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Mon, March 18

Column: Cuban smuggling case a stain on Major League Baseball

While most baseball fans have been focusing on the excitement of spring training in Florida and Arizona, or the emotion of the World Baseball Classic being played around the globe, a seamy side of the sport was being detailed in a Miami courtroom.

For six weeks, Cuban players and other government witnesses testified about a smuggling network that starts in Cuba, goes through Haiti, Mexico and other countries, and ultimately delivers MLB some of its top talent. Last week a federal jury convicted agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada of human trafficking. Hernandez is facing 3-15 years in prison while Estrada faces between 5-35 years at their sentencing on July 11.

Among the players testifying during the trial were Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. Both players shared hair-raising tales of their departure from Cuba, replete with midnight speedboat rides, threats of violence to themselves and their families, extortion, and harrowing tales of journeys through the Mexican underworld.

The smugglers’ goal was to establish a player’s residency in a country other than the U.S. or Canada, where they would be subject to MLB’s draft and can only negotiate with one team.

International players are free to negotiate with any MLB team where the market dictates their compensation.

The public sees a Cuban refugee land a deal worth millions, but beneath the surface the process is polluted and criminal. It risks the safety of the players and their families and lines the pockets of drug cartels. The ballplayers are forced to sign contracts that turn smugglers into sports agents, as was the case with Martin. In some cases the “agents” receive 30-35% of a player’s contract, much more than the standard 3-5% agent fee.

The testimony in the Hernandez and Estrada trial revealed little new information. In 2010 Martin sued his agent/smugglers in an effort to be relieved of the exorbitant fee he had agreed to out of fear for his family’s safety. His tale was detailed in the lawsuit. In 2014, another lawsuit revealed how Cuban slugger Yasiel Puig survived a journey through Mexico’s underworld before signing a multi-million dollar deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

According to federal investigators, at least 25 Cuban players have been brought into the United States by smugglers since 2004. The conviction in Miami wasn’t the government’s first successful prosecution. Sports agent Gustavo Dominguez, who brought at least seven Cuban baseball players to the U.S., was found guilty in 2007. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Puig’s smuggler, Gilberto Suarez, spent a month in prison after agreeing to a plea deal with prosecutors.

How much did MLB know about the illegal activity? According to statements by scouts and an internal MLB memo uncovered by ESPN, the answer is everything. The scouts who spoke on the record maintained that their teams knew of the smuggling activity but claimed it wasn’t their concern. Their goal was to sign players before other teams did. MLB’s internal memo, which was sent to at least one team, details a smuggling operation that MLB discovered after interviewing one of the players involved. The employee who wrote the memo says MLB’s investigation “revealed an organized mafia smuggling people across international borders with false documents,” a “fraud scheme that could hurt our Clubs.” MLB has never admitted knowledge of smuggling operations, although it maintains it always cooperates with government investigators.

MLB’s primary goal is to obtain talented players as cheaply as possible. Of course, the league would also prefer to avoid unfavorable publicity. To the latter end, MLB is currently in talks with both the U.S. and Cuban governments in an attempt to find a way for Cuban ballplayers to play in the U.S. without having to defect or risk life and limb at the hands of smugglers.

Regardless of the outcome of the talks, this is yet another dark chapter in MLB history, one that could have been avoided.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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