Sunday, April 25, 2010

Baseball Scout's Ordeal: 13 Years in Cuban Prison

Baseball Scout's Ordeal: 13 Years in Cuban Prison

BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic—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."
Helping Players Defect

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

"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

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

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

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.

Write to Christopher Rhoads at

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