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Cuba, revisited June 19, 2008

Posted by Brad in news.
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I’ve written about Yuniesky Betancourt’s defection from Cuba before, and was left with a dim view and lots of unanswered questions surrounding Gus Dominguez, who orchestrated Yuni’s flight, and Jaime Torres, Yuni’s agent once he was legal to play in the States.  Torres was in the news earlier this month for representing a shiny new Cuban defector, Dayan Viciendo.  Coincidentally, Viciendo played for Yuni’s old Cuban team, Villa Clara and has a funny name (go on, say it out loud). But Dominguez has gotten some better press.

Michael Lewis, the greatest sportswriter out there, wrote a story for the July issue of Vanity Fair profiling Dominguez’ relationship with Cuban baseball.  Where I was only left to wonder, Lewis interviewed guys like Dominguez, Rene Arocha and Henry Blanco, and traveled to Cuba (through Canada).  He spent a lot of time around the Villa Clara team, especially their manager, Victor Mesa.  That’s where Yuni’s name first pops up:

Mesa’s Villa Clara team vies for the lead in an important stat: player defections. Live through a season with Víctor Mesa and a few days on a raft surrounded by sharks doesn’t seem so terrifying. Mesa’s shortstop and catcher were banned from baseball for speaking on the phone with Cuban defectors. His shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt hopped a boat to Florida one night in 2003. Established as Seattle’s starting shortstop two seasons ago, Betancourt was asked if he had problems adjusting to big-league managers. “We have a manager in Cuba, and that manager is worse than anything you have in the major leagues,” Betancourt replied. “His name is Víctor Mesa.”

An invisible line runs from Víctor Mesa, yelling from his dugout, to Gus Dominguez, in his cell inside a California prison. For the one thing that the U.S. attorney general and the jailed sports agent agree upon is that all the trouble began when Yuniesky Betancourt fled Víctor Mesa’s ball club.

That’s a intriguing set up.  Lewis quickly jumps to Dominguez’s trial, when the government relied on the word of drug dealer Ysbel Medina-Santos to convict Dominguez:

Medina-Santos told Dominguez that Betancourt had promised to pay his smugglers 5 percent of his first major-league contract. They heard he had a deal with the Mariners, and they wanted their money. Now. The contract was unenforceable, but the smugglers were prepared to collect on their own. If Dominguez didn’t pay them, Medina-Santos threatened, they’d break Betancourt’s legs and end his career. What point would there be in that? Dominguez asked. Break his legs and you’ll never get your money.

Sheesh.  I’m glad Yuni’s legs are fine.  Maybe people should stop pressuring him to leg out more stolen bases.

As I hypothesized before, Yuni may have not been an angel in these dealings.  At the very least, he lied unnecessarily, and he probably didn’t do right by Dominguez, who, as you just read, helped saved Yuni’s legs from massive breakage.  Lewis, who like the court in Dominguez’ case, didn’t hear directly from Yuni, says the same, more plainly:

Betancourt then stiffed the agent who had fed and housed him for six months. He signed the contract with the Mariners that Dominguez had negotiated on his behalf, but paid whatever commission he paid to someone else…. The Dominguez side never called him as a witness, mainly because they had no idea what he might say. He’d already told three different stories, two of them to immigration agents, about how and when he’d come to the United States. He declined to return phone calls, and slammed the door in the face of the private eye they’d hired to track him down.

Yuni blowing off reporters and being silent about his trip from Cuba is one thing, but staying mute when the guy who helped him earn boatloads of cash (and protected his legs) is facing hard time?  That’s rude, Yuni.

Yuni doesn’t come off as completely heartless.  During one of Lewis’ conversations with Mesa (who’s general craziness adds another funny layer to The Onion story), he shows some affection for Yuni:

Even now in Cuba, ballplayers who defect are officially forgotten. Their stats are stricken from the record books, and their names aren’t meant to be spoken. And yet here stands Víctor Mesa with his arm draped over the shoulders of the kid who is now the Seattle Mariners’ shortstop. “He was like my son,” says Mesa. “My very, very difficult son.”

So even that’s a bit of a dig.  Side note: the whole “he who shall not be named” thing in Cuba may partly explain why people call Yuni “Rikimbilli.”

I’ve excerpted almost every substantial reference to Yuni (you should go read the whole thing, though; it’s awesome), and Yuni comes off as the most misguided guy in the story; even the drug dealer doesn’t seem so bad.  Clearly, Yuni’s first few months in the U.S. weren’t his finest moments.  I hope he can find a way to atone for any mistakes he’s made.

(hat tip: I Want to be a Sports Agent)



1. Kit Krieger - November 2, 2008

I was Michael Lewis’s guide to Cuba in 2007 and invite blog readers to join my 2009 Cubaball tour. Attend 6 National Series games, meet veterans of the legendary Havana Sugar Kings and visit site related to the rich lore of Cuban baseball. Tour dates are January 26 to February 3 and there a still a few spaces left on this remarkable tour. Visit the Cubaball webiste – http://www.cubaballtours.com – for more information.

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