Illegal trafficking of Cuban baseball players

USdollarsHalvedU.S.-based Cuban journalist Edmundo Garcia in March 2012 wrote about the problem of Cuban baseball players being caught up with unscrupulous human traffickers in the Dominican Republic, with their ultimate destination the U.S. major leagues. Garcia cited a front page story on March 10, 2012 in the Dominican newspaper Listín Diario entitled “Edgar Mercedes arrested for trafficking Cuban baseball players.”

The particular case involved charges brought against a baseball manager, scout and other suspects accused of forming a human smuggling and trafficking network to bring Cuban baseball players to the Dominican Republic. The Prosecutor for the National District called for legal action to be taken and the case was brought by the National Office for the Prosecution of Complex Crimes, affiliated with the Office of the Attorney General of the Dominican Republic. Assistant District Attorney Milcídades Guzmán asked a judge of the National District to impose bail for trainer Edgar Mercedes and Pedro Delgado Sanchez and order pre-trial detention for Manuel Antonio Azcona, Nilvio Antonio Cruz, Hector Evangelista Ferreira, and Ernesto Vega. They were accused of violating Law 137-03 Trafficking of Persons, the penalty for which can range from a fine to between ten and fifteen years in prison.

The Listín Diario article reported: “The indictment points out that the accused serve as financiers for operations that utilize the services of third parties to carry out the operations and captain the boats that enter the country clandestinely to bring the sportsmen” from Cuba. The aim of this operation was “to put in place contracts or agreements through which they can claim a portion of the earnings these players might have access to if they make it to the U.S. major leagues.”

To pursue its case against Mercedes, Sanchez and the others, the prosecution in the Dominican Republic obtained evidence of human trafficking such as a speedboat, satellite telephones, GPS, navigation charts with coordinates, cell phones, radios and baseball players’ contracts and passports.

Garcia also cites a report on the criminal activities of this human trafficking network by the radio show “El Tapon de Las Cinco” on KV-94.7 FM in the Dominican Republic. The show said that a Cuban national, Raime Martínez Sharon, recruited baseball players from among his fellow countrymen and put them in contact with Manuel Antonio Azcona, known as the head of a human trafficking network.

According to the 75-page dossier quoted on KV-94.7 FM, “The criminal activities of the accused (Azcona) were determined through the intervention of an undercover agent, to whom he made a delivery of cash. Later, he bribed an official in Monte Cristi to allow the boat captained by Antonio Cruz to enter [the Dominican Republic].”

Despite this evidence against the group detained at the Ciudad Nueva courthouse in the Dominican Republic, a replacement judge from another court assigned to their case, Clara Castillo, rejected the request for pretrial detention and the case opened against them for trafficking unlawfully in Cuban baseball players. Judge Castillo freed Edgar Mercedes and Pedro Delgado Sánchez, and imposed bail of 500,000 pesos on Manuel Antonio Azcona and Nilvio Antonio Cruz. Héctor Evangelista Ferreira Infante and Ernesto Vega were released, but had to report periodically to the Office of the Public Prosecutor.

One of the group of accused Cubans and Dominicans, Edgar Mercedes, received the Cuban player Yoenis Céspedes in the Dominican Republic in June 2011, after Céspedes left Cuba illegally in a yacht along with seven of his relatives (mother, sisters, aunts and children).

According to the Listín Diario article, everything was supposedly arranged even before Céspedes left Cuba: “Edgar Mercedes rented Céspedes a house in Santiago de los Caballeros for $1,500 and paid all his expenses for months, including the cost to obtain legal residence in the Dominican Republic. He reportedly also got Céspedes a visa so he could travel to the United States and attend training in Oakland [California]. Céspedes played for the Aguilas Cibaeñas before signing a U.S. $36 million four-year contract in the United States with the Oakland Athletics. From the first payment of his contract of $6 million Céspedes was supposed to send a payment to his ‘agent’ from the Dominican Republic, but the player didn’t do that.”

García writes that the rest of this story, “has nothing to do with the laws of a country, but with the rules of a mafia.” ESPN reported on May 1, 2012 that Edgar Mercedes had filed an arbitration claim for breach of contract against Yoenis Céspedes for not handing over the first instalment of the 17 per cent he was supposed to pay on his total earnings from his contract with the Oakland Athletics. Mercedes told ESPN in a phone interview: “Yoenis has not complied with the agreement, which obliges us to resort to Dominican law to force him to do it… I regret having to do this, but you must set an example. […] Since Cespedes joined the A’s, he stopped taking our calls, he didn’t respond to our messages and his financial adviser, Anthony Fernandez, informed us that at this time, he does not have any scheduled payment for us.”

