By Tim Arango | Fortune magazine
The two shortstops, the two hombres who share a position and a homeland, were scooping up ground balls on a back field at the Seattle Mariners’ training camp in Peoria, Ariz., one morning last month, taking turns gliding to the ball and firing to first base. The efficient spectacle that is a Major League Baseball batting practice session buzzed around them, balls zipping point to point: pitcher to batter, batter to outfield, fielder to first baseman.
The upstart and the elder statesman, Yuniesky Betancourt and Rey Ordóñez, fled communist Cuba a decade apart for the chance to offer their labors to the highest bidder. Ordóñez, back in 1993, hopped into an idling red Cadillac outside a dormitory in Buffalo, where the Cuban national team was playing in a tournament, and was whisked to the free market. Betancourt, in 2003, left Cuba in a 28-foot Baja speedboat bound for the Florida Keys, a journey that should have taken four to six hours but lasted four days because of an unplanned stopover at a Bahamian beach to evade the U.S. Coast Guard. He was left with a satellite phone and told to wait for another boat. The only thing to eat was coconuts.
“I was really scared in the middle of the sea, and everything was pitch black, and I remember not knowing if I would ever make it,” Betancourt, flanked by his interpreter, third-base coach Carlos Garcia, said in front of his locker in the Mariners’ clubhouse after the morning workout. “I just wanted to get out of the boat and get on land.”
Betancourt will tell his story in a federal courthouse in Key West, where his and Ordóñez’s former agent is on trial for allegedly smuggling baseball players out of Cuba. The agent, Gustavo “Gus” Dominguez, is a Cuban American who in the 1990s fled Fidel Castro’s regime - a shadowy line of work that involved trailing the Cuban national team to international tournaments and plying young ballplayers with promises of riches.
Barring a last-minute plea deal, Dominguez will go on trial on 52 counts of alien smuggling and other immigration violations. The maximum penalty would be decades in prison - ten years per person illegally brought to the U.S. - but it’s more likely that Dominguez, the first baseball agent to be charged with alien smuggling, would face three to five years if found guilty, says a source close to the case. Three others charged in the case, including Betancourt’s boat driver, have already pleaded guilty.
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The United States’ policy towards Cuban migrants holds that any Cuban who reaches America’s shores is given asylum, but those intercepted at sea are repatriated - a policy known as “wet foot/dry foot.” The policy has created an underground recruiting opportunity for Dominguez and others. Now, as Castro lies ill, the case spotlights a hot- button issue for baseball: the explosive potential of Cuban talent if it were unleashed on the major leagues.
Consider: In 2006, 159 players born in the Dominican Republic, a country with a population of 9.2 million, appeared in major league games. Cuba, with a population of 11.4 million, is just as baseball crazy and has a much more sophisticated structure to groom young players - a relic of the days when the Soviet Union helped fund programs to produce world class athletes. Yet only nine Cuban-born players appeared in big-league games last year.
“Interest in Cuba for playing Major League Baseball has never been higher,” says Joe Kehoskie, an agent who has represented about 15 Cuban defectors. He believes there could be 25 to 50 players in Cuba ready to step into the big leagues on short notice. with the average MLB salary at $2.7 million per season, he figures “there could be up to half a billion dollars worth of Cuban players right now. An open Cuba would change the face of Major League Baseball in three to five years.”
But ballplayers don’t have an excess of time. “Cuban ballplayers are desperate to get out of Cuba,” says Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a Yale professor and author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball. “The passage of time is much more poignant for ballplayers. If Dominguez wants to help them get out, I’m in favor of it.”
Blowing the whistle on illegals
Fittingly, the government’s investigation into Dominguez began near a ballpark. On Sept. 22, 2005, the Chicago White Sox lost to the Minnesota Twins, 4—1. Ysbel Medinasantos, a former truck driver who made his money in real estate and drug trafficking in Florida, had planned to attend the game as the guest of an unnamed White Sox player. He never made it to the ballpark. Instead he was arrested by a DEA agent near the Embassy suites in downtown Chicago and shipped back to Pensacola, Fla., to answer drug charges. During his interrogation he offered prosecutors a chip: information on Dominguez in exchange for leniency on the drug charges. He now sits in the Federal Detention Center in Miami waiting to testify that he organized the smuggling operations at the behest of Dominguez.
According to prosecution documents, Medina-Santos received two wire transfers of $50,000 each from an account at Commercial Capital Bank in the name of Henry Blanco, the Venezuelan-born backup catcher for the Chicago Cubs and a client of Dominguez’s firm. Prosecutors believe that the money was funneled through Blanco’s account without his knowledge and used to pay for Betancourt’s boat ride. (Betancourt’s journey is not part of the criminal charges, but the prosecution plans to introduce it to demonstrate prior bad acts.) Another $125,000 was allegedly funneled through Blanco’s account to fund the two operations that are the subject of the indictment. One, in July of 2004, was intercepted by the Coast Guard. The second, the following month, succeeded in smuggling five Cuban ballplayers to the Florida Keys. Two of them are currently toiling in the minor leagues, for the Atlanta Braves and Arizona Diamondbacks. (None of the players are in legal trouble themselves.)
