By Christopher Rhoads | Wall Street Journal
Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar flew to Havana, Cuba, in August 1996 with hopes of making the biggest score yet in the shadowy trade of helping elite Cuban baseball players defect to the U.S. major leagues.
The former truck driver, then 38 years old and an American citizen, already had helped four Cuban pitchers escape and net big-league contracts worth almost $11 million combined. One of them, Liván Hernández, would win the World Series Most Valuable Player award the following year.
But Mr. Hernández Nodar, whose family fled Cuba when he was two, was after even bigger game: Cuba’s winningest pitcher, Liván’s older half-brother, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández.
Cuba’s world-class players are barred from the U.S. by Cuba’s supreme leader Fidel Castro, who treasures them as symbols of Communist superiority. That Aug. 12, Mr. Hernández Nodar was arrested while attending a game in central Cuba. A Havana court sentenced him to 15 years in prison, calling him a “parasite benefitting from the huge efforts of our working people.”
He was held for 13 years, two months and 27 days, nearly all of it in Cuba’s notorious Combinado del Este prison. Last November, he was finally allowed to leave Cuba.
“I was the forgotten man,” said Mr. Hernández Nodar, now 51, as he drove through the dusty streets of Boca Chica, the Dominican seaside town where he now lives. He shared for the first time the full story of his arrest and years behind bars. His odyssey is rooted in the two nations’ mutual passion for baseball, an integral part of both their shared history and their hostile relations of recent decades.
His years in prison included solitary confinement, attempts on his life, a nervous breakdown, suicide attempts—and a remarkable friendship with another prisoner that helped him survive.
The ordeal, he says, cost him dearly. He missed watching the Hernández brothers become major-league stars. His cousin and former partner in the business, Miami-based agent Joe Cubas, earned millions of dollars on contracts of Cuban players. The two men no longer speak.
He missed his children—two by his current wife and four from previous marriages and relationships—grow up. “My family doesn’t know me anymore,” he says.
Nevertheless, he’s picking up where he left off 14 years ago. “For each year I spent behind bars, I vow to get one Cuban player into the U.S.,” he says. “The will to do this is more important than the money—and I’ve got plenty of will.”
In Cuba, baseball has always been political. When the sport was introduced in the 1860s by a Cuban returning from studies in the U.S., Cubans saw it as a way to distance themselves from their Spanish colonial rulers, who favored bullfighting. U.S. teams traveled to Havana for spring-training games, and Cuban players thrived in the U.S.
Mr. Castro, himself a pitcher as a teenager, severed those ties when he came to power in 1959. The only glimpse the outside world had of Cuban players came at international amateur competitions, which Cuba dominated.
The first crack in the system came in 1991, when pitcher René Arocha defected to the U.S., landing a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Suddenly aware of their value, more players followed.
“Nearly every Cuban ballplayer wanted to defect,” says Tom Cronin, a Cape Cod real-estate broker and partner of Mr. Hernández Nodar who traveled frequently to Cuba in the 1990s. “They just didn’t know how.”
Mr. Hernández Nodar already had his feet in both worlds. His father, Ignacio, had owned a bus company in prerevolutionary Cuba. When Mr. Castro nationalized the industry, the family moved to Miami. Mr. Hernández Nodar was two years old.
In 1994, he hooked up with his cousin in Miami, Mr. Cubas, who had recognized the market potential for Cuban ballplayers and had been trying to find potential defectors during the national team’s trips abroad.
Mr. Hernández Nodar saw an opportunity to exact revenge on Mr. Castro for his family’s uprooting from Cuba. “Every player defection hurt him personally,” he says.
The two agreed orally to share commissions from any major-league contracts signed, according to Mr. Hernández Nodar.
In May 1995, the pair traveled to Tokyo, where the Cuban national team was playing. None of the players bit, but Mr. Hernández Nodar was hooked anyway.
“I loved the thrill of the chase, the risk,” he recalls.
