Athletics

Criminalizing an Underground Railroad

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The great journalist Michael Lewis has a terrific piece in Vanity Fair about baseball players who escape the island prison of Cuba for a chance to live and play in the United States. Excerpt:

A few made it to the big leagues, most did not, but they all needed a great deal of help. From the outside it all looked so easy for the likes of [Rene] Arocha and [Eddie] Oropesa and [Rey] Ordoñez. None of it was. Nothing in their experience had prepared them for American life. One of Gus Dominguez's new Cuban clients, Ariel Prieto, took his $1.2 million signing-bonus check from the Oakland A's, stuck it in his jeans, and ran them through the washing machine. Eddie Oropesa, awed by the size of American refrigerators, bet a fellow player he could stay inside one for 15 minutes-and might have suffocated if Dominguez hadn't opened the door and found him shivering. Latin players were just then flooding into American professional baseball, but these Cubans weren't like the others: they'd been governed by fear, and when you took the fear away they were rudderless. They ate too much and listened too little, all the while longing for their loved ones back in Cuba. Dominguez took them in, even the ones who didn't stand much of a chance of making it big. He housed them with his family, sometimes for months, and helped them to cope with the shock of freedom. And they were grateful. Sprung from the fridge, Oropesa debuted for the Philadelphia Phillies on opening day 2001, against the Florida Marlins. In a tight game, with men on base, and his agent in the stands, Oropesa came in to face Marlins slugger Cliff Floyd. Floyd popped out. "And when I went to the dugout," says Oropesa, "I was crying. It was my most beautiful day playing baseball. And if Gus hadn't been here, I don't know if I would have played."

And where is Gus Dominguez now? In federal prison, for human smuggling. Based on the testimony from a single jailhouse source, who received a "greatly reduced prison sentence" in return for a deeply implausible story. Writes Lewis:

The governments of the United States and Cuba now agree on at least one thing: Americans with a commercial interest in springing Cuban ballplayers should be jailed for pursuing it. Gus Dominguez is now serving a five-year sentence in a California prison. In 1996 another American sports agent, Juan Ignacio Hernandez, was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban jail for traveling to Cuba and trying to persuade ballplayers to leave. […]

And why, in the end, was this crime he says he didn't commit so awful? Even more than ordinary citizens, Cuban ballplayers are prisoners of the state. "The most prized possessions to Fidel Castro were the baseball players," says Dominguez. A democratic government should encourage, not punish, those who seek to help victims of tyranny to escape.

Whole thing, complete with terrific descriptions of Cuba and much else, here.

I wrote about the perversities of Cuban baseball back in June 2002, and in other fora I've reviewed two different books on the subject.

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  1. See, this is what happens when you have universal health care. People suffocating in refrigerators.

  2. See, this is what happens when you have universal health care. People suffocating in refrigerators.

    Hah! Now I know what keeps republicans up at night.

    [connery]The day is mine![/connery]

  3. I’m not sure which is more ridiculous, this or the (likely 10+ year) sentence of the MM dealer in California.

  4. The governments of the United States and Cuba now agree on at least one thing: Americans with a commercial interest in springing Cuban ballplayers should be jailed for pursuing it.

    God, this country disgusts me at times. If for no other reason than pissing off Castro, we should pay a bounty to anyone getting baseball players out of Cuba, not jailing them.

  5. Does this mean the days of sports figures receiving preferential treatment in migrating to America are over…?

  6. “Criminalizing the Underground Railroad”

    Legally speaking, the Underground Railroad was in fact a criminal enterprise, right? Fugitive Slave Act and all that?

  7. Does this mean the days of sports figures receiving preferential treatment in migrating to America are over…?

    Or the Blue Jays might finally have a decent team again

  8. This reminds me of the early 1990s when hockey players from the former Soviet Union started showing up in big numbers in the National Hockey League. Igor Larionov, a legendary Soviet center joined the Vancouver Canucks. His team captain Stan (Steamer) Smyl, took him grocery shopping when he first got to Vancouver. Larionov tried to put all of the meat in the deli section into his shopping cart because he assumed that like in the Soviet Union, there wouldn’t be any more the next day.

    Smyl had to explain all that to him.

    And remember that hockey players were among the pampered favorites in the Soviet Union. Larionov carried the rank of Major in the Soviet Red Army – and he still had never had regular access to groceries.

  9. Or the Blue Jays might finally have a decent team again

    Nah, they’d lose all their road games. The White Sox couldn’t get Alexei Ramirez into Toronto for a series this year.

  10. See, there’s good. And there’s evil. I’d like to select the first option, please. WTF?

  11. I like Lewis too, but a little less after reading this correction a while back:

    ****

    Michael Lewis is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. His new book is “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.”

    Corrections: Nov. 5, 2006

    An article last Sunday in Play magazine about Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells misstated the surname of a Dallas tight end. He is Jason Witten, not Whitten. The article also misstated the position that Chris Cooley of the Washington Redskins plays, and misidentified the former team of Washington’s running back T. J. Duckett. Cooley is a tight end, not a wide receiver. Duckett played for Atlanta, not Denver. The article also referred incorrectly to a playoff game last season in which Dallas’s kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, then with the Indianapolis Colts, missed a potential game-tying field goal against Pittsburgh. It was a divisional playoff game, not a conference championship game.

  12. R C Dean | June 11, 2008, 5:48pm | #

    The governments of the United States and Cuba now agree on at least one thing: Americans with a commercial interest in springing Cuban ballplayers should be jailed for pursuing it.

    God, this country disgusts me at times. If for no other reason than pissing off Castro, we should pay a bounty to anyone getting baseball players out of Cuba, not jailing them.

    This. Geez, there are easy ways to piss off Castro (either one), and this is one of them.

  13. This is pretty awful, really, but not surprising.

    The thing is with Cuban baseball players, their separation from the rest of Latin America has really hurt their player development. They should be absolutely dominant in this sport at least on par with the Dominicans and the Venezuelans, but they just aren’t.

  14. I don’t see why the players would want to come here. I mean, Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate than the US. What could we possibly offer them that’s more important than infant mortality rates?

  15. As I am a baseball lover, I try to watch games whenever I have time. But, for me, and without doubt for thousands of other fans all over the world, I love the Florida Marlins and I do my best to attend their games though we notice that Marlins tickets got a little pricy and hard to be found especially when we talk about some hot games. The Florida Marlins tickets are a little pricy but this should not prevent us from fallowing our favourite team and support it, and this is what means to be a good fan.

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