When a Cuban ballplayer decides to defect, he must deal with two sets of arbitrary rules: The U.S. wet foot/dry foot policy and Major League Baseball’s regulations on the signing of foreign players. Like the immigration policy, MLB’s stance toward Cubans is sui generis: Any Cuban player who comes to the U.S. is deemed a resident and placed in the amateur draft. All other foreign players are free agents, which means they can sign with the highest bidder.
For this reason, agents representing Cuban defectors try to shuffle them off to third countries, such as Mexico or Costa Rica, to gain residency there and apply for free-agent status. Betancourt, prosecutors believe, was supplied with a fraudulent Mexican passport by Dominguez and driven to Tijuana, where he boarded a plane for Mexico City. He was busted with the fake passport and spent three weeks in a Mexican jail before being released. He eventually made his way back to the U.S. and to free agency.
The alleged smuggling operations do not appear to have been good business for Dominguez. soon after returning to the U.S., Betancourt had a new agent, and Dominguez, according to a source, never “got a dime” from the shortstop’s $3.65 million contract with the Mariners. In August 2005 the agent filed a grievance with the Major League Baseball players Association seeking money from Betancourt. He has sued two other players that he allegedly helped flee Cuba.
Dominguez, who is described as a family man and has a son and daughter who attend college together, declined to be interviewed. his Encino, Calif., agency, Total Sports International, is still in business, and Dominguez made the rounds of spring training camps this year.
In a statement, Dominguez’s attorney, Susan Dmitrovsky, said: “Gus Dominguez is a hard-working, law-abiding citizen who has diligently made opportunities available for young men to showcase their baseball talent. The United States is and must remain a vanguard for those seeking freedom and democracy. Mr. Dominguez has done his part to advance that American heritage through lawful means.”
Dominguez fell into the baseball representation business in 1991. The Cuban national team was staying the night in Miami on its way back to Havana after playing in an exhibition series in Millington, Tenn. Rene Arocha, a left-handed pitcher, never made the flight, becoming the first Cuban player to defect to the U.S. - a story chronicled by the writers Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez in their book The Duke of Havana. As the story goes, a Miami radio executive who knew Arocha referred him to Dominguez, who at that time owned a marketing business. After failing to persuade the Beverly Hills Sports Council - which represented the Cuban-American slugger Jose Canseco - to sign Arocha as a client, Dominguez took on the job himself.
Dominguez, depending on whom one asks, is either a fighter for freedom, shuttling the oppressed from their homeland to get fair market value for their skills, or, as the prosecution will argue, simply a man looking to make a buck. He has his backers in the baseball community. “It’s a heck of an issue because you have guys that want to play baseball and follow their dreams,” says Oneri Fleita, a Cuban American who is the director of player development for the Chicago Cubs. “They get on rafts and risk their life. That’s what our country is about, living the dream.”
As for Betancourt, he says of Dominguez: “I don’t know what his business was, but I really appreciate what he did for me. He took me off the island.”
As the new season gets under way, Betancourt will try to improve his deficient .310 on-base percentage - the statistic du jour for measuring a player’s offensive prowess. This week he’ll take a break and fly to Key West to give his testimony. And depending on what happens there, the man who took him off the island could see his own freedom imperiled.
From the Island to the Show
The journey from Cuba to the big leagues is truly a long, strange trip. Here are five of the most prominent defectors:
The first defector to make the big leagues, he left in 1991. In Miami one night after playing in a tournament in Tennessee, Arocha missed the flight back to Havana. He pitched three years for the Cardinals and one for the Giants.
In 1993, while his teammates ate lunch before a game in Buffalo, the shortstop jumped into a car driven by a Miami radio executive. Playing for the Mets in 1999, he set a record by going 100 straight errorless games. This spring he was training with the Mariners.
Two years after getting into an agent’s car when the Cuban national team was visiting Monterrey, Mexico, Hernandez won the Most Valuable Player trophy in the 1997 World Series pitching for the Florida Marlins. He currently plays for the Diamondbacks.
The pitcher got a visa to visit his father in-law in Florida and played six years before retiring in 2001. Unfamiliar with the logistics of capitalism, he slipped his $1.2 million bonus check from the Oakland A’s into his jeans pocket - then ran his jeans through the wash.
Livan’s half-brother, Orlando was banned from Cuban baseball because officials were worried he’d defect - which he did, reaching the Bahamas on a raft in 1997. Ten months later he saved the Yankees’ season. He now plays for the Mets.