In a no-tell motel on Isla Mujeres, eight miles off the coast of Cancún, Yasiel Puig’s escape had come to a halt. Confined to a corner room at the end of a shabby horseshoe-shaped courtyard, he could only wait and hope, for his value to be appraised, his freedom to be bought. There was nothing personal about it, no loved one vowing to pay any price, only the calculus of a crude business. What was this gladiator-size man, with the Popeye forearms and the XXL chest, actually worth—to the people bankrolling his defection from Cuba, to the smugglers now holding him in Mexico, to the agents and scouts who would determine the U.S. market for his talents, to the baseball team that might ultimately write the check?
For close to a year Puig had been trying to force an answer, to extract himself from Fidel Castro’s state-run sports machine, which paid him $17 a month, and sneak across the tropics to a mythical north, where even benchwarmers lived like kings. Two, three, four times, maybe more, he had risked everything and fled, only to be detained by the Cuban authorities or intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard—each failure making the next attempt more urgent. Finally, in June 2012, the 21-year-old outfielder left his home in Cienfuegos, on Cuba’s southern shore, and set off by car for the northern province of Matanzas, just 90 miles from Florida. He was traveling with three companions: a boxer, a pinup girl, and a Santeria priest, the latter of whom blessed their expedition with a splash of rum and a sprinkle of chicken blood.
They were met at the water’s edge by a cigarette boat, long and narrow and fast, which instead of racing straight to Miami took them west and then south, following a 350-mile arc to the Yucatán Peninsula. Under Major League Baseball’s byzantine rules and the U.S. Treasury Department’s outdated restrictions, the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent—and score a fat contract—is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing. The five men piloting Puig’s vessel, mostly Cuban Americans, belonged to a smuggling ring whose interests ranged from human cargo to bootleg yachts to bricks of cocaine. At least two were fugitives—one, on the run from a federal indictment in Miami, was alleged to have extorted Cubans traveling this very route. They were all in the pocket of Los Zetas, the murderous Mexican drug cartel, which charged the smugglers a “right of passage” to use Isla Mujeres as a base.
Once the speedboat navigated the reefs that shield the three-square-mile island and puttered into the docks at Laguna Makáx, the last of Puig’s obstacles should have been cleared. Free of the Cuban security apparatus, free of the American embargo, he could begin shopping for an agent and showing off for scouts. In baseball terms, Mexico was practically the United States. But almost as soon as Puig had showered off the grime of his trek—after his group had toasted their arrival with an unfamiliar beer, its label stamped with two Xs, and tuned the TV to a Mexican sitcom—the celebration came to an end. The smugglers were anxious to get on with things. The job was done. Where was the money?
Puig’s journey, according to claims made in court documents and detailed in interviews, had been underwritten by a small-time crook in Miami named Raul Pacheco, an air-conditioning repairman and recycler who was on probation for attempted burglary and possession of a fake ID. Pacheco had allegedly agreed to pay the smugglers $250,000 to get Puig out of Cuba; Puig, after signing a contract, would owe 20 percent of his future earnings to Pacheco. They were not the first to employ this scheme, a version of which has catapulted many of baseball’s new Cuban millionaires to American shores. It is usurious and expedient, illicit and tolerated. Even if you are as freakishly gifted as Yasiel Puig, there is no humanitarian boat lift delivering you to Chavez Ravine.
Every time the smugglers picked up their satellite phone to call Miami, though, Pacheco seemed unable or unwilling to meet their demands. It was unclear whether he was stiffing the smugglers or whether the smugglers were gouging him. For every day of nonpayment, they upped Puig’s price by $15,000 or $20,000. The calls between Mexico and Florida grew furious. The days turned to weeks. Holed up in that dump of a motel, all four migrants in the same dank room, Puig was so close to the prize—now was not the time to lose faith—and yet having just been liberated, his fate was never more out of his hands. The defector had become a captive.
“I don’t know if you could call it a kidnapping, because we had gone there voluntarily, but we also weren’t free to leave,” said the boxer, Yunior Despaigne, who had known Puig from Cuba’s youth sports academies. “If they didn’t receive the money, they were saying that at any moment they might give him a machetazo”—a whack with a machete—“chop off an arm, a finger, whatever, and he would never play baseball again, not for anyone.”
Ever since his debut last June, rescuing the Dodgers from a desultory season and electrifying a city with his fearless, joyful, occasionally head-scratching play, Yasiel Puig has been the biggest story in baseball. He is emotional in a straight-faced game, unpredictable in a sport that glorifies routine, reticent in a town of professional image makers, and enigmatic in the eyes of the largely non-Spanish-speaking reporters who cover him—L.A.’s “International Man of Mystery,” as the New York Post put it. Add to that a pair of arrests, for driving at getaway speeds, and the questions about what planet the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up is from have only grown more persistent. Puig has never publicly discussed his odyssey to the big leagues or even much of his life before that. Now embarking on his first full season—a test that already this spring has generated headlines about everything from his temperament to his waistline—he approaches the past as if it began the moment he took his spot in right field, as if one day, midstream, he was immaculately reborn a Dodger.