Mercedes said the Cuban player’s family, who had remained in the Dominican Republic, had disappeared. Garcia writes, “He said he didn’t know their whereabouts, or if they were inside or outside the country, which means he was looking for them. He accused them of emptying the house – the furniture was included in the rent – in other words calling them thieves. Mercedes, who also served as Cuban baseball player Yunesky Maya’s godfather in the Dominican Republic, declared on ‘La Semana Deportiva’ that all Cuban baseball players were ungrateful.”

(Quotations translated from original Spanish by TML.)

Related reading on this webklog

Toronto and Havana Sporting Links

– Tony Seed –

The 2015 Pan Am Games bring to mind the sporting links between the cities of Toronto and Havana, which date back to 1954.

During most of the 1950s the Havana Sugar Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs were two of the flagship franchises in baseball’s International League (IL), classified as AAA, a rung below U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB).

From 1954 to 1960 baseball matches in Toronto between the visiting Sugar Kings and the Maple Leafs were premium events at Maple Leaf Stadium, the classic, long-gone ball park located down by Tip Top Tailors at the southwest corner of Bathurst St. and Fleet St. (now Lakeshore Blvd.) on the Toronto waterfront. The stadium seated 20,000 people and boasted box seats practically on the field, a real dugout, and a fabulously perfect green lawn and infield dirt. “It was the place to be,” notes Toronto historian William Hunter.

Maple Leaf Stadium, built in 1926, at the foot of Bathurst Street in Toronto.

The home stadium of the Sugar Kings was the historic El Gran Estadio del Cerro (now Estadio Latinoamericano and sometimes called Gran Stadium), which seated some 30,000 spectators and, since 1971, 55,000. The Sugar Kings wore blue and red, a combination of the colours of the top Cuban league teams of the time, Havana and Almendares. Sugar Kings games grew famous for pregame entertainment that included beauty pageants, fashion shows and clowns, and always live music.

No ordinary minor league teams, both Havana and Toronto were top contenders for the championship during this period and boasted amazing attendance. The Sugar Kings won the Governor’s Cup once, the championship of the IL, in 1959. The Maple Leafs won the cup four times, and played in the championship series eight times. They lost to Rochester in 1955 and 1956, to Montreal in 1958, and won the IL championship in 1960.[1]

Both teams were independently owned – the Sugar Kings by Roberto “Bobby” Maduro of Miami and the Bacardi family, and the Toronto Maple Leafs by Jack Kent Cooke, a radio magnate. In form and spirit, though, professional baseball in the two cities constituted a farm league that, for all practical purposes, acted as a colonial outpost for the United States. This situation persisted until 1959 and the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. They were organized as a feeder of talent and revenues for U.S. professional baseball.

The Sugar Kings began life in 1946 as the Havana Cubans in Florida before being purchased and moved to Havana by Maduro in 1954, and were affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. Toronto began play in 1896 and was affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.

Both rosters were stocked with American players, coaches and managers. However, while Canadians were noticeably absent from Toronto’s roster, the Sugar Kings included some talented Cuban players such as Mike Cuellar, who started for the Sugar Kings and later won 185 games and a Cy Young Award in the major leagues, and Leo Cardenas, who played 16 seasons in the majors after wearing the Sugar Kings uniform for a time. (A young Luis Tiant, winner of 229 games in the majors, failed to make the team.) One player, the square-jawed Rocky Nelson, a hard-hitting first baseman with a peculiar batting stance, starred for both the Sugar Kings and then the Maple Leafs.

The Sixties

Both the Havana and Toronto franchises were killed directly or indirectly by U.S. professional baseball. Neither lasted through the 1960s.

On January 1, 1959 Cuba made a reality of the enjoyment of their right to self-determination by destroying the foundations of the neo-colonial regime maintained on the island by the United States. That fall the Sugar Kings had their greatest success when they claimed the International League crown. They then faced the American Association champion Minneapolis Millers, a team that included Carl Yastrzemski, in what was known as the Little World Series. Played in Cuba because of the cold in Minnesota, the hard fought, seven-game series was attended by President Fidel Castro and won by the Sugar Kings.

