenage prospects and represent them during the international signing period that begins each July 2. Tio Tuto and "Mafia" changed all that.
"I really don't know where we'll get our next Cuban player, or if we will get one," Santin said. "Between arranging workouts, the paperwork and stuff you have to get done for them -- because they are essentially big leaguers -- it takes a lot of time. I think it's worth it, but this one basically fell on my lap."
One thing is certain: Guerrero's path from Cuba to the great unknown is not a recent phenomenon. The current method of escaping the island is. And it's not a good one.
"I don't question how a player leaves Cuba, because that's up to a player, but I understand the situation they are in and I wish it was not that way." -- agent Jaime Torres
International consultant and former player agent Joe Kehoskie said the calls stopped coming about a year ago.
"I had no idea who they were or how they got my number, but the guys on the other end were trying to sell me Cuban players so I could represent them," said Kehoskie, who began working on the international market in 1998. "I never did one dollar worth of business with them, and they learned that, so they stopped calling. I never lost an interest in representing Cuban players, but I have zero interest in violating federal laws."
For nearly two decades, Arocha's defection from the Cuban national team during an international tournament in 1991 had been the blueprint for other players on the island to follow.
Using that plan, a player would secretly approach an agent, or have their friends or family do so, and arrange for representation before defecting during an international tournament. Joe Cubas emerged as one of the top agents on the market in the 1990s and successfully got players like Livan Hernandez into the big leagues.
The system was not without risk for the player, or the agent. Juan Ignacio Hernandez Nodar, Cubas' cousin, was arrested in 1996 for smuggling players out of Cuba, and he served 13 years in a Cuban prison. Just over a decade later, Gustavo "Gus" Dominguez was convicted in 2007 of paying to smuggle Cuban baseball players from the island to the U.S. He was released in 2011.
As a result, agents have become reluctant to risk imprisonment to get players out of Cuba, and so the business of escaping has become a much darker enterprise.
"There used to be a small number of players that were smuggled, or they would get to their destination on a boat, but it was no more than 20 percent," said Kehoskie, who is from upstate New York and lives in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. "But now these networks operate as their own agencies, going to find players and getting them out. It went from smugglers being unheard of to guys who have a 90 percent share of the market."
These days, most players escape Cuba by taking a boat and trying to make it to the nearest port in Mexico or Haiti. Once there, they are placed in a safe house where a front man makes calls on the player's behalf to seek the highest bidder. Often, players are not released until the carriers are compensated and reimbursed for the passage from Cuba. Some players also sell a "percentage" of their future earnings to finance the trip or for a cash advance as a means of surviving in the interim. Those abetting the player's escape want to get their cut before turning him over to an agent, and so sometimes they reach out to agents to make a deal.
"I have received those types of calls from people that want me to represent Cuban players, and my response is that I don't represent anyone but players," said agent Jaime Torres, who has been representing Cuban players for the past 20 years. "I don't represent anyone who had anything to do with getting a player out of Cuba. If a player talks to me directly and tells me I should represent him, then I do. I have refused to represent players because individuals that have contacted me think that I will represent them, too."
Bart Hernandez, another prominent agent for Cuban players, said it is customary for a defector's friends and family to reach out to his agency.
"I can't speak about other agents, but that's how we get clients," Hernandez said. "Once they are out, we try to reach out to them or they contact us through other players."
Then comes the paperwork.
Any Cuban defector who wants to do business with an American company must first establish residency outside Cuba and the United States, a process that can take several months, depending on the country. Cuban players must also petition for free agency from Major League Baseball and be unblocked by OFAC before they can enter into a contract with a Major League club. Unblocking can take several weeks.
Cuban players who are at least 23 years old and have played in a Cuban professional league for three or more seasons are exempt from the international signing guidelines established by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, effectively making them free agents once they are eligible to sign with a big league club.
The Cuban government allowed left fielder Alfredo Despaigne, a three-time MVP in La Serie Nacional and national team star, to play professionally in the Mexican League this summer as part of a new program for players they do not believe to be a threat to defect. As expected, Despaigne returned to the island after 33 games with Pirates de Campeche.