But the gamble of getting here, the perils and compromises of leaving Cuba to perform for American fans, did not end when Puigmania began. It has followed him, as similar crossings have haunted other Cuban defectors, exposing the pipeline that both exploits and indulges MLB’s appetite for new talent. “Viva Cuba!” the understated Vin Scully was inspired to exhort last year. “Viva Puig!” Yes, long that he may.
Deep in the dense, sweltering fields of Cuba’s rural interior, 150 miles southeast of Havana, the tiny mill town of Elpidio Gómez (population 3,000) has been harvesting, mashing, and extracting sugar from cane since 1873. Slave labor helped erect the factory during colonial times; it was later nationalized, becoming an arm of the state economy. “Revolution is the sense of a historic moment,” says the quote from Fidel Castro that looms over the cavernous shed of wringers and vats.
To assure workers a break, to keep their children fit and entertained, the factory grounds give way to a baseball diamond: a scorched patch of earth, the grass reduced to straw. The bleacher is a rusted skeleton, half the benches missing from the frame. The bases are frayed swatches of burlap, salvaged from old flour bags. When Puig speaks of his purpose in life—“I was born to play baseball,” he told me with an earnest nod, before I embarked on a journey that was the reverse of his, from California to Arizona to Florida to Cuba—it was here, under a smokestack belching molasses clouds, that he took his baby steps. A home run ball would have landed almost at his front door. Just beyond the scoreboard, a two-story concrete bunker of cramped apartments, laundry flapping from the balconies, rises from the brush. Puig’s mother headed one of Elpidio Gómez’s subsidiaries; his father, an agronomist, specialized in sugarcane, too.
To visit Cuba is to revel in its 1950s retro qualities—the vintage Chevys, the daiquiris and Cohibas—but the scrap of country Puig hails from is even more of a time capsule. Horse-drawn carts shuttle farmhands, in knee-high rubber boots, a few miles east to the municipal seat of Palmira, where a man can walk through the plaza with a machete and not turn heads. Street vendors sell braids of garlic, draped around their necks like Mardi Gras beads. Everything is priced in local pesos, a fraction of Cuba’s official tourist currency; a pint of guarapo, fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, goes for eight cents.
The one-room Municipal Museum is devoted to Palmira’s long relationship with Santeria, the Afro-Catholic religious tradition. According to one source, the Spaniard who founded the sugar mill had lugged to the New World a figurine of Saint Barbara, the patron of artillerymen; one of his slaves saw in the fierce young woman the image of Changó, the god of fire and drums. “Everyone in Cuba says that when the drums are beaten in Palmira, the saints come out not to celebrate but to make war,” said a museum docent, inviting me to return on December 4, Saint Barbara’s feast day, to see Palmira erupt into a cathartic jamboree.
By the time he was of Little League age, Puig had graduated to the sturdier Palmira ballpark, with its shaded concrete bleacher and yet more revolutionary slogans: “Sports,” says the hand-painted mural on the outfield fence, “has to do with the life of the country, with the future of the country, with the survival of the country!” Rather than leave something so vital to the whims of children, Cuba culls and grooms young athletes like Puig, funneling them into Schools for Sports Initiation, known as EIDEs, then on to High Schools of Athletic Perfection, known as ESPAs. (Puig’s younger sister, Yaima, followed this path in the shot put and javelin.) When he was 17, Puig made the junior national team. “He was like a hurricane,” recalled Jesus Valmaña, a Cubavisión Internacional reporter who has covered Puig’s career. “So strong, so fast.”
Until the 1959 revolution, Cuba was practically an extension of MLB’s farm leagues. It is easy to forget that a young Tommy Lasorda pitched four seasons in Havana. After declaring Cuba a socialist state, though, Castro abolished professional ball—he detested a system that bought and sold players like merchandise—and instead launched the National Series, a 16-team amateur league. “This is the triumph of free baseball over slave baseball,” he famously said. Because every player must represent his home province, Puig debuted with the Elefantes of Cienfuegos, a city of 140,000 about a dozen miles from his birthplace. As an 18-year-old rookie, measured against the Elefantes’ greats, Puig was still raw, even reckless.
“He was half-crazy,” a former schoolmate told me. “A little crazy,” said a friend of his father’s. “We called him cabeza loca”—crazy head—“crazy, crazy until the end,” said Michel Hernandez, a former bartender who would join Puig after games at El Rápido, a 24-hour, open-air joint on Cienfuegos’s boardwalk. This is less a critique than an affirmation: of the carefree, carnivalesque vigor that Cubans embrace as a cultural virtue. “He was just such a jodedor”—a screw-around—“not in a bad sense but like a joker,” said Hernandez. “Beer and girls, beer and girls, always a party!”
It has been reported that injuries preempted Puig’s second season with the Elefantes, but his indisciplina, which included some unexplained no-shows, was probably to blame. “I watched the next season from the bench for having behaved ‘good’ in practice,” Puig told the Cienfuegos newspaper, Cinco de Septiembre. He returned in his third season to post breakout numbers, which earned him a trip to the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands. Several future big leaguers have used the tournament as an opportunity to defect, and some reports have suggested that Puig earned a rebuke for attempting to do the same.
