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From Cuba To LA Baseball Diamond, Yasiel Puig's Dangerous Odyssey


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Yasiel Puig is the star second-year outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is a Cuban refugee who plays with phenomenal athletic talent and abandon. In fact, sometimes what he abandons is the guidance of his coaches and manager. He is energetic to the point of recklessness when he's running bases or playing the outfield. And thanks to an article in Los Angeles Magazine, we now learn that Puig's on-field risk taking is nothing compared to the risks he took to get to the U.S.

Contributing writer Jesse Katz reports that when Puig was smuggled from Cuba to Mexico, where he could negotiate as a free agent, a Miami air conditioning repairman and sometime burglar pledged to put up the money in exchange for a 20 percent cut of Puig's future earnings. In Mexico, gangsters held him for ransom. One of them was later murdered. Jesse Katz joins us from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.

JESSE KATZ: It's a great pleasure.

SIEGEL: Let's start with the economic motivation here. A ballplayer of Puig's caliber is worth so much less in Cuba than he is in the U.S. that getting him from there to here is a hugely profitable business. Give us a sense of the money involved.

KATZ: Well, we have to remember, both the government of Cuba and our own regulations here in this country prohibit a Cuban ballplayer from just leaving his country and arriving in the major leagues. There is no legitimate path. So the only way that somebody like Yasiel Puig, somebody who was making $17 a month playing for a government-run team in Cuba, the only way for him to get here is to put his life in the hands of smugglers.

SIEGEL: Seventeen dollars a month in Cuba. And in the U.S., he is paid?

KATZ: Well, his contract: seven years, $42 million.

SIEGEL: Well, you went to Cuba, and you saw where Puig grew up and played ball. Tell us about the deal that was put to him by one Raul Pachecho, this air conditioning repairman from Miami.

KATZ: Yeah. There's a couple key numbers that explain how this whole deal went down. This guy in Miami had an idea that he was going to put up $250,000 to hire some smugglers who would extract Yasiel Puig from Cuba. In exchange, Yasiel was going to have to pay his financiers 20 percent of his future earnings, presumably into perpetuity.

The smugglers did the work. They got him out of Cuba, brought him to Isla Mujeres, to this dumpy motel off the coast of Cancun. And then the trouble begins because that $250,000 that had been promised did not arrive to them. They became very agitated, furious. And, really, over the course of about three weeks, Yasiel had suddenly turned into a captive.

SIEGEL: One of the sources for your story is a boxer and - in Cuba, a friend of Puig's, named Yunior Despaigne. What was his role in Puig's escape from Cuba?

KATZ: Yunior was an intermediary. He knew the financier who was going to put up this money, and he also knew Yasiel from their experience in the Cuban sports world. So he received the message and delivered it to Yasiel and really was the catalyst that set this escape in motion. Yunior was on the boat with Yasiel as they escaped Cuba. He was in that dumpy motel on Isla Mujeres for the 20-some-odd days that they were captive. And later on, he put every detail from that experience, almost like a screenplay, into a 10-page affidavit that's part of the public record in a civil lawsuit against Yasiel in Florida court.

SIEGEL: So there's Yasiel Puig in Mexico. The people who are holding him are waiting for payment from the guy in Miami, the air-conditioning character. They're not getting the money that they want. He's sitting there. What's happening at this point? And who are the Mexicans who are making money off his presence there?

KATZ: So the smugglers who have him, these guys are mostly Cuban-American. They're traffickers. You know, they transport all kinds of stuff across the Caribbean, through the Yucatan Peninsula - drugs, stolen boats, human cargo in this case. But they also are beholden to a very notorious drug cartel, the Zetas. And so they have to pay a tax to the Zetas for the right to traffic through their turf. Those smugglers can't just say, oh, well, be on your way, make us proud when you get the major leagues, you know? They need to collect from him.

So they're getting very, very agitated during the standoff and, at a certain point, start making threats against him. There's talk of machetes and lopping off an arm or a hand or a finger, you know, terrible stuff. And was that really going to happen? Was that at the absolute verge of happening? I mean, who knows? But these are unsavory characters. One shot too many of tequila or snorting something up their nose a little too many times and they could lose their cool. And do they really care about Yasiel? Do they care about his life, his future, Major League Baseball? Probably not.

SIEGEL: So when Yasiel Puig is ultimately signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers - this huge contract, $42 million - who, apart from Yasiel Puig, himself, actually benefited from that big deal?

KATZ: Well, according to the court papers, Yasiel owed 20 percent of that money to his financiers in Miami and the allegation is that he's already paid them over $1.3 million of that and presumably more is owed. At the same time, those smugglers who had held him off the coast of Cancun, they got stiffed. He escaped. He was rescued from that motel without them being paid. So they came looking for him. And because he was harder to get to, they focused their attention on Yunior, our boxer, who was in Miami. And they actually confronted him. They put a gun into his side and said, you know, tell Yasiel Puig that he needs to pay up or else we're going to kill him.

SIEGEL: Yunior, he claims that Puig paid not just the people who financed his escape from Cuba but also, among others, a man named Gilberto Suarez, who owned a company called Miami Sport Management. What do you know about Suarez?

KATZ: I don't know a lot about Suarez, but a lot of these guys who helped bankroll Yasiel's escape from Cuba ended up forming kind of strange companies in the aftermath. Suarez is a guy that Puig allegedly called once these threats had now reached him in the U.S. and said make this go away. And Suarez allegedly said that he was going to neutralize the captain of the smugglers, and this is a guy named Leo. And a month later, Leo turns up dead, riddled with 13 gunshots in Cancun.

SIEGEL: To what extent do you figure Yasiel Puig knew the extent of criminality of what was surrounding him and was - do you think he knew what might happen to Leo when he said please take care of this?

KATZ: Look, Yasiel knew that a criminal pipeline transported him out of Cuba. There was no doubt about that. There was no other way to make that journey. How it would get resolved later on, I think that's why he made that phone call. Just resolve it, make it go away. I don't think he really knew or particularly cared what that meant. He wants to play baseball. That's the thing he loves more than anything in the world, and so it's one of the reasons he doesn't even want to talk about this stuff. It's just - the past is over. He's a Dodger now, and it's the one thing that brings him great joy in life.

SIEGEL: Jesse Katz, thanks for talking with us.

KATZ: It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Jesse Katz, contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine, was talking about his article. It's called "Escape from Cuba: Yasiel Puig's Untold Journey to the Dodgers." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.