Hey TC'ers, I found this while watching the Dodgers vs. Braves game tonight, after Vin Scully told a story of Yunel's harrowing trip to the United States. He stated that Yunel came over with Bryan Pena (ex-Brave), but I always thought that he had made the trip with Francicely Bueno. This story clears it up. Peace.
An incredible journey: The story of six Cuban baseball defectors
Matt Crossman and Bob Parajon
Two months before the worst two nights of his life, Yunel Escobar was a frustrated baseball player in the Cuban National Series, Cuba's equivalent of major league competition. He could see his future, and that was the problem. There wasn't much of one. He had been passed over for the Cuban National team, the elite squad that plays in international tournaments, and his baseball career had stalled, if not started going backward.
It was 2004, and though he was just 21, Escobar had already spent four years with the Industriales, the closest thing Cuban baseball has to the Yankees. But he was told he would be sent to a developmental league. "Those things started to upset me," he says. "My mom and dad were very sad. Until one day, I said, 'I don't think I have a future here, Dad. I've got to find my future somewhere else.' "
Jose Cordero, a pitcher and longtime friend of Escobar's, had come to the same conclusion. He, too, had had enough of baseball in Cuba. Eventually they learned they were thinking the same thing: They wanted to defect.
Over the course of two months, Escobar and Cordero spread the word among a group of baseball-playing friends. Four other guys agreed to join them -- outfielder Joel Perez, pitchers Rafael Galbizo and Yamel Guevara and first baseman/outfielder Johan Limonta. A member of the group contacted someone in the United States who could arrange to have them smuggled out of Cuba.
The six men -- five were in their early 20s and one was 19 -- had known one another since childhood. They could trust one another with their dangerous secret amid the iron-fisted rule and closed society of the Castro regime, which doesn't tolerate dissenters or defectors. Details of the planning of their journey had to be (and must remain) secret to outsiders because the players didn't want friends and family staying in Cuba to have to answer for their escape. "The days are filled with worry, with nerves, with desperation, because you can't talk to your family, you can't talk to anyone," Limonta says. "You can't tell anyone anything."
The boat would leave October 6. They had to be on it.
Two weeks before the worst two nights of their lives, the six ballplayers fled their homes. They ran away to stay in a forest. After they had spent about 10 days there, the rendezvous point changed. They hitchhiked several hundred miles to the west, traveling by truck in a journey that took roughly 4 1/2 hours. The first 10 days, they had stayed in what they described as huts; now they were exposed. During the day, the sun cooked them. At night, mosquitoes devoured them.
Two days before the worst two nights of their lives, they had to make another journey. "We had to cross a river about 50 meters wide," Cordero says. "Then hide in a little key. Two days there with nothing to eat."
At least one of the players slept in a tree. "We were hidden in the woods and even slept one night in a swamp, where there were about a million mosquitoes per person," Perez says. "It was very stressful. We had to sleep there, next to crabs."
And the worst was yet to come.
As much as Escobar had thought about defecting, as much as he had planned it, as much as he had daydreamed about the aftermath -- becoming a star in major league baseball and playing against the greatest players in the world -- he says he had never thought about the boat trip. He hadn't considered the chance he'd get caught, he hadn't thought he might drown, he hadn't thought about the waves or the sea or the sharks that were in it. He figured he'd get onboard and in a snap, he'd be in Miami. "Since I was only 21 at the time, I still didn't know what danger was," he says.
The boat trip taught him.
At about 8 p.m. on October 6, 2004, the six baseball players and 30 other people climbed aboard the boat, which has been described as a 25-footer and a 38-footer. They carried with them only the shirts on their backs and the anxiety of leaving their families behind. Limonta and Cordero had the added burden of grief -- each was mourning the recent death of a family member.
"The day the ship arrived, there was stormy weather," Cordero says. "There were waves that were 12 to 18 feet high, and they broke one of the motors on the boat. We had to spend an extra day at sea so the storm would pass because if we tried going through with those waves, we might have gotten picked up by the Cuban Coast Guard, who was checking the area for boats."
For the first time, Escobar realized the danger he had put himself in. "There was a moment at sea when I said, 'I don't think we're going to make it.' "
Children's screams pierced the air. The six players stood together throughout the trip. Destination: the Florida Keys. Escobar remembers a 1-year-old. Perez recalls three boys and a girl, ages 5 to 11. Cordero can see, in his mind's eye, two boys, 5 and 7. Everyone around the players vomited. If the waves didn't make the passengers throw up, if the people around them throwing up didn't make them throw up, the overpowering smell of gasoline did. Escobar -- a proud man -- admits he vomited.
For two days and two and a half nights this went on. There was no food and no water.
And sharks circled the boat.
"To see those sharks so close nearby, it would scare anybody," Perez says. "The boat had to get out of there in a hurry because it really started to get ugly."
Everyone was exhausted, physically and emotionally. The boat, slowed by the weather, finally hit land at about 1 a.m. on October 9. "Nobody wanted to get out," Perez says. "We didn't know where we were." He worried the boat had done a giant circle and arrived back in Cuba. "The guys driving the boat said, 'We're here,' but nobody wanted to get out because we were all scared -- still from the sharks. And then we had to jump in the water."
What if it was Cuba? What if the players waded ashore and Fidel Castro's border guards met them?
It was not Cuba. It was the United States.
Their journey was still not over. There were sharks waiting for the men in Miami, too.
Media coverage at the time called their arrival the biggest defection of players since Castro assumed control of Cuba in 1959. One report predicted Guevara, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, would draw the most interest from big league clubs. In interviews after arriving, the players harshly criticized the state of baseball in Cuba.
Here, the story turns weird. Details of the months following their arrival are difficult to flesh out because of the seeming nefariousness of what transpired. From October until June, the players stayed with a man in Miami. He provided the players with spikes, gloves, food, a place to stay and the opportunity to practice.
But this was not an act of generosity. Who was this man? Different accounts say he was one of the smugglers, that he hired the smugglers and that he paid the smugglers when the players didn't have the money to pay for themselves. Sources say he wanted to be paid for his role in getting the players into the country and that he wouldn't let the players leave his property until he was.
The man tried to recoup the money by holding what amounted to an auction for the players. Joe Kehoskie, who has represented many Cuban and other Latin American players, says he received a phone call within 72 hours of the players' arrival. He flew to Miami and went to the man's house.
Kehoskie talked with two men he believes were the smugglers. They demanded $150,000, up front, to allow him to represent the players. A law enforcement source puts the going rate to get one person out of Cuba at $10,000. Baseball players cost more.
Kehoskie refused. He and others say more agents were offered the deal. None paid. Kehoskie describes the relationship between the man and the players as effectively a hostage situation and the $150,000 as a ransom.
The players won't talk about that time in any detail. Escobar describes the relationship with the man positively. "He helped us a lot," Escobar says. The full truth of what happened might never be known. But this much is not in dispute: From October until June, Perez, Galbizo, Cordero, Guevara, Limonta and Escobar practiced and worked out, both at the man's house and at fields around Miami. Word spread about them. They rounded up other players, many of whom had recently been cut by big league teams. Eventually there were enough players to stage games in front of scouts. The man apparently viewed showcasing Escobar as the best way to get his money back. In at least one game, a scout who was there says Escobar led off every inning.
Eight months after the worst two nights of their lives, the players' paths began to diverge. Guevara was allowed to go to the Dominican Republic, where he could avoid the 2005 amateur draft and hope to sign a big free-agent contract. The five others also were set free -- whether any of the players paid for that freedom is unclear -- but they opted to become available for the draft. And one incredible story became six incredible stories.