But Peter Bjarkman, the coauthor of Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball, believes that the likelier explanation was more mundane: shoplifting tennis shoes from a Dutch mall. “It’s kind of a sad situation,” said Bjarkman, who heard rumblings from sources on Puig’s team. “They buy what they can, but players have different amounts of money. They’re allowed to bring cigars to sell. Some try to sell their uniforms. But some guys don’t have much of anything.”
Back in Cuba, when rosters for the 2011-12 season were announced, Puig’s name was missing. His coach is said to have pleaded with government officials to give Puig another chance—the problem child, whatever his transgression, was still the Elefantes’ spark plug—and after weeks of speculation, he was reinstated as a reserve, eligible to be activated after 25 games. Having done his penance, however, Puig never resurfaced. In March 2012, Cuba’s National Baseball Commission finally explained: Puig was “NOT educated and a bad example for the rest of the players.” There was now, for Puig, nothing to lose.
Given the riches that await in el exterior, it is remarkable not that so many Cuban athletes leave but that so many more stay. Nobody needs to remind them that the decision to flee is irrevocable, a one-way journey from privation to overload. “You’re afraid to leave your family, you’re afraid that maybe you won’t triumph, you’re afraid of…I don’t know, it’s just a very difficult step,” rookie infielder and Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero, in the first year of a $28 million deal, told me at the Dodgers’ spring training camp in Arizona. It took Guerrero years to build up the gumption to flee, then three attempts to succeed. “Once you board one of those boats,” he added, “you don’t know who is who and how those people are going to react, or what’s going to happen out in the sea.”
An elaborate underground of couriers and bagmen is forever shadowing Cuba’s best ballplayers. So is a state-sponsored network of secret police and paid informants. When you are being lured and monitored at every turn, caught between ambition and duty, survival sometimes means playing both sides. During Puig’s lost second season, in 2010, he was approached by a young couple at Coppelia, the beloved Cuban ice cream chain. The Cienfuegos shop sits on the Prado, a bustling pedestrian strip, and displays a huge billboard across its rooftop with another of Castro’s incantations: “Never will we renounce our principles.” The couple asked Puig to step outside to a waiting car; there another man explained that someone else, a foreigner, was prepared to pay $30,000 or maybe $30 million—Puig would purport to be confused—if he would commit to playing in America.
Puig alerted the sports ministry, which notified state security. “They said that the man from outside the country has money and everything was easy,” Puig said in a sworn statement to the Cuban authorities. Puig’s mother, in a separate declaration, added that her son was “very scared, given that he is a young man of 19 years and without wickedness, for which he can be tricked.”
This feature originally appears in the May 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
Their testimony would be used against one of the alleged intermediaries, Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot. Despite proclaiming his innocence, Corbacho Daudinot was sentenced to seven years in Cuban prison for posing a “special social dangerousness.” Those documents are included in a federal lawsuit filed by Corbacho Daudinot’s lawyers last summer in Miami, alleging that Cuban guards have subjected him to a parade of horrors and that Puig and his mother, by turning him in, violated the Torture Victim Protection Act. The complaint demands $12 million from them. As a legal proposition, the idea that a Cuban citizen convicted in a Cuban court and serving time in a Cuban prison could have a valid claim here would appear to be a tough sell. “This action has nothing to do with the United States,” Puig’s attorney, Sean Santini, wrote in a motion to dismiss, which along with the suit is still pending.
But the alternative—that Puig, future defector, was the victim of an alleged defection plot—is no easier to buy. The lawsuit describes him as an opportunist who conspired to send at least three other would-be traffickers to prison; Puig wanted to “appear as if he were a loyal and trustworthy Cuban citizen,” it says, even as he plotted his own escape. A more charitable view of Puig still conveys the pressure he lived under: If you are being hounded with offers to flee, how do you know whom to trust and when to do it—without landing in jail yourself?
It seems improbable that the most attractive offer would come from Raul Pacheco, the 29-year-old president of two Miami companies, T&P Metal and PY Recycling. Court records show that Pacheco was arrested in 2009 for attempted burglary after asking a friend to help him remove an air-conditioning unit. When they arrived at the location, Pacheco pulled out bolt cutters. “Don’t worry,” he told his friend, according to the police report, “I have stolen from these people in the past.” He was arrested again in 2010 after purchasing $150 worth of beer at a supermarket with a fraudulent Bank of America credit card. Police found four other bogus credit cards and a fake Florida ID in his wallet. He was sentenced to two years’ probation. When I dialed Pacheco’s number, I got a recording that said he was “not accepting calls at this time.”
Although Pacheco did not know Puig, he knew that U.S. teams were falling all over themselves for Cuban talent: Since 2009, at least 20 defectors have signed MLB contracts, worth more than $300 million. Before leaving Cuba himself, Pacheco had become friendly with Yunior Despaigne, and he knew that the boxer, who had been removed from the national team as a suspected flight risk, was friendly with Puig. “I approached Puig with Pacheco’s offer,” Despaigne said in an affidavit that Corbacho Daudinot’s lawyers submitted in December. “If Puig accepted the offer, he would have to repay the financial backers the cost of getting him out of Cuba, and provide them with twenty percent (20%) of any future contracts that he entered into with the major leagues.”
