Baseball player Alejandro Piloto defected from Cuba in August 2011 with high hopes that he would soon reach his dream destination of a major-league ballpark in the United States.
Instead, he and five of his teammates got stuck in the pipeline that has enabled dozens of Cuban players to flee the island and become free agents. For 18 months, Piloto followed a serpentine path through the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama and Mexico before he crossed the border into Texas and flew to Miami.
But his career never reached the heights of some of his star countrymen. He played two minor-league seasons for the Atlanta Braves, earning a $125,000 signing bonus and about $1,000 per month.
Piloto testified about his complicated journey at the trial of baseball agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, who have pleaded not guilty to federal conspiracy and alien smuggling charges.
Prosecutors say the two South Florida men collaborated with boat operators and deceived the U.S. government into giving players clearance to sign with major-league teams in a scheme designed to skirt immigration laws, enabling them to make millions off tainted fees. Defense attorneys have argued throughout the six-week trial that Hernandez and Estrada played no role in any illicit smuggling activity and simply helped athletes arrange pro contracts.
“My client is an agent,” said Jeffrey Marcus, Hernandez’s lawyer. “He represents players once they’re out of Cuba. Our position is that everyone knows who these players are. Major League Baseball is aware. The government is aware. It’s not secretive. It’s an accepted process.”
Piloto, executives from the Miami Marlins and Boston Red Sox and local agent Scott Shapiro testified Tuesday and Wednesday as the defense began presenting its case. Hernandez has made his name representing Cuban defectors, signing some to blockbuster deals, including the $68-million contract for Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who testified earlier in the trial.
Piloto, who was in a group with former Chicago Cub and current Kansas City Royal Jorge Soler, New York Yankees minor-leaguer Omar Luis and Baltimore Orioles minor-leaguer Henry Urrutia, testified he had no idea who was paying for their transport and living expenses as they traveled through four countries, spending eight months in Haiti. He told the FBI they met Estrada and Hernandez in Santo Domingo within two weeks of their arrival, and Estrada encouraged them to sign with Hernandez.
“He told us he was a good agent and we decided to sign with him,” Piloto said.
Under the U.S. embargo, Cuban players must obtain residency in a third country before they can get visas and be cleared by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to play in the major leagues.
The players — who had earned about $20 per month playing for the Cuban national team — also signed contracts with Estrada agreeing they would train with his “Little Duke” academy and reimburse him with 25 percent of their major-league contracts, far above the standard 5 percent rate for agents. They drove into Haiti with Amauri Morel, who was a partner of Hernandez at his Global Sports Management agency. They went to the home of Amin Latouff, a third defendant who is at large.
They had problems obtaining residency in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. So they went to Mexico, another portal for Cuban ballplayers. But the first time they flew to Cancun they were turned back at the airport. They tried again, this time via Panama, where they met Estrada who accompanied them the rest of the way. Who bought the tickets, Piloto was asked.
“I don’t recall,” Piloto said. “I didn’t have any money. This Haitian guy who worked at Amin’s house took care of everything.”
Piloto wound up in Reynosa, just across the border from McAllen, Texas. Estrada got him and Luis a taxi, and they crossed into the U.S. Then they flew onward to Houston and Miami — with Estrada by their side. Once they arrived they had a celebratory dinner at La Carreta.
Prosecutors showed documents Thursday in which players claimed to be working in Mexico as part of their efforts to gain residency. Leonys Martin, now a Seattle outfielder, said he was an auto body worker and painter. Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria said he had a factory job. Other players said they earned a salary playing for Estrada’s baseball academy.
Marc Lippman, Marlins assistant director for player development and international operations, discussed how teams obtain tourist visas for players so they can be evaluated at showcase tryouts in the U.S.
Boston vice president Allard Baird testified about Abreu’s showcase, the biggest he had ever seen, with 200-300 scouts in attendance.
The trial continues Friday. It’s uncertain whether Hernandez will take the stand.