In the past several years we have heard a number of harrowing stories about how Cuban baseball players have made their way from their home country to jobs in Major League Baseball. Due to the nature of Cuba’s restrictions on emigration, the United States’ immigration laws and Major League Baseball’s free agency rules, the easiest most lucrative path between Cuba and the big leagues is through a third country. This complex process typically involves a third party: human smugglers or other shady figures who are in it to take a cut of the ballplayer’s future earnings. The story of Yasiel Puig’s journey is instructive in this regard.
Today, Jeff Passan of Yahoo reports that major league agent Bart Hernandez was arrested on charges arising out such a scheme involving the smuggling of Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin into the United States from Cuba in 2010. It is alleged that Martinez and his associates held Martin hostage while his multi-million contract with the Texas Rangers was negotiated. Which, of course, led to a cut being taken by Hernandez and others. Hernandez faces anywhere from three to 20 years in prison.
This is obviously significant with respect to Hernandez, Martin and everyone involved in this specific case. But it also speaks to how hopelessly corrupt the current system in place with respect to Cuban baseball players is. It’s a system which forces them into dangerous situations and requires them to pay usurious fees to criminals in order to get to the United States to play baseball. It’s a system that would not and could not exist without the incentives and disincentives in place by virtue of the United States’ laws regarding immigration from Cuba and Major League Baseball’s rules regarding free agency and draft eligibility.
Simply put: there are TREMENDOUS disincentives in place for someone trying to leave Cuba to play baseball here to take the safest path possible and huge incentives for them to put themselves in the hands of bad people in order to make their journey. Here’s hoping the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba changes the incentive structure and that Major League Baseball likewise can do things which similarly steer young men away from the hands of criminals.