Despaigne was hesitant about delivering that message, knowing Puig’s supposed reputation as an informant, but Despaigne had his own incentive—a free trip on the same boat. The going rate for an average Cuban was $10,000. “I told him, ‘I know that you are with state security, and that you have sent many people to jail,’ and I mentioned some of the names,” Despaigne said in the affidavit. “Puig nodded his head and said, ‘Yeah, so what?’ ” Despaigne reminded Puig that they both had a lot to lose. “If you snitch on me,” he told Puig, “I will snitch on you too.”
With that settled, Despaigne handed Puig a few hundred dollars that Pacheco had allegedly sent—the first of what would total $25,000 to $30,000 in advances. Beginning in 2011, according to the lawsuit, the money helped underwrite at least five escape attempts. The first was thwarted when police stopped Puig and Despaigne’s car. On the second, the boat failed to arrive. The third time, police raided their safe house and detained them for six days. On the fourth try, in April 2012, they made it to sea—but the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Vigilant, as Yahoo Sports first reported, intercepted their boat near Haiti.
The Vigilant’s translator, Carlos Torres, questioned the migrants: “They were like, ‘This is who this guy is—Yasiel Puig, he’s a baseball player—and there’s people out there waiting for him.’ ” The one they called Puig was more linebacker than outfielder, six feet three, 210 pounds, with “muscles on top of muscles,” Torres said when I reached him. His curiosity led him to the ship’s computer, and up came a picture of Puig in his green Elefantes uniform. “It was him, you could tell,” said Torres, who asked Puig to sign the only sports-related gear on board: a tennis ball. Puig, meanwhile, had questions of his own for Torres. “He was asking me what kind of house I had, what kind of car do I drive, do I watch TV, do I go out and have dinner at a restaurant,” Torres said. “Basic stuff that we take for granted.”
Under the seemingly arbitrary U.S. policy on Cuban migrants—what is known as “wet foot, dry foot”—Puig would have been instantly welcomed if his boat had delivered him to American shores. Anyone escaping Castro’s island gets a free pass, as long as they evade detection. Caught at sea, they lose their chance. The crew of the Vigilant, the first Americans to get Yasiel Puig’s autograph, had to return him to the country he had just fled.
At the conclusion of his ten-page affidavit, a document intended to bolster Corbacho Daudinot and undermine Puig, Yunior Despaigne wrote, “I am concerned that something may happen to me as a result of my part in cooperating.” How leery Despaigne might be, how instinctively a 26-year-old boxer might react to a stranger at his door, was giving me pause as I drove through the immigrant suburbs west of Miami’s Little Havana, to the townhouse he rents in a 146-unit development. If I was going to give credence to Despaigne’s account, though, I wanted to hear it for myself.
I unlatched the patio fence, where a pair of dumbbells caught my eye, and knocked. When the door swung open, it was hard to tell who was more surprised: Despaigne is a lankier version of Puig, about an inch taller and a few pounds lighter, with hands like oven mitts. He was worried about speaking without an attorney present—he called his lawyer as I stood on the stoop and was instructed to send me away—but Despaigne still retains the warmth of a culture with few barriers, where scarcity ensures that everything is shared. “I have nothing against Puig,” he said, waving me in with a gap-toothed smile. “He just needs to learn to value people, to understand what they’re worth.”
For their fifth attempt to flee, as Despaigne tells it, they were joined by Puig’s then-girlfriend, Yeny, who has Bambi eyes and a thorny heart tattooed on her backside. “Women with a past and men with a future are the most interesting people,” she wrote recently on Facebook, where each curvy photo she posts elicits many hundreds of “likes.” The other traveler, Lester, was the Santeria priest, no less flamboyant with his frosted pompadour and hip-huggers cinched with a bow. “He did the ceremony for us: sacrificed the chicken, recited the prayers, the whole thing,” said Despaigne, who used to date Lester’s sister. “We needed all the help we could get.”
After the three-hour drive from Cienfuegos to Matanzas, they set out on foot for the shore, walking at night, hiding by day, at last arriving at a cluster of mangrove-shrouded cays. Although Mexico was not his ultimate destination, Puig could not afford to take a straight path to the United States. A foreign-born player who immigrates without a contract is treated as an amateur by MLB; he can negotiate only with the team that drafts him. By declaring himself a free agent before arriving, that player can entertain all comers; the difference is worth millions. Federal law, of course, bars Americans from paying money to Cubans—or “trading with the enemy”—so a ballplayer like Puig needs not only to defect but also to establish legal residency in a country that he does not actually intend to live in.
The smugglers who retrieved Puig had been shuttling Cubans through Mexico for years. Despaigne remembered most of their names, and when I searched, I had no trouble picking up their trail. The captain was 35-year-old Yandrys León, aka “Leo.” He had left Cuba with his family in the mid-2000s and settled in a rural corner of Florida, where his sister and parents found jobs in a poultry plant. But Leo was not cut out for plucking chickens on an assembly line. “He lives his own road,” his sister’s fiancé had testified a few months before Puig boarded Leo’s boat. At that moment, in fact, U.S. agents with Homeland Security Investigations were looking for Leo. His trial, for allegedly extorting $40,000 from a migrant family he had held captive, was starting in September. United Press International would call him “one of the most important capos of the Cuban-American mafia.”
