Yasiel Puig’s Troubles May Be Explained by His Harrowing Escape From Cuba

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The tale of Yasiel Puig will most likely end up as the subject of a film someday. It has as many twists and turns as an epic drama, and would be as binge worthy as any HBO series. It’s nearly inconceivable what Puig went through to become a professional ballplayer in the United States.

The contemporary Dodgers dynasty was birthed by Puig. In 2013, the team stumbled into the season with a mediocre .500 record in April. Don Mattingly was in his third season in the big chair for the Dodgers, but despite his fame and the reverence most in baseball held for Donny Baseball, he was proving to be an unremarkable field general. In May, the Dodgers lost 17 of 27 games. They were swept in San Francisco by the hated Giants. They were swept at Chavez Ravine by the Diamondbacks. They were swept by the Braves in Atlanta. By June 2, the team was in last place, 8 ½ games out. Left fielder Carl Crawford suffered a hamstring injury and was placed on the disabled list. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who was the fifth GM the team had employed in 10 years when he was hired, surveyed the collection of players in the system and landed his finger on Puig. The Dodgers summoned Yasiel to the big leagues on June 3, 2013, just 49 weeks after he escaped in Cuba via a dangerous odyssey by car, foot, boat, and plane.

Puig had two hits in his first major league game. He hit two home runs, including a grand slam, the next night at Dodger Stadium. The Cuban slugged four homers and had 10 RBI in his first five MLB Games. The Dodgers started winning. Puig had 44 hits (seven of them homers) in his first month with LA. The Dodgers went 30-15 after the 22-year old Puig joined the lineup, and vaulted into first place. They haven’t missed the postseason since, as of the completion of the 2022 season.

But that’s the epilogue to the amazing journey that brought Puig to the U.S. The true story is bizarre and deadly. Its ramifications are still being felt more than a decade later.

Many Defections, Many Failures

The first time Puig tried to defect from Cuba was in 2009, when he was still a teenager. He failed more than a dozen times, and suffered the consequences. Cuban officials stripped him of his ability to freely move around the island nation, and they confiscated his earnings from being a professional ballplayer. None of those actions prevented Puig from trying to flee. In 2012, he and several friends, including a professional Cuban boxer, spent nearly two days hiding out on the island waiting for a smuggler to arrive on the shore with an escape boat. 

The vessel turned out to be a bedraggled cigarette boat, and the engine died long before it could traverse the 135 miles between Cuba and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Puig and the others helplessly floated and prayed that the winds would deliver them to their promised land. Providence was with them, and Puig and his party landed in Mexico late in June of 2012. But the experience would only get more harrowing.

The plan called for Puig to be shuttled out of Mexico and into the U.S. via the efforts of a man from Florida who was  supposed to arrange for fake travel documents and a flight. For his efforts that man was promised 20% of Puig’s future earnings from a major league team. But that man was a fraud, a poser who had never smuggled as much as a pineapple out of a supermarket. Puig and his companions waited in a motel in Mexico, held by the smugglers who were actually members of a human trafficking organization attached to a Mexican drug cartel. To those men, Puig and his fellow travelers were a means to extract ransom. Until someone paid them, Puig was going nowhere.

Weeks passed, and the situation became more unstable. The men holding Puig grew impatient.

“I don’t know if you could call it a kidnapping, because we had gone there voluntarily, but we also weren’t free to leave,” the pro boxer, a man named Yunior Despaigne, told LA Magazine later. “If they didn’t receive the money, they were saying that at any moment they might … chop off an arm, a finger, whatever, and [Puig] would never play baseball again, not for anyone.”

Daring Rescue and Deliverance to Dodgers

Just as it seemed Puig and the boxer and other Cubans being “detained” by smugglers would rot in a Mexico motel room, the man in Florida came through with a daring plan that Tom Cruise would love. A small group of armed men entered the motel and scurried Puig away to safety. What people will do for the promise of millions. 

Within days, the Cuban ballplayer was in Mexico City willing to take batting practice for any MLB team interested in signing him. The Dodgers had long held Puig in high regard, and they paid $42 million to get Yasiel’s signature on a seven-year contract. Many in the Dodgers organization thought it was a gross overpayment.

The Dodgers assigned a former wrestling coach, Tim Bravo, to shadow Puig and assist the young Cuban in his transition into American culture.

“He does everything full speed, everything hard, everything with exuberance,” Bravo said in an interview with Jesse Katz for LA Magazine. “I tried to keep him out of trouble, but it wasn’t always easy. He was saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ and I was saying, ‘No, no, no.’”

There was a hell of a lot of “yes, yes, yes, and no, no no!” in the future baseball life of Puig. But when he arrived, in June of 2013, as explained above, he won the hearts of Dodger Nation. In some ways, no young player had been such an immediate smash for the team since Fernando Valenzuela.

There are many more layers to the Puig Escape narrative. Space prohibits me from going into all of it. Trust me, it’s fascinating, and at times, bizarre. Puig earned an All-Star nod. He played in the World Series for the Dodgers. He had a tremendous throwing arm, probably as strong as Raul Mondesi, though not as accurate. Puig could run extremely well, probably as fast as Davey Lopes, though not as good a base stealer. And Puig had sensational power, equal to Reggie Smith or Shawn Green. But, “The Wild Horse” never accepted the bridle. He fought the umpires, the front office, the opposing team, and his own teammates. Once, Zach Grienke tossed Puig’s luggage onto the street when Puig was late to the team bus and insulted team officials. Clayton Kershaw reportedly begged the Dodgers to trade Puig several times. Puig never cared, he was just happy to be off that damn island.

Is Puig Misunderstood?

There is a subtext to the Puig story. Yes, he was an undisciplined athlete with a lightning quick temper. Yes, he became embroiled in many off field controversies. Sure, he was an ass to almost everyone he met. One teammate said Puig was “the worst human being I’ve ever met in baseball or anywhere else.” Yet, it’s not simple, is it?

What happens when you stretch a piano wire too quickly and too far? While it might hold its place inside the instrument, it will never play the correct note. You can strike the key over and over, to no avail. When he left Cuba, Puig was like that wire, and he was stretched and stretched, but still emerged intact. Still, he was struck time and again, and but he never quite played the music that the baseball folks in America wanted.

Much of Puig’s problems are his own making. He was a jackass in Cuba, long before his ordeal to leave his native country. At some point, if problems are constantly finding you, then it’s almost certainly you that is the problem. Puig, as of this writing, is facing illegal gambling charges in California. He’s paid millions to hush and appease the bad people who helped him get to the Dodgers. But, Yasiel Puig was strained and stretched and suffered stress that few people have ever faced. For a while he brushed it off and played pretty damn well, and for that he deserves to be remembered.

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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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