December of 1997, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez found himself stranded on a nameless rock in the middle of the sea. Fourteen years later, Yasiel Puig found himself in an anonymous hotel room, staring at a gun held by an alleged member of Los Zetas, a notorious Mexican drug cartel.
And then there’s Cuba’s latest great athletic export: Yoan Moncada, a 19-year old prospect who suddenly appeared in Guatemala, without a harrowing defector tale and seemingly with Cuban officials’ blessing, even though he had yet to swing a bat in any league outside of Cuba. The Boston Red Sox won a bidding war, lavishing the shortstop with a $31.5 million signing bonus.
For the past two decades, Cuban ballplayers have found various illegal and illicit means to arrive at the shining diamonds of America’s major league cities. It took 10 years for the first 30 Cuban ballplayers to leave Cuba. Now there are roughly another 75 Cuban players searching for contracts, according to MLB.com
Jesse Sanchez, all of whom presumably not only defected but, like El Duque, Puig and many others, were smuggled out of Cuba.
What started as a trickle is becoming a strong current of Cuban talent flowing along a pipeline that started with Rene Arocha’s defection in 1991. The stream of Cuban talent would be unremarkable except for the international set of circumstances in which Cuban ballplayers operate in order to pursue their craft outside of Cuba.
The world became aware of Moncada when he starred for Cuba’s national team at the U16 IBAF 2011 World Baseball Championships in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico, as the only Cuban named to the tournament’s All-Star team. Born in the Las Quinientas neighborhood of Abreus in the province of Cienfuegos, he led Cuba’s U16 national league in batting average (.500), OBP (.643), slugging (.918), home runs (8) and walks (37) while going 15-for-15 in stolen bases as a 15-year-old.
So how did Moncada manage to make such a routine exit from Cuba despite falling under MLB’s recent, somewhat confusing rules for signing international free agents?
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