Leo shared his duties with 40-year-old Tomás Vélez Valdivia, aka “Tomasito.” He was on the Florida attorney general’s “most wanted” list for stealing a dump truck. After a 2005 arrest, he skipped bail and resurfaced in Isla Mujeres, where he reportedly developed a nautical specialty: ferrying migrants in stolen boats, then repainting and reregistering the vessels with fraudulent documents. “For that he counted on the protection of the island’s authorities, who knew of him and his activities but never detained him,” the Cancún-based newspaper Por Esto! reported.
Tomasito, in turn, was joined by his little brother, Ricardo Vélez Valdivia, aka “The Younger.” At some earlier date he had been kidnapped by a cell of the Zetas cartel, which demanded payment for traversing their turf. When the Zetas released him, according to several news sources, The Younger was missing a finger.
At 2 a.m., wired on Mountain Dew, White woke up Paul Fryer, another high-level Dodger scout who had traveled to Mexico, and laid out his plan: seven years and $42 million, a record for a Cuban defector.
Along with two other accomplices—“The Chinaman” and “The Hungarian”—the smugglers guided Puig’s group to the docks of Isla Mujeres, a former fishing village that draws vacationers weary of nonstop Cancún. Despaigne could not remember the name of their motel, only that it was well off the tourist track. “The kind,” he said, “you’d go to with a prostitute.” Except for brief respites in the murky courtyard pool, they were confined to a single room: Puig and Yeny in one bed, while Despaigne and Lester, tinier by a hundred pounds, shared the other—“with a wall of pillows between us,” said Despaigne.
There was nobody guarding them, but there was nowhere to go, either. They were in Mexico illegally, delivered by a gang that appeared to enjoy the favor of the Mexican police. If they were just patient—if that Pacheco would come through—Puig’s bankability would assure them all safe passage. The smugglers were in it for immediate gains, though, not future earnings. Their daily tax on Puig soon pushed the tab over $400,000. If at first their threats had been uttered as a tactic—pay up or we’ll do something crazy—they were now growled in real frustration. “It’s a dirty business, of course, but they’re professionals,” Despaigne told me. “The whole problem was that they didn’t get paid.”
As the standoff entered its third week, the smugglers began looking elsewhere to recoup their costs. The idea occurred to them that they could auction Puig off. If a sports agent stood to get a sizable share of Puig’s contract—the industry standard is 5 percent—what might he be willing to pay up front to score Puig as a client?
In Los Angeles Gus Dominguez’s phone rang. “The first quote was $175,000, then it went up from there,” said Dominguez, a former agent who now consults with TopTen Sports International. He knew to be cautious. In 2007, Dominguez was sentenced to five years in prison for wiring $225,000 to a go-between in Mexico. The U.S. government called it trafficking. Dominguez insisted that he was protecting a Cuban-born client, the former Seattle Mariners infielder Yunieksy Betancourt, who had reneged on a promise to pay his transporters a percentage of his contract; they were threatening to break Betancourt’s legs if Dominguez did not cover the debt. “What the players go through to get here,” Dominguez told me, “it’s not correct, it’s not fair.”
In upstate New York Joe Kehoskie’s phone rang, too. “The first call was for $250,000, and by the next day, the price was up to $500,000,” said Kehoskie, a former agent and consultant. He had received similar calls before—most agents with Latin American clients did—even though MLB rules on “improper inducements” prohibit them from paying anything to win a player’s business. “Nobody’s going to Cuba and bringing out a guy like Yasiel Puig,” Kehoskie told me, “and just handing him over to an agent out of the goodness of their heart.”
With interest accruing and tempers rising, Pacheco at last took action. The lawsuit alleges that he, with the help of several other Miami financiers, hired a team of fixers to descend on Isla Mujeres. In a scene that could have been cribbed from a thousand screenplays, they stormed the motel and, according to court papers, “staged a kidnapping.” Within days Puig was auditioning in Mexico City.
The Dodgers’ man in the Panama hat, longtime scout Mike Brito, got the news straight from his former homeland. “That boy you like. He just escaped from Cuba,” he was told by his brother, who still lives on the island Brito fled decades ago, according to a CBS Sports report.
Although Cuba bars U.S. teams from scouting there, Brito had seen Puig in Canada, at an 18-and-under tournament, and vowed not to lose track of the kid. Now he sounded the alarm, urging Logan White, the Dodgers’ vice president of amateur scouting, to catch the next flight to Mexico. Puig was not in the best condition—he had not played in a year—and was refusing to do anything more strenuous than take batting practice. But there was something about his physicality, the hint of speed, the threat of explosiveness, that dazzled White, too. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this guy’s special,’ ” White recalled.