Their first catch came a few months later, when the Cuban team was in Tennessee playing U.S. amateurs.
Twenty-eight-year-old pitcher Osvaldo Fernández walked out of his hotel room into a waiting van driven by Mr. Hernández Nodar. He subsequently signed with the San Francisco Giants for $3.3 million.
That September came the coveted Mr. Hernández, during a tournament in Mexico. Mr. Hernández Nodar says he had his wife, Teresa, approach Liván on his way to a workout there, as if she were an autograph seeker. Inside her book was a piece of paper with her husband’s contact information. That evening, Liván packed his belongings and walked past Cuban team officials and out of his hotel. He signed with the Marlins for $4.5 million, with Mr. Cubas as his agent.
In October 1995, Mr. Hernández Nodar snared two more players, during a team visit to Venezuela. To retrieve their passports, held in the hotel room of a team official, Mr. Hernández Nodar dressed in the uniform of one of the players and posed as a Cuban coach to con the maid to open the room.
“He was a little crazy, but he gave me a better life,” says Larry Rodríguez, one of the players who defected that day. He signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks for $1.3 million.
The U.S. trade embargo, in place since 1962, bars American teams from spending money to sign Cuban players. To get around that, players obtain citizenship in another country, such as the Dominican Republic, then enter the major leagues as free agents.
Mr. Hernandez Nodar says he made about $375,000 from the signings, including a cut of the agent fee.
On Aug. 10, 1996, Mr. Hernández Nodar flew to Havana with his sights set on Liván’s half-brother, El Duque, as well as the national team’s star shortstop. Two days later, he was arrested at a game by a uniformed officer. His fanny pack was a gold mine for the prosecution. It contained $14,000 in cash from Liván to give El Duque and their family, a copy of Liván’s $2.5 million signing bonus, and copies of documents to facilitate the planned defection.
Mr. Hernández Nodar was put on trial that October for inciting defection. The prosecution asked five players with whom he had been in recent contact whether he was a friend or enemy of the revolution. El Duque testified that the defendant was “my friend” for having brought medicine for his sick child.
The court sentenced Mr. Hernández Nodar to three years for each of five players he had targeted. El Duque was banned from Cuban baseball for life.
Mr. Cronin asked Bill Richardson for help. The New Mexico governor, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that whenever U.S. officials brought up Mr. Hernández Nodar’s name, Cuban officials immediately ended the conversation.
One day in lunch line that first spring, another prisoner approached him and asked if he spoke English. Mr. Hernández Nodar brushed him off. The next day, the prisoner, who had heard there was an American in the cellblock and hoped for help with his English, tried again. The ensuing banter led to a friendship.
The prisoner was Rolando Alberro Arroyo, then 31, who was serving a 66-year sentence for murder. In exchange for English lessons, Mr. Alberro taught Mr. Hernández Nodar how to survive. Imprisoned since age 15, Mr. Alberro already had 16 years of experience behind bars. His original crime was stealing mangos from a farm, he says. That minor offense turned into a long sentence, he says, when he strangled another prisoner who had tried to rape him.
“I was with terrible people in prison,” says Mr. Alberro, who has multiple knife scars along his neck and arms. “To live, I became one of them.”
Mr. Alberro taught his new friend everything from where to sit safely to how to make a knife from a plastic spoon. “If you’re going to cry, cry in front of me, not them,” he says he told Mr. Hernández Nodar.
One day in October 1997, Mr. Alberro recalls, another prisoner told him his friend was to be killed that night, “under orders,” and to keep clear.
Instead, Mr. Alberro says, he secured a knife and spread word among his prison allies. At the afternoon head count, he says, he told the guard what was happening, loudly declaring, “If Juan is to be killed tonight, my people will die for him.”
That night, Mr. Alberro paced in front of the bunk of a petrified Mr. Hernández Nodar. “If you want to kill him, then you must kill me, too!” Mr. Alberro shouted into the darkness. Nothing happened that night.
