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Escape from Cuba: Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers
The shocking saga of Major League Baseball’s most controversial player
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.”
A side street near his hometown in Cuba. Photograph by Jesse Katz
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.