Controversy around Mariners’ Leonys Martin shows complexity of Cuban defection

Feb 25, 2016, 10:43 AM | Updated: 10:58 am
The agent who helped Leonys Martin defect from Cuba was arrested last week on human-trafficking cha...
The agent who helped Leonys Martin defect from Cuba was arrested last week on human-trafficking charges. (AP)

A recent federal indictment might make it appear as though new Mariners center fielder Leonys Martin was forced into Major League Baseball, but 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny O’Neil says Martin’s situation – as is the case with many Cuban defectors – is much more complex than it seems.

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The agent who helped Martin defect from Cuba in 2010 was arrested last week after being federally indicted on human-trafficking charges. Yahoo Sports reported the indictment alleges Bart Hernandez conspired with smugglers who kidnapped Martin, a standout Cuban ballplayer, and his family in August 2010, holding him at gunpoint in a house in Mexico while Hernandez and his employers negotiated the then-22 year old’s five-year, $15.5 million contract with the Texas Rangers.

Seattle acquired Martin via trade in November 2015.

O’Neil told “Seattle Morning News” that players defecting from Cuba have been a common occurrence for the MLB over the past few years, but that very little is actually known about how the players come to leave the communist-ruled Caribbean island and then granted asylum in order to play in the US.

O’Neil said authorities are claiming Hernandez facilitated Martin’s escape from Cuba with the intent for financial gain.

“Which kind of shows the gray area, because of course an agent is going to do it for financial gain – the reason he’s facilitating it is because he’s going to get a commission on the contract the player signs in the major leagues,” he said. “The issue here, and Leonys Martin has said this, is that he was held at gunpoint during the negotiation of his contract, and essentially he had to sign under duress because he and his family were being held … by someone who was associated with the agent.”

The contention is that agents like Hernandez are preying on these individuals during the most vulnerable point in their lives, when they’re essentially in a no man’s land between leaving Cuba and trying to arrange entrance into the US.

O’Neil noted that, for years, players wouldn’t go directly from Cuba to the US because they wouldn’t be granted asylum, but instead would have to go to an intermediary country first.

“There were even instances in which players were believed to have left the Cuban National Team while in the United States, then gone to somewhere like Mexico before getting the status to re-enter the United States,” he said.

Martin’s case seems to be among the more extreme examples of defectors, and O’Neil said none of the players seem to be defecting against their will.

“The question is the logistics of how they are getting to Major League Baseball,” he said. “I don’t believe that it’s unusual for a player to have his defection, in essence, choreographed or assisted by the guy who is going to end up negotiating their contract.”

At some point, however, the player becomes a sort of human cargo, and there is also the disturbing notion that an MLB agent is taking a $1.5 million cut from a $15 million contract to help illegally smuggle someone from Cuba.

“Is that something the US wants as part of an American industry in professional baseball?” O’Neil asked. “There are a lot of complicated questions here that I think make it a very fascinating case.”

The Mariners reached an agreement with another Cuban defector, Guillermo Heredia, on Tuesday.

KIRO Radio’s Colleen O’Brien said she is used to morally questionable acts coming from the NFL, but was surprised to see similar issues coming from baseball. She asked how she is supposed to enjoy the game knowing some of the guys might have been held at gunpoint to play.

“Each one of those players wanted to get to the major leagues,” he responded. “The destination isn’t the problem, it’s the route that got them there.”

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