For the first time in his bleak life, Mr. Alberro says, he had found purpose.
Mr. Hernández Nodar, in turn, had begun teaching Mr. Alberro about everything from American history and MacDonald’s cheeseburgers to what it felt like to be a father and how to eat properly with silverware.
Prisoners and guards still harassed Mr. Hernández Nodar. He says he was told repeatedly he was a “personal prisoner of Fidel.”
The Cuban Interests Section in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On Christmas morning, in 1997, after receiving a heartbreaking letter from one of his daughters, Mr. Hernández Nodar made a rope out of bedsheets and hanged himself from the bars in his cell. Mr. Alberro happened upon him and yanked him down.
“What are you doing, man!” Mr. Alberro says he shouted. “You must live!”
“I can’t take it anymore,” replied Mr. Hernández Nodar, sobbing in Mr. Alberro’s arms.
That same week, El Duque escaped to the U.S. by boat, via the Bahamas. A few months later, he signed with the New York Yankees for $6.6 million, and later that year helped them win the World Series.
In August 2000, during the Sydney Olympics, the U.S. baseball team played the Cubans for the gold medal. Mr. Hernández Nodar watched on television with the other prisoners. When the U.S. won, he cheered wildly, waving a small paper American flag he’d made.
A guard asked him what he was doing. “That’s my team—I’m American!” he recalls replying.
The next day he was thrown into solitary confinement, he says. He remained there—in a windowless cell about 5 feet by 8 feet—for 15 months. He drank water and washed himself from a faucet over the same hole in the floor where he relieved himself.
Mr. Alberro, who had a job delivering meals to prisoners with medical problems, convinced prison authorities Mr. Hernández Nodar was sick, so three times a day he brought meals, and human contact.
Mr. Hernández Nodar was released from solitary in December 2001 and allowed to work on the prison farm. He was soon put in charge of the whole operation, a rare break from the gloom.
In Cuba, it isn’t unusual for prisoners to be paroled after serving half their sentences. In October 2003, he says, he was told by prison officials he would be released. He gathered his things and said goodbye to other prisoners.
At the last minute, he says, he was returned to another cell. Days passed without explanation. His family, which had come to Havana, returned home. He wasn’t returned to the prison farm. Another year passed.
“Kill me! I don’t care anymore, just kill me!” he says he began screaming one night.
A guard took him to the prison hospital for evaluation, a stay that turned into a job working in the prison pharmacy.
He struck up a romantic relationship with a prison nurse. Later, she gave birth to their son.
In 2006, Mr. Alberro was released on parole. He had spent 25 of his 40 years in prison. He now works as a parking attendant.
In February 2008, Mr. Hernández Nodar also was paroled. He was assigned work in a rural sugar mill. Last November, he was allowed to leave Cuba.
He flew first to Miami for a tearful airport reunion with his mother and other relatives. Liván Hernández and Larry Rodríguez, two players he had gotten out years earlier, made an emotional appearance with him on a Spanish-language talk show. A few days later, Mr. Hernández gave him a red 3-series BMW.
In early December, he and Mr. Cronin, his partner before his arrest, opened a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, where Mr. Hernández Nodar’s father owns hundreds of acres of land. They’re using an apartment above the garage at his father’s home as a dorm for some of the 22 recruits. The plan is to build a larger structure, with playing fields, on part of his father’s sugar-cane plantation.
At the end of February, a dozen major-league scouts showed up to check out the recruits. Mr. Hernández Nodar paced the sidelines cheering on the young players and shouting into his cellphone.
He sleeps just a few hours a night. “I don’t need more time to rest,” he says. “I’ve been resting the last 13 years.”
Dozens of Cuban players have defected during the past year, an unusually large wave, with many traveling first to camps like his. Mr. Hernández Nodar hopes to turn a profit by getting prospects signed.
The primary interest of the scouts at the camp that day: two recent defectors now under Mr. Hernández Nodar’s wing. He says he has three more on the way.