By Ross Newhan
The story of Yasiel Puig's harrowing defection from Cuba, as reported comprehensively by Jesse Katz in Los Angeles Magazine, and in an upcoming version by ESPN The Magazine, leaves me to wonder how this incredible narrative escaped the hometown Los Angeles Times.
Since Puig burst onto the L.A. and major league scene last year there hasn't been a more compelling figure. The Times? There were stories dealing with the desperate, deadline impacted drive by Dodger scouting director Logan White to get Puig signed as a free agent in Mexico, but the reporting otherwise was consistently vague---Puig "not wanting to talk about his defection" and "not much being known about it."
I do not indict national baseball writer Bill Shaikin or beat writers Dylan Hernandez and Mike DiGiovanna. They had other obligations. It was up to the editors, to the publisher, to recognize the possibilities--Puig's overnight magnitude and the mysteries surrounding his arrival--and provide a team of reporters the time and resources to get the story, as so often happened in an era of deeper finances and staffing, and which now seems to surface only infrequently.
Sadly, a compelling story was there for the taking, but The Times could only react on a second day basis--and then somewhat hyperbolically.
Aside from my provincially based response as a former Times baseball writer of more than 40 years, I acknowledge there is a more damning and important element to the Puig story.
In providing a financial beacon at the end of a very dark tunnel for Cuban players, and creating rules/regulations that at conspicuous times seem to disappear, MLB--and the U.S. government--play a direct role in the very dangerous and widespread business of human trafficking.
As Katz wrote:
..."Under Major League Baseball's byzantine rules and the U.S. Treasury Department's outdated restrictions, the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent--and score a fat contract--is to first establish residency in a third country. That detour is a fiction, winked at from all sides, and one that gives traffickers command over the middle crossing. The five men piloting Puig's vessel, mostly Cuban Americans, belonged to a smuggling ring whose interests ranged from human cargo to bootleg yachts to bricks of cocaine. At least two were fugitives--one, on the run from a federal indictment in Miami, was alleged to have extorted Cubans traveling this very route. They were all in the pocket of Los Zetas, the murderous Mexican drug cartel, which charged the smugglers a "right of passage" to use Isla Mujeres as a base."
The Puig journey, as reported by Katz, was "underwritten by a small-time crook in Miami named Raul Pacheco, an air-conditioning repairman and recycler who was on probation for attempted burglary and possession of a fake ID."
There were 24 Cuban players on the 40 man rosters of major league teams at the start of the current season. Not all traveled a route as dangerous as Puig--or continue to face the financial and, possibly physical, threats that he reportedly does--but the majority were exposed to middle men of a suspect nature and had to establish that "third country residency" while voracious U.S. player agents waited to get a piece of them.
MLB knows what is going on. The Treasury Dept. knows what is going on. Puig's desperation drove him toward Eden.
They are all partners in a trafficking business that, for the Dodger outfielder and, perhaps, other former countrymen, may continue to exact a toll.