By Julie Buehler
Harrowing voyages across deadly waters. Bullet-filled bodies laying face down on dirt roads. Thick-necked assailants willing to exchange innocent blood for a payday.
These aren’t the fictitious elements of a spy novel, but the realities of Dodger superstar Yasiel Puig’s journey out of Cuba and into the mainstream consciousness of MLB fans as its been reported after at 5-month long investigation by ESPN The Magazine.
The article, “No One Walks Off The Island” takes readers through a detailed account of Puig’s defection from communist Cuba into a $42 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers thanks to his incredible talent on the baseball diamond.
When Puig began lighting up the scoreboard last June and doing so at a rate that rivaled greats like Joe DiMaggio, baseball fans knew this kids was coming and had talent, but no one really knew exactly how he got to the Dodgers.
We knew about his Cuban roots, his exciting personality and some understood the cultural barriers that came with his heritage, but the details of his background were blurry.
But according to this report, which Puig has acknowledged, but not corroborated, the multiple steps and elements required to transform him from Cuban refugee to Dodger star has left multiple lives in danger and potentially ended others.
In no shortage of detail, the report tells the account of one of Puig’s smugglers, who now lives outside Miami, looking for the money he thought he’d make helping Puig land his payday.
It outlines the 30-hour hike through crocodile and mosquito-infested waters to rendezvous with his smugglers away from the Cuban coast guard and all civilization.
They tell of Puig and his companions ditching their original smugglers for others who had more financial backings and outlined the potential repercussions as one of the smuggler’s bodies was found, bullets in his head, face down. Apparently turf wars gone awry.
The report tells of those who were sent to jail because Puig accused them of having plans to defect from Cuba in order to take focus off him.
And an assortment of other details collected through sources that feared for their life if they were exposed.
The story is fascinating, heartbreaking and revealing into Puig’s personality and in some ways, his missteps.
But the larger question remains, exactly what difference does it make to baseball fans if one of their most electrifying players earned his citizenship through illegal means? Any?
Does the average fan devouring a Dodger Dog think about the lives permanently impacted for Puig’s #66 Dodger jersey? Is there any level of consciousness concerning the illegal trade of talented baseball bodies potentially spilling into violence in America?
Puig has reportedly been receiving death threats because his original smugglers were not paid in full. This same group of men have connections to serious Mexican drug lords that are known for inconceivable violence and disturbingly creative ways.
We are just now coming to learn the Dodgers employed a full security detail on the road and through Spring Training, suggesting they understood there were heighted dangers.
I’m a huge fan of Puig’s raw exuberance and freedom with which he plays the game and it’s my sincere hope those who are threatening violence are quelled, but I also know ruthless men don’t often go away quietly. This could be a long-standing issue Puig must deal with. And the Dodgers must certainly deal with.
Puig isn’t the first Cuban national to defect and his story, not likely to be entirely unique as escaping oppressive governments abroad usually comes with a heavy price of innocent lives, but what responsibility should the Dodgers take in protecting their prize star and what roll can MLB play preventing the violence?
I’m not sure these questions will be answered any time soon. MLB says it is very strict in ensuring those playing baseball for its teams are legal citizens and how they get here is not something scouts want to know about.
But next time there’s a critical play in the Dodgers’ outfield and Puig guns a runner out at third base, or next time he launches a home run into another country, just consider the international borders that were crossed and lives forever changed for our entertainment.
Julie Buehler hosts the Coachella Valley’s most popular sports talk radio show, “Buehler’s Day Off” every day from 3-6 on 1010 KXPS, the valley’s all sports station. She’s an avid gym rat, slightly sarcastic and more likely to recite Steve Young’s career passing stats than American Idol winners. Tune in M-F 3-6 pst at www.team1010.com or watch the show on Ustream.