Los Angeles Magazine sent former staff writer Jesse Katz to reconstruct the shadowy story behind Yasiel's Puig's escape from Cuba (to Mexico) and his arrival as a Dodgers star last season. It's a reminder that Puig is still a pretty young kid and has been through a lot worse than some razzing by sportswriters. The magazine seems quite proud of the story, in the May issue and posted online — in English and Spanish, a first for Los Angeles Magazine. "I am very proud of this revelatory piece, edited by Matthew Segal and Amy Wallace, which Katz worked on for five months," says editor-in-chief Mary Melton in an email. "It not only illuminates Puig’s terrifying experience but also sheds new light on what all Cuban athletes endure in their quest to play for American teams. It is an extraordinary feat of reporting and exemplifies the narrative storytelling that we celebrate every month in Los Angeles magazine."
From the top of the piece:
He was traveling with three companions: a boxer, a pinup girl, and a Santeria priest, the latter of whom blessed their expedition with a splash of rum and a sprinkle of chicken blood.
They were met at the water’s edge by a cigarette boat, long and narrow and fast, which instead of racing straight to Miami took them west and then south, following a 350-mile arc to the Yucatán Peninsula. Under Major League Baseball’s byzantine rules and the U.S. Treasury Department’s outdated restrictions, the only way for a Cuban ballplayer to become a free agent—and score a fat contract—is to first establish residency in a third country.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.
Once the speedboat navigated the reefs that shield the three-square-mile island and puttered into the docks at Laguna Makáx, the last of Puig’s obstacles should have been cleared....The smugglers were anxious to get on with things. The job was done. Where was the money?
Puig’s journey, according to claims made in court documents and detailed in interviews, had been 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. Pacheco had allegedly agreed to pay the smugglers $250,000 to get Puig out of Cuba; Puig, after signing a contract, would owe 20 percent of his future earnings to Pacheco. They were not the first to employ this scheme, a version of which has catapulted many of baseball’s new Cuban millionaires to American shores. It is usurious and expedient, illicit and tolerated. Even if you are as freakishly gifted as Yasiel Puig, there is no humanitarian boat lift delivering you to Chavez Ravine.
Crop of Los Angeles Magazine photo by Joe Pugliese, accompanying the story