Have other Cuban imports fallen prey to similar heinous crimes like those suffered by Leonys Martin and his family?
With the flurry of transactions that have occupied the baseball world’s attention over the last week, it could have been easy to miss the biggest piece of news to rock the sport. It was neither a trade nor a signing, but a kidnapping and an extortion plot. Leonys Martin has filed a counter-suit against a company he claims to be a front for a kidnapping and extortion scheme he and his family fell prey to. What’s worse is that while it is the first such case we know about, it very well may be that it’s more commonplace than any casual observer would imagine.
Martin was a promising outfielder for the Cuban national team. He made a plan to escape his native land and pursue a better life for his family, and the family of his girlfriend, with plans of playing baseball professionally in the MLB. With a contact in Miami he arranged the transportation for their escape, but when the boat meant to take them wasn’t where it should have been, Jesus Toledo – a man who was helping Martin in his quest for safe passage – offered a less-appealing alternative in the form of entrance to Mexico. Martin would be able to make the jump to the MLB from Mexico, so they agreed. This is presumably the last choice he was offered for some time.
Upon arriving in Mexico, the lawsuit alleges, Martin and his family were taken prisoner by armed thugs, and forced to sign over representation rights at a ludicrous rate (35%!) to one Bart Hernandez, a MLBPA Certified Agent who works for agency Praver/Shapiro. He was then taken to a “training camp” called EDB, located in Mexico, while his girlfriend and family were taken to the home of Eliezer Lazo, one of three named as leaders of the operation, in the Miami area. Martin’s suit claims that EDB lacked any kind of training facilities and instead had armed guards and the players present were not allowed to leave. A deal was negotiated with the Texas Rangers that would see Martin receive $15.5 million over a five-year period, and only then was he allowed to leave EDB in Mexico and see his family. The company brazenly filed suit against Martin for failing to continue payments on the money he was forced to owe to them; after paying $1.2 million already, they sued for the $450,000 remaining on his debt. Martin, in turn, filed right back alleging a much more egregious list of grievances. Martin’s suit claims his family was held in Miami for the five months he spent as a prisoner in Mexico, and that when they were allowed to leave it was only to a house which Lazo had rented for them, an obvious intimidation tactic.
Bart Hernandez is implicated as being complicit in the scheme in Martin’s suit, and he recently also served as representative for Jose Dariel Abreu in his record-setting contract negotiation with the Chicago White Sox. The implications of such a scheme are far-reaching; provided the smugglers strike a deal with an MLBPA certified representative like Hernandez, the negotiations amount to a semi-legalized form of human trafficking. The lack of details and many tales of difficult defections by players who recently made the jump becomes a glaring issue when confronted with the news that such shady goings-on are afoot. This Yahoo Sports article speaks with a consultant who claims that the act of being offered players who are clearly victims of a smuggling operation is commonplace. One can’t help but draw lines from the details in Martin’s case to the foggy details surrounding the defections of Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, Abreu, Alexander Guerrero and Yoenis Cespedes, wondering if they too have been extorted and had their families’ lives threatened as part of an already harrowing ordeal in escaping from their homes. The baseball world cheekily poked fun at the certification of Jay-Z and his Roc Nation Sports agency, snickering when the rapper-turned-mogul required co-representation from Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA Sports Agency to represent players, but the results of lax regulation practices are laid out before our eyes in both Martin’s suit and the Federal indictment filed against Lazo and two of his associates.
While I am not suggesting that Major League Baseball is capable of the level of policing that would outright prevent this from occurring, I feel like the question that needs to be asked is why the MLB didn’t comment on the outrageous representation fee included in Martin’s contract; his 35% figure was well North of the standard 5% and an obvious red flag to his at the very least being taken advantage of. The fees for agency representation obviously can’t be completely standardized, but I have a hard time believing that even the most expensive agencies would have many clients if they charged anywhere near those rates. The League should have and could have inquired as to the reasoning behind ripping Martin off. While measures like establishing a licensing and review system for training camps permitted to have their players associate with MLBPA agents may make sense as panaceas, their ability to be effective without missing huge swaths of talent in the international signing markets would hamstring them from the start. Whatever their action, the MLB absolutely should not attempt to sweep this under the rug, as the black-eye of steroids will have nothing on the facial scar that would be on the game if lax regulation led to the murder of a player or one of his loved ones. However, since the Commissioners’ Office has stood mute on any controversial issue outside the purview of in-game cheating since Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ days at the helm, one can likely expect that they will do exactly that.
An agreement of some sort must be reached, however politically hilarious that statement may seem. I am aware that suggesting that decades-old international conflicts be set aside so that baseball players can better desert their nation’s team in search of fun and profit is absolutely naive, but the current situation is just that untenable. Cuba’s national image cannot abide the outright defection of its superstars, and as a result they have had to imprison those who attempted to defect for years at a time during their prime. Neither Puig nor Fernandez played in the year previous to their signing with a team due to suspensions related to previous attempted escapes. Suggesting that they set aside their problems with the US may not be necessary if the process could be viewed as a business transaction. A posting process similar to the one the NPB uses for the MLB could allow Cuba to reap monetary benefits either directly from the MLB teams or through a Canadian/international intermediary and in exchange the MLB could refuse to sign players who were known defectors circumventing the posting process. While the politics involved would be difficult to navigate, the fact that an agreement would work in the favor of the players, the MLB and the Cuban league makes it a necessity to at least discuss. When you make an action illegal that people will engage in no matter what, you open those who try to better themselves to a world of criminals where they can be taken advantage of as Martin and his family were.
Aside from the obvious moral, humanitarian and safety concerns, the players cannot be expected to perform at peak levels while under the kind of mental stress that would accompany the safety of your loved ones being threatened. Martin claims to have lived and played in fear during his time with the Rangers, terrified his family would be harmed by the criminals that now seemed to own them. While baseball performance ironically is the least important aspect of this issue, teams cannot expect to obtain the same type of mental focus from a player who feels they’re playing for their lives and the lives of their families. Furthermore, and possibly finally within the MLB’s interests, one could hardly blame anyone in that type of situation from trying to gain a competitive edge by any means necessary, whether by PEDs or otherwise, to gain more money through performance bonuses, incentives or even gambling with which to pay your kidnappers.
With any luck, Martin’s assured success in court and the fact that his captors have already been indicted on separate fraud charges in addition to the ones they face for kidnapping, smuggling and extortion should bring increased national attention to the issue, and force the MLB’s hand in taking some action, however superficial, to help these players and their families. The situation cannot continue as it has, as it’s difficult to envision a situation where someone doesn’t eventually die as a result of an extortion scheme. Already, shady details leave one to question what, for instance, happened to the boat that was meant to bring Martin and his loved ones across in the first place. Were it’s crew mere casualties in the capture of a multi-million dollar asset in Martin’s considerable skills? I shudder to imagine just how soaked in blood the road from Cuba to the MLB must truly be; but if knowing is at least a part of the battle, at least we’re part of the way there.
Kick some ass, Leonys. Kick some ass.