White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu is the heavy favorite to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award on Monday, marking the culmination of a mysterious journey out of Cuba last year.
Jared Hopkins of the Chicago Tribune has written an excellent piece on the dangerous and corrupt system that Abreu and others have faced in order to come to the United States to play baseball. Details on Abreu’s defection are murky and he has never acknowledged that he paid to be smuggled out of Cuba, but the process is commonplace.
Cuban exile Rider Reyes, who recently finished a six-month prison sentence on charges related to smuggling, said he helped people involved with moving players into Mexico. He said the smugglers treat players like prisoners, despite their voluntarily leaving, and do not release them until they are paid.
“Those people are all about the money; they don’t care about the players,” Reyes said.
Nieto, a White Sox catcher, said paying the smugglers appears simply to have become another step in the process of Cubans reaching the majors.
“It has become a business, pretty much, with guys that do this and do that,” he said. “You have to give them a percentage when you sign. It’s a risk, and for a lot of guys, it has paid off for them.”
Alfredo Arias, a trainer and player agent who co-owns the Arias and Goodman academy in the Dominican Republic, told the Tribune that Abreu was “dragged out of there in a boat” and “risked his life” in order to establish residency in Haiti and eventually come to the United States. He signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the White Sox last October, which stood as the record contract for a player from Cuba until Rusney Castillo’s seven-year, $72.5 million deal with the Red Sox this August. Yasmany Tomas, a 23-year-old outfielder, defected from Cuba earlier this year and could top Castillo’s contract this offseason.
Yasiel Puig’s harrowing defection story has gained the most attention via a detailed piece from Jesse Katz of L.A. Magazine earlier this year. That drama is still playing out in a $12 million federal court case.