The shortest route between Cuba and the United States is just 90 miles, but it can be a complicated journey for a baseball player.
Because professional sports are outlawed in communist Cuba and most business relationships between U.S. companies and Cuban nationals are prohibited by the U.S. trade embargo, players must first defect from their homeland, establish residency in another country and receive clearance from the U.S. Treasury Department before becoming eligible to negotiate with a big league club.
At some point, they must also prove they're good enough to play in the majors. Lately, that second substantial hurdle has proven a lot easier to clear than the first.
There are more Cubans in the big leagues now than there have been in four decades. When Dodgers reliever Onelki Garcia made his debut earlier this month, he became the 21st Cuban-born player to appear in a major league game this season. That's one fewer player than Canada, one more than the continent of Asia, and also more than Puerto Rico, the U.S. commonwealth that has baseball academies designed to develop professional ballplayers.
This season alone, Miami pitcher Jose Fernandez and Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman were chosen for the All-Star game, where Oakland outfielder Yoenis Cespedes won the Home Run Derby. Chapman and Cespedes, along with Tampa Bay shortstop Yunel Escobar, Detroit infielder Jose Iglesias, Texas outfielder Leonys Martin and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, are playing major roles in their teams' push toward the playoffs.
Of those seven, only Escobar is older than 27 or was in the majors before August 2010.
"No question the players have talent," says Logan White, the Dodgers' vice president for amateur scouting. "They can play." Puig, 22, who wasn't even in playing shape when he received a six-year, $42-million contract in June 2012, has a .326 batting average and 19 home runs after making his big league debut only a year after he signed.
The last time there were so many Cubans in the majors was 1970, when those who left the island before the 1959 revolution were seeing their careers in the U.S. wind down.
Joe Kehoskie, who has followed international baseball closely, first as an agent and now as a consultant, says social media is partially responsible for the flow of Cuban talent.
"Ten years ago a player would leave Cuba, sign a nice contract, and people in Cuba might kind of hear rumors about how well he's doing and whatnot," he says. "Now Chapman's Lamborghini is on Facebook. Chapman's mansion is on Facebook."
Chapman, Cespedes, Puig and Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez also spent fewer than 65 games in the minors and have contracts worth more than $30 million, facts not lost on former teammates making $17 a week in Cuba.
"That, in my opinion, gives the other players in Cuba an indication of the talent level as they compare themselves to Alexei and the pitchers in Cuba and so on," says Jaime Torres, an agent who has a couple of Cuban big league clients.
The latest wave of defectors is more talented and younger than many of their predecessors. Kehoskie credits a freer flow of information for that as well.
When pitcher Rene Arocha, the first Cuban to defect to the majors, arrived in the U.S. in 1991, he was a 25-year-old veteran of the Cuban national team. He was followed in short order by 32-year-old Rolando Arrojo, 27-year-old Osvaldo Fernandez and 32-year-old Orlando Hernandez — all star pitchers on the national team.
But when Iglesias signed with the Boston Red Sox in 2009, he was still a teenager who had never played for Cuba's senior national team.
"The defections out of Cuba have changed so much in recent years, from the older guys who were at the tail end of their career to these much younger players who have most or all of their professional career ahead of them," Kehoskie says. "The players who are leaving now are so much better than the players from 10 or 15 years ago. It's just been an entire sea change in terms of the players who are leaving and making their ways to the big leagues."
More are coming. The Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies recently signed pitchers Leandro Linares and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. Former Cuban league MVP Jose Dariel Abreu defected last month and the slugging first baseman has already drawn intense interest from the San Francisco Giants. A number of other recent arrivals — among them pitchers Dalier Hinojosa, Odrisamer Despaigne and Misael Siverio and infielder Alexander Guerrero — also could be joining big league teams soon. Only one of those seven is older than 26; Linares is a teenager.
How players are getting here is changing, too.
In the past, it was common for players to defect while playing in competitions outside Cuba. Now, the vast majority are smuggled by speedboats that ply well-worn routes to Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Haiti.
For their trouble, smugglers get a huge payment up front or a percentage of a player's contract — sometimes both. Some players lose as much as 30% of their contracts to smugglers and agents. Trafficking Cuban defectors can be so lucrative, with agents luring players away from rivals and smugglers double-crossing even their partners, two people working with ballplayers in Mexico were reportedly assassinated. Guerrero, a recent defector, has worked out in the Dominican Republic under armed guard.
The whole process violates federal and international laws, so no one — least of all the players — will talk about it. Not that it matters much, says Torres, who believes the ends go a long way toward justifying the means.
"How they got out, whether they got on a plane and reached a country with a visa or they got on a speedboat and went to the Keys or Cancun, they're finally out of the island," he says. "They're finally on their way to reaching the big leagues, which is their dream. And we, as fans, can finally see the talent we were deprived of."
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