The team began the next season in Havana, but the United States imposed stiff economic sanctions against Cuba with the express goal of causing “hunger, despair and the overthrow of government,” as stated in an official U.S. State Department document dated April 6, 1960.

Three months later, on July 8, 1960 then Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick, under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter, ordered the Sugar Kings be moved to Newark, New Jersey, shortly before the ill-famed Bay of Pigs invasion. The order came while the team was on a road trip in the U.S. They kept eleven of the best young Cuban players with them, who were given the “it’s our way or the highway” alternative. Nevertheless, such players as Asdrubal Baró and Luis Zayas, a second baseman and coach with the Cuban national team until 2012, chose to stay in Cuba. In a 2013 interview with the New York Times, Zayas said: “The door was open to the big leagues, and I had to give that up, which was very, very difficult. But I knew that I could not live anywhere but Cuba.” He added that a Ku Klux Klan rally he witnessed during a season in Savannah, Georgia, also weighed on him.

Renamed the Jersey Chiefs, the team folded within a year. The choice of the state was not fortuitous. New Jersey became improbably Miami North, a base for terrorists of Cuban origin financed by rich émigré businessmen. It was from here that the assassinations of a Cuban diplomat at the United Nations in 1979 and the Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington, DC, and the raid across the border to bomb the Cuban consulate in Montreal in 1980 were organized.

The death of the Toronto franchise took another seven years. While owning the Maple Leafs baseball team, Cooke tried to use it as collateral to obtain his own Major League Baseball franchise. He tried to purchase the St. Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics, and Detroit Tigers when they came up for sale, and in 1959 he became one of the founding team owners in the Continental League, a proposed third major league for professional baseball. The league disbanded a year later without ever staging a game. Within weeks of being turned down for the first private Toronto TV license in 1960, Cooke crossed the border and quickly became a U.S. citizen when both houses of Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a waiver of the usual five-year waiting period. He purchased a number of major U.S. sports franchises – Los Angeles Wolves (United Soccer Association), Washington Redskins (National Football League), the Los Angeles Lakers (National Basketball Association), and the Los Angeles Kings (National Hockey League) – and cable television monopolies and built The Forum in Inglewood, California and FedExField near Landover, Maryland.

He sold the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1964. The franchise folded in 1967 when attendance was only 67,000 – a mere 802 fans attended their last game – due to the prevalence of U.S. televised baseball, the deterioration of the Toronto ballpark, the demand of big capital in Toronto and the sports media for “major league” status, and other factors.[2]

Today in Havana, Estadio Latinoamericano, constructed in 1946, is home to one of Cuba’s top teams – Los Industriales, ten-time winners of the National Series – and the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. Tickets cost about five cents. The SkyDome has its videotron, but in Havana “The team has a great band that provides very danceable music when Los Industriales are at bat,” notes the blog ballparkdigest.com.

Estadio Latinoamericano is by far the largest ballpark in Cuba, with a capacity of 55,000. The entire grandstand is covered, and there are open bleachers in the outfield. (ballparkdigest.com)

Today, the sporting links and heartfelt friendship between the people of Cuba and Canada continues to be pronounced in baseball. Baseball Canada and the Cuban Baseball Federation maintain concrete links and technical and other exchanges. A few Cuban coaches and players now work and play in Canada. A Cuban junior team, called the Canada Cuba Goodwill Tour, is presently touring the Maritimes with the theme “for friendship first.” Organizer Dennis Woodworth has taken 12 teams from across Canada to Cuba over the last two years and has over 16 teams going in 2016, including teams from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and even a team from the U.S. this winter.

Tony Seed is co-author with Curtis Coward of The Kids’ Baseball Book (Halifax: New Media Publications, 1994).

Notes

  1. Toronto was so good over the years that Mlb.com has named five Toronto Maple Leafs teams to the 100 greatest minor league teams of all times, 1902, 1918, 1920, 1926 and 1960, when they won 100 games.
  2. The Toronto Maple Leafs continues to operate in Pawtucket, Rhode Island as a Boston Red Sox affiliate. Since 1969, the year after the demise of the AAA Leafs, a new Toronto Maple Leafs began play as an amateur team belonging to the Ontario-only Intercounty Baseball League. The team continues to play at Christie Pits to this day.
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