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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
Mucho dinero: In Cuba Puig was paid $17 a month to play baseball; today hiseven-year contract with the Dodgers promises $42 million. Photograph courtesy Getty Images
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.
This feature originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.