If the Dodgers were going to get a deal done, it would have to be fast. In little more than a week every team would face a new $2.9 million cap on the bonuses it could pay to international players as young and inexperienced as Puig, which ensured he would commit to a team before then. White had one shot to concoct a deal that would be impossible to reject. That meant winning over not just Puig but agent Jaime Torres, a favorite among newly arrived Cubans, who by this point had met Puig in Cancún, according to Despaigne’s affidavit. (Torres, who insists that he has never dealt with smugglers and who is no longer Puig’s agent, has declined to comment on how Puig reached Mexico.) At 2 a.m., wired on Mountain Dew, White woke up Paul Fryer, another high-level Dodger scout who had traveled to Mexico, and laid out his plan: seven years and $42 million, a record for a Cuban defector.
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” Fryer asked.
“Look,” insisted White, “if you don’t have the stomach for this, let me know now.”
The signing, four days before the July 2 spending cap took effect, drew snorts from around the league. ESPN called the deal a “bizarre overreaction.” A scout told Baseball America, “I don’t know what’s going on in Dodger land.” As much as the Dodgers wanted Puig, they also wanted to send a message to prospects across Latin America, a region the club had once dominated. After the dark days of the McCourt era, the team’s coffers were flush again. “We’re back in business,” said general manager Ned Colletti.
To ease Puig’s transition, the Dodgers placed him on their Arizona Rookie League squad and paired him with a mentor, a high school wrestling coach named Tim Bravo, whose official title was “director of cultural assimilation.” Their first days together—Puig’s first on American soil—were pure wonder, everything so new and different, even in the bland desert sprawl of Camelback Ranch. “He does everything full speed, everything hard, everything with exuberance,” Bravo told me. “I tried to keep him out of trouble, but it wasn’t always easy. He was saying, Yes, yes, yes, and I was saying, No, no, no.”
Puig discovered the round-the-clock comforts of Denny’s, returning day after day for steak and eggs. Flipping channels, he stumbled upon the Three Stooges and spent hours nyuck-nyuck-ing himself silly. He had to learn not just English but the basics of modern consumerism: to tip, to use an ATM, to read labels, to pump gas. “I hate to say this, but I taught him to drive,” said Bravo. “We’d take my rental car out right after practice, drive around the Camelback parking lots. We were doing all the things you’d teach a teenager.”
This feature originally appears in the May 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
On June 3, 2013, a year after setting foot in this country, Puig found himself in the Dodgers lineup for the first time. He wore the number 66 on his jersey, the whimsy of clubhouse manager Mitch Poole, who thought Puig, with his frenetic ways, was “kind of like the Tasmanian Devil.” The organization knew that Puig was still a work in progress—he had already earned the first of his arrests, for driving 97 mph, while playing at Double-A Chattanooga that spring—but the Dodgers were desperate. Despite a $216 million payroll, the team was in last place, the roster riddled with injuries.
Puig started the game against the San Diego Padres with a bloop single. He ended the game with a bazooka-worthy throw that doubled up a runner at first. The next day he homered twice. Two days later, he slugged a grand slam. By the end of the month, Puig had amassed 44 hits, a debut topped only by Joe DiMaggio. Instantly the rookie was a “diva” and a “rock star,” the machinery of fame and fandom, nonexistent in Cuba, scrutinizing every foible and flourish. Whether it was a frivolous slide after a walk-off home run or a boys’ night out at the Playboy Mansion during the all-star break, Puig had triggered something akin to a referendum on what it means to respect the national pastime. No moment symbolized the spectacle more than his Game 3 blast in the National League Championship Series against St. Louis: Having flipped his bat and trotted in triumph toward first, he suddenly realized that the ball had hit the fence and he needed to sprint—and even then he made it to third, with time for a bunny hop. “He must think that he’s still playing somewhere else,” an irked Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals’ veteran, said after the game.
The worshiping and bashing and defending became so feverish that one sports blog asked if the “Puig Backlash and Puig Backlash Backlash factions” could just try to get along. Even with his late start, Puig finished the season with MLB’s third-best-selling jersey.
The fascination was inseparable from the mystery. The more Puig cordoned off his past, the greater his legend grew. He had leaped overnight from the 19th century to the 21st—an experience familiar to many in L.A.’s immigrant communities—and yet he continued to insist that his only concern, his sole longing, was to help the Dodgers win.
He seemed to relish the camaraderie of his teammates, engaging pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu in mock tae kwon do battles and feeding bananas to Juan Uribe each time the stout third baseman homered (at least until the Dodgers, sensitive to how Puig’s stab at King Kong humor would be perceived, put an end to that ritual). He appeared generous, too, with fans, especially the littlest ones, signing caps and posing with babies wherever he met a crowd. One evening last October, unplanned and unannounced, Puig dropped by the Northeast Los Angeles Little League field, in the hills right across from Dodger Stadium, and after nearly an hour of autographs and photos, insisted on throwing batting practice.
“It was just mind-blowing,” said John Vergara, whose nine-year-old son, Daniel, got to smack a meatball off Puig. “I’ve been coaching at Northeast Little League for about 14 years, and there’s never been a current Dodger player, let alone a star, who’s come up to the field and just done that.”
