For Cuban players, getting off the island means a payday, but also a price
Talented players from the island nation are defecting and signing with
major league teams at an ever-increasing rate. But money often can't buy
happiness, when leaving comes at the cost of loved ones left behind.
Iglesias and Chapman
By Kevin Baxter
March 21, 2010
Reporting from Goodyear, Ariz.
Leaving home wasn't as simple as Aroldis Chapman had hoped.
"It was very difficult," the pitcher confessed last month, half a year
after walking away from Cuba's national team and defecting in the
Netherlands. "I had to leave my friends, my family. Everything."
Including a baby daughter he has never met.
"But when I made the decision," he continued in Spanish, "like they say,
you have to be brave."
He didn't come alone. The last two years have seen the largest exodus of
Cuban baseball talent since Fidel Castro took power half a century ago,
with more than 40 players defecting.
Chapman, a precocious left-hander whose fastball has been clocked at 102
mph, was considered the best prospect in the bunch. Only 22, he was
signed in January by the Cincinnati Reds for six years and $30.25
million, the second-richest contract ever awarded to a Cuban defector.
And he isn't the only new millionaire. Shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria
signed a four-year, $10-million deal with Toronto; shortstop Jose
Iglesias got $8.25 million over four years from Boston; pitcher Noel
Arguelles reached a five-year, $6.9-million deal with Kansas City; and
infielder Leslie Anderson received $3.75 million over four years from
Expect the list to grow too, with top players such as pitching star
Yunesky Maya, first baseman Jose Julio Ruiz and hard-throwing
right-hander Reinier Roibal likely to sign within the next few weeks.
The biggest group, though, is scattered from Miami to Mexico and around
the Dominican Republic — about three dozen ballplayers who defected in
pursuit of a major league deal that might never come.
"It's an incredible number out there. And their migration has a lot to
do with their countrymen and teammates leaving and having success," said
Bart Hernandez, a Cuban-born agent who represents several of the
defectors. They say, " 'Hey, I'm just as talented as he is. He's in the
big leagues. So I'm going to go.' "
The fact that, of the most recent signees, only Chapman and Anderson
ever played for Cuba's elite national team only fuels the false hopes of
others. And even Chapman was never a star on the island, posting a
losing record in two of his four seasons in the Cuban league and a 5.68
earned-run average in two games in the last World Baseball Classic.
Of course, Chapman does have that triple-digits fastball from the left
side, plus he has yet to grow into his lanky 6-foot-5 frame. And he is
young, which also explains why upstarts such as Hechevarria and Iglesias
were awarded bigger deals than Anderson, who will be 28 by opening day.
"The older player pretty much is what he is," said Angels General
Manager Tony Reagins, whose team scouted Chapman heavily. "Younger
players, if you can cultivate them and develop them and you see from a
projection standpoint these guys could be better than what they are
currently, then it makes them a little bit more attractive."
Signing them, however, can be an exercise in patience.
Before a player is allowed to talk to a big league organization, his
status must be approved by both the U.S. Treasury Department and MLB's
commissioner's office, a process that can take a year or more.
While they wait, some players struggle to stay in top physical shape and
lose their game-ready edge. Many have played no more than a handful of
games since they left Cuba, where big league teams are banned from
scouting. That further complicates the negotiating process since both
scouts and agents often know little more about a player than his batting
average and birth date — and even those sometimes can't be trusted.
"It's difficult because you really don't get to see them as much, get to
know them," Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty said. "In the Dominican, most
times you can bring guys into your academy and work them out for a
while, get to know them more on an everyday basis, their personality and
so forth. So far with the Cubans, you have very limited exposure to them."
Jockeying among agents — who often are paying a prospect's room and
board — is another issue. In the defector market, allegiances shift with
Ruiz, for example, had a spectacular falling out with his representative
that eventually found its way into the Spanish-language media, with one
newspaper printing the charges and countercharges between the first
baseman and his former agent, Jorge Luis Toca, a defector himself who
once played for the New York Mets. Even Chapman, whose wait was
shortened dramatically because he defected in Europe with passport in
hand, changed agents, leaving a trail of legal briefs in his wake.
"This is a mess right now," said one American League scout, whose team
forbids him from speaking on the record. "It's crazy."
It would probably be worse were the very best players in Cuba on the
market, but they're not. Members of the island's elite national team,
who in the past received perks ranging from travel to cars, apartments
and even government jobs, tend to stay put.
That's why the best players among the defectors are a mix of veterans
such Anderson, Maya and pitcher Yadel Marti, who lost their place on the
national team, or young players such as Iglesias, Hechavarria and
Arguelles, whose path to the national team was blocked.
"There seems to have be an uptick in terms of the caliber of the players
who are leaving. But that elite group of Cuban players, I think 95% of
them are still in Cuba," said Joe Kehoskie, an agent who has been
following the Cuban player market for more than a decade. "The guys that
almost without debate could walk out of Cuba and play in the big
leagues, that really elite group of Cubans still hasn't left."
Chapman was an exception.
"I don't think he's reaching even close to his ceiling," said Tony
Fossas, a Cuban-born coach whom the Reds assigned to shadow Chapman this
spring. "He's got a real fresh arm. He's fundamentally sound . . . a
"My job is to help him assimilate the best I can. The culture. The
customs. The 'thank-yous,' the 'you're welcomes.' "
Some of that is already seeping in. Chapman has a locker in the middle
of the Reds' spring training clubhouse and seems to go out of his way to
bump into visitors, giving him a chance to playfully try out his
favorite English expression.
"Coos me," he says with a heavy accent.
Otherwise, Chapman blends in with the rest of the Reds. He already has
major league bling, quickly slipping a gold chain with an oversized
pendant around his neck after a recent workout, the jewelry centering
itself between black stars tattooed on each shoulder.
That Chapman has made it this far amazes teammate Yonder Alonso, who, at
age 10, left Cuba with his father Luis, a catcher in the Cuban league.
"We leave because we're looking for a better opportunity, a better
life," Alonso said. "We don't want to leave our family. I never got to
see my grandparents."
Among those Chapman left behind were his parents, two sisters, a
girlfriend and his daughter, Ashanti Brianna, who was born three days
before his defection in the Netherlands.
"Think about that," Alonso said, shaking his head. "Are you going to see
your daughter ever? Are you going to see your kid? Maybe you have a
chance to go but how about you never get to see your kids anymore?
"A lot of times that happens. So it's rough."
Especially since, as many defectors are learning, simply leaving doesn't
guarantee a lucrative contract will be waiting. Even those who do become
rich sometimes find that family is worth more than millions.
"Now you have money here and you can't enjoy it because you're thinking
your mom's in Cuba suffering," said Arguelles, who seemed to grow more
depressed the longer he talked about his defection and its aftermath.
Yet, no one expects the stream of players being smuggled out of Cuba to
slow any time soon.
"There's no question there's much more of a pipeline now," said
Kehoskie, the agent with the long Cuban track record. "Cuban players are
kind of coming to their senses and deciding that instead of spending
their best years in Cuba then defecting when they're old, they're trying
their hand at major league baseball while they're young and they have
their best years ahead of them."
It makes sense for the big league teams, too, he added: "When you can
sign a player for $4 million and have him go directly to the big leagues
and play a premium position in your starting lineup, that's a pretty