This story appears in the Nov. 5, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
As the World Series began, Farhan Zaidi, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ general manager, was, inevitably, asked about the bat-kissing, tongue-wagging, crotch-chopping extravagantly talented rightfielder Yasiel Puig, a player who doesn’t divide public opinion, so much as he cleaves it. “He’s a beauty,” Zaidi said. “He enjoys the spotlight, but he’s also a huge part of why we’re here.”
Puig’s postseason performance—he hit a pair of three-run homers during the Dodgers’ playoff run that ended Sunday night—was a reminder that the Dodgers obtained a luminous talent for a steal of a price when they signed Puig for $42 million six years ago.
But Puig’s success masks the Dodgers’ track record signing Cuban escapees. In 2013, L.A. lavished $28 million on infielder/outfielder Alex Guerrero. He played in Japan this season. A year later, the Dodgers signed shortstop Erisbel Arruebarrena to a five-year, $25 million contract. He is now out of baseball. In ’16, the Dodgers signed pitcher Yaisel Sierra to a $30 million contract. He has yet to reach the majors. For the three of them, their most noteworthy accomplishment came when Guerrero had part of his ear bitten by a teammate in a minor league dugout altercation.
Dramatic—and costly—as they were, these are the kinds of talent misjudgments that all franchises are prone to make. But the Dodgers’ dealings with other Cuban players might prove more problematic for the organization. Earlier this year SI obtained documents—handed to the FBI by a whistleblower—in which the Dodgers figured prominently. Last month SI reported that, acting on this dossier, the U.S. Department of Justice has begun a sweeping probe into possible corruption tied to the recruitment of international players, centered on potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which makes it unlawful to bribe foreign officials. SI has also learned that while the possible smuggling of multiple Cuban players is under investigation, grand jury testimony has begun pertaining to the questionable practices in recruiting Hector Olivera. An infielder who renounced his Cuban citizenship, Olivera signed with the Dodgers for six years at $62.5 million in 2015; he last played professional baseball in 2017.
Another former Cuban player whose recruitment is referenced multiple times: Pablo Fernandez, a pitcher who renounced his citizenship in 2014 and whom the Dodgers ultimately signed to a reported $8 million bonus in ’15. After he left Cuba, he was denied a visa by the U.S. embassy in the Dominican Republic. Just over a week later, the Dodgers helped Fernandez secure a second interview for a visa, this time at the U.S. embassy in Haiti. Thanks to what was characterized by Carl Balediata, the Dodgers’ immigration lawyer, in emails as “a great team effort,” the second visa application was swiftly approved. In an email exchange shortly after the visa was procured, Balediata wrote: “We know he was in the DR illegally to begin with. The fact we said Haiti is his home and made sure Pablo understood this for his interview in Haiti should have also been enough to convey this.” (The Dodgers’ outside counsel declined comment.)
For all the expense—and all the complications in securing his passage to the U.S.—Fernandez pitched in 15 minor league games and was released by the Dodgers last March.
It all highlights a considerable irony: One player extracted from Cuba is a major reason the Dodgers were in the World Series. Meanwhile, the organization’s practices for extracting other Cuban players haven’t yielded much in the way of wise signings and have required navigation through a dubious, defective international player-movement system. Whether that system is illegal is something the government will decide.