At the same time, Puig is the only player in the Dodgers clubhouse whom the press finds consistently unapproachable, refusing to be interviewed unless the PR staff leans on him or his gatekeeper, who doubles as a “VIP host supervisor” with Sam Nazarian’s SBE Entertainment, gives him the OK. Faced with a reporter, Puig will squint, which makes him look like the late heavyweight Floyd Patterson, or smirk, which conjures the comic Tracy Morgan, and say something about being muy contento as a Dodger. After two months of negotiations, I managed to secure nine minutes with him in the boisterous kitchen of Homegirl Café, in Chinatown, during the team’s preseason Community Service Caravan. Puig had slipped off his gold jewelry and donned a hair net to lend a hand to the recovering gangsters who do the baking there; I was interrupting his first taste ever of a lemon bar. It seemed unlikely that he would reveal anything under those circumstances, but when I asked about his unusually late-night posts on Twitter and Instagram last season, how he seemed to lose himself in video-game soccer battles till the wee hours, Puig allowed that he sometimes struggled to find rest—that closing his eyes invited in too many other thoughts.
There is a saying in Cuba, Puig told me: “Dormir es cuando te toca a morir.” The phrase loses something in translation, but not much: Sleep is when it’s your turn to die. “For that reason,” he continued in Spanish, “I sleep with one eye open.” I was tempted to probe further, to ask if the disquiet keeping him awake had anything to do with his escape, but I was pretty sure he would pull the plug on me if I did. Instead I suggested that we continue the conversation at spring training. Puig agreed, but when I saw him the following month in the locker room at Camelback Ranch, he acted like we had never met and, for three straight days, declined to speak to me. I soon learned some details that would help explain his wariness.
Even after he signed with the Dodgers, after the millions started to flow and he had ensconced himself in one of downtown Los Angeles’s newest luxury lofts, Puig’s escape was still pursuing him. As court records and interviews show, the smugglers—the ones who had been tacking on late fees as if that motel on Isla Mujeres were an impound lot—had not stopped demanding money. When Puig was rescued, the mob went looking to collect.
Toward the end of that 2012 summer, one of their henchmen showed up in Miami, at Olofi Discount & Articulos Religiosos, a Santeria supply shop that Despaigne had opened. He cornered Despaigne, who recalled having a pistol jammed against his liver—an oddly anatomical detail, but a boxer knows where it hurts. “The man…told me to tell Puig that if he didn’t pay them, that they would kill him,” Despaigne said in the affidavit.
One of the smugglers also called Despaigne’s mother, Idalia Diaz, who still lives in Cuba, on the outskirts of Cienfuegos in a barrio where horses graze and shirtless men play dominoes in the street. “He asked me for the address of Yasiel Puig’s family,” said Diaz, who told me the story in her cubicle of a living room, the concrete walls painted peach. “I told him, ‘Look, I can’t give you the address. I don’t know it.’ He insisted, ‘You have to tell me where Yasiel Puig lives.’ ”
There is a saying in Cuba, Puig told me: “Dormir es cuando te toca a morir.” The phrase loses something in translation, but not much: Sleep is when it’s your turn to die. “For that reason,” he continued in Spanish, “I sleep with one eye open.”
She did not understand the urgency—Despaigne, knowing his mother would worry, had kept her in the dark—but the caller was unrelenting. “He says to me, ‘We’re going to burn down Yasiel Puig’s house,’ ” Diaz said, “‘and if you don’t tell me where it is, we’re going to burn down yours, too.’ ”
This was too much for Despaigne. He called Puig and pleaded with him to resolve the mess. By then, according to court records, Puig had already paid Pacheco and three other backers more than $1.3 million. Although the sum cannot be verified—and Puig’s lawyer argued that such details were nothing more than a “gratuitous shot at Yasiel’s reputation”—Despaigne claimed that the transactions were discussed in his presence. When Despaigne first arrived in Miami, he lived with Pacheco until Pacheco was arrested, though not convicted, on yet another burglary charge.
In Despaigne’s affidavit he alleged that Puig paid $300,000 to Pacheco, who incorporated a business, Service Sport Miami, two weeks after Puig signed his Dodgers contract. The affidavit also alleged that Puig paid $400,000 to $500,000 to Alberto Fariñas, the 49-year-old vice president of Pacheco’s T&P Metal company, and $600,000 to a Miami lawyer, Marcos Gonzalez. Finally Despaigne alleged that Puig paid an unknown percentage of his contract to his agent, which would be expected, and an equal percentage to a man named Gilberto Suarez, who incorporated a business, Miami Sport Management, in early 2013.
After Despaigne called Puig, Puig allegedly called Suarez. Despaigne was a passenger in Suarez’s car during that conversation, and he claimed to have listened as Puig asked Suarez for help making the threats stop. Suarez, according to Despaigne’s affidavit, told Puig not to worry: He would have Leo, the captain of the smugglers, “neutralized.”
What could have just been bluster—to impress Puig, to mollify Despaigne—soon appeared harder to dismiss. A month later, according to the affidavit, Suarez called Despaigne, offering proof that he “took care of problems.” Asked what that meant, Suarez told Despaigne to search the Internet for Leo’s name. And there it was, on a Mexican news site, albeit spelled phonetically: Cuban Yandris León Placía, mafioso wanted for trafficking illegals in Cancún, executed.