"I don't question how a player leaves Cuba, because that's up to a player, but I understand the situation they are in and I wish it was not that way," Torres said. "I wish there was a way where a player can sign out of Cuba and come into the States and play, and return to Cuba like Venezuelans or other Latinos do.
"But since Cuban players are not allowed to come into the country because of the U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relationship, they have no other way but to find a way in. They do what they have to do and, unfortunately, some of them have to deal with smugglers. Keep in mind that they still have to have the tools and abilities. Nobody is going to sign a player just because he is Cuban."
Guerra learned that lesson the hard way.
"I came to play baseball, because that's what I love. We'll just have to see what happens in the future, but my life here is already better than it would be back there." -- Yosmany Guerra
Never in his wildest dreams did Guerra imagine that he would spend years toiling in a summer league made up of players released from big league organizations and can't-miss prospects who missed badly. It's inconceivable to him that he's been in the Dominican Republic for almost five years and has only recently established his residency there, a process that usually takes top Cuban players a few months to resolve.
There's still a part of Guerra that believes he should be a rich ballplayer living his American Dream in the United States. Then there's the reality: At this point, to make ends meet, he's willing to play in leagues and tournaments with anyone willing to sign him.
"I still want to make it to the Major Leagues. That's my dream," Guerra said. "I left Cuba for that. I didn't leave for this life. Imagine how I feel."
On Sept. 24, 2008, Guerra and 22 other people risked their lives on a four-day boat ride across the Caribbean from Cuba to Mexico. At the time, he was a spry 25-year-old infielder with power and enough tools to convince scouts that he could make it the big leagues. Standing at 5-foot-10 and weighing a solid 190 pounds, Guerra looked the part. He was a star in Cuba's Serie Nacional for five seasons, spending four seasons with the Metropolitanos in Havana and one with the Industriales, considered one of the strongest teams in the league.
Guerra was also naïve.
Upon arriving in Mexico, he spent a few weeks near the Yucatan Peninsula, while his handlers doctored his paperwork and brokered a deal with a contact in the Dominican Republic. Guerra landed in the Dominican city of Santiago on Oct. 23, 2008, with unauthorized residency papers from Costa Rica.
"It was a disaster," said Guerra, who still lives in Santiago. "The guy I was sold to didn't know baseball or the legalities of becoming eligible. He was a car dealer, and he didn't know what he was doing. He started the process, but it was all wrong and we wasted years trying to figure out his mistakes.
"We were doing tryouts at the time, and lots of scouts came to see me," he continued. "They all saw me, and the workouts went great, but they wanted to know about my documents, and the papers weren't there. My guy kept saying he was working on it, but eventually the teams stopped asking for me. Nobody looked for me anymore. I stopped working with the car dealer, but it was too late. He had taken all of my money and I was lost."
In August, Guerra will begin his fourth season as the starting shortstop and three-hole hitter with the Granjeros de Moca under the guidance of first-year manager Luis Polonia Jr., the son of former Major Leaguer Luis Polonia. The infielder has reached out to professional leagues in Nicaragua, Colombia and Mexico, but he's not sure if anything will come of it.
"I don't think there was ever any doubt he could have been a Major League player, but he made some tough decisions and he could never get cleared," Polonia Jr. said. "He has a lot of talent and he's a tremendous person, but it has not been easy for him. We would miss him here, but there's a part of me that hopes he makes his dreams come true."
Guerra played briefly for the Aguilas Cibaenas, one of the most famous Winter League teams in the Dominican Republic, but the experiment did not last. He said he has no regrets.
"I left Cuba for a better life, to help my family, and I would do it again. I came to play baseball, because that's what I love," Guerra said. "We'll just have to see what happens in the future, but my life here is already better than it would be back there."
Back at Campo Las Palmas, Guerrero wears a signature red Cuban baseball cap with the white cursive "C" above the brim during workouts at the Dodgers' complex. It's an exact replica of the cap worn during the 2013 World Baseball Classic by the Cuban national team, just like the one he would have worn if he had been selected to participate.
Guerrero looks forward to the day when he can don a Major League cap. He feels fortunate to have made it this far.
"My agent brought this Cuba cap from Miami. I had to pay for this," Guerrero said. "Imagine that. That's funny, isn't it?"