On October 3, 2012, in an upscale district of Cancún, Leo’s body had been found on the side of the road, riddled with 13 bullets. Five of the wounds were to his back, which led the Yucatán newspaper Quequi to speculate that his killers had “deered” him—underworld slang for allowing a victim to run so that he can be hunted down.
As Despaigne was quick to acknowledge to me, he has no evidence that any of Puig’s financiers had a hand in Leo’s murder. He believes, in fact, that they eventually paid the smugglers off. At that moment, though, Despaigne did not know what to think, other than to hope it was all a fluke of timing, that Suarez had simply claimed credit for the news. Mexican authorities soon arrested Tomasito, the smuggler whom the local press called “one of the intellectual authors” of Leo’s murder. But Tomasito, charged only for his boat-stealing exploits, reportedly told authorities that Leo had been killed in a drug deal by someone known as “The Figure.”
To be certain that this “Leo” was the same smuggler who had held Puig captive, I showed Despaigne a crime-scene photo that had accompanied one of the stories. I knew the image was gruesome, a clean-cut man in an Aéropostale shirt, blood trickling out the side of his mouth, but I was unprepared for the reaction. Despaigne closed his eyes. He buried his head in those massive hands. He took a sip of rum. “Damn,” he said finally. “He’s just so—so young.”
When the 2013 season ended, after the Dodgers’ thrilling turnaround had derailed in the playoffs, Ned Colletti summoned a handful of players, one at a time, for a private word. The GM had grappled with what to say to Puig, someone whose history, he conceded, resists a simple prescription. “Whatever he went through and whatever the challenges and frustrations were—unless you’ve been through it,” Colletti told me, “I don’t think we can completely understand.”
He began by congratulating Puig on an incredible year, on navigating so many new experiences, all at a breakneck pace. “I want you to have a great life,” Colletti told him. “You’re somebody who brings a lot of joy to a lot of people.” Still, as Colletti reminded Puig, he was no longer a neophyte, a bewildered kid on the run. “You’ve come to a different place in your life,” Colletti said. “I want you to think about the future. Be prepared. Be wise.”
Puig nodded. He was trying, but it was hard. “Where I come from,” Puig told Colletti, “you don’t think a whole lot about tomorrow.”
In December, the same week he turned 23, Puig became a father (though not with Yeny, his Cienfuegos sweetheart). His son, Diego, was only 20 days old when a trooper caught Puig flying across Florida’s swampland, from Miami to Orlando, at 110 mph; Puig was taking his mother, who had by now left Cuba herself, to meet her grandchild. “This is your mom?” the trooper can be heard asking Puig on a recording captured by the dashboard cam. “Oh, hell, no.”
“Officer, I’m sorry,” says Puig, emerging in blazing pink shorts.
“If you don’t care about your own mother’s life,” the trooper asks repeatedly, “then whose life are you going to care about?”
Left alone in the rear of the squad car, Puig bellows, off camera, in frustration. It is the voice of someone who has traveled far but keeps returning to the same place. “Why the fuck do you have to drive fast, Puig?” he howls to himself in Spanish. “You have to learn, compadre.”
There was one more tangle for Puig to manage that month, the unraveling of his friendship with Yunior Despaigne. They had endured a daunting journey together, two suspended Cuban athletes seeking a new start, but now Puig was a multimillionaire and Despaigne, the link between Miami and Cienfuegos, could not help but feel forsaken. The Santeria shop was a bust. One night at the Miccosukee Resort, an Indian casino on the fringes of the Everglades, Despaigne allegedly snatched a $300.60 gaming ticket from another patron and found himself in handcuffs, too.
Discreetly he had begun cooperating with Corbacho Daudinot’s lawyers months earlier, feeding them details that only someone close to Puig could know. Even Puig’s lawyer conceded that “it’s not as if the guy made everything up from whole cloth,” but he dismissed Despaigne as a “hanger-on” whose motives “we can all speculate about.” Despaigne insisted that he has no financial stake—he is a witness, not a plaintiff—and that he was motivated not by animosity but reciprocity, on behalf of all those who paid for Puig’s aspirations.
After Puig realized that Despaigne was working against him, however, their falling-out turned vengeful. Back in Cuba, a former teammate of Puig’s, the Elefantes pitcher Noelvis Entenza, notified state security that he had been approached with an offer to defect. The suspect was Despaigne’s younger brother, Tito, who was arrested for enticing the pitcher to “abandon the country in an illegal manner.” Although Puig’s involvement, if any, is unclear, Despaigne recognized the pattern. With the help of Corbacho Daudinot’s lawyers, he rushed to draft the affidavit, aware that its vivid allegations would embarrass Puig. It was the best he could do for Tito, who is facing up to 12 years in prison for a crime that is hard to fathom: the collateral damage of two stubborn governments, two colliding gospels of baseball.
The last time they spoke, Puig reportedly told Despaigne, “You do what you are going to do, but then don’t cry over the consequences.” It was a threat but also an admonition, and just maybe an epiphany.
Jesse Katz is a contributing writer for Los Angeles. His last piece, on Freeway Ricky Ross, appeared in the June 2013 issue.
This feature originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.