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The Weirdest Cuban Baseball Defector Story You'll Ever Read
Twenty-three years ago, Rene Arocha walked out of Miami International Airport and into a waiting car, away from the Cuban national baseball team he was traveling with. Since then, Cuban ballplayer defections have followed a similar script: a clandestine and illegal exit followed by a treacherous and complicated path toward free agency.
Teams have come to accept that they may never truly know the full details of how Cuban players often end up in the major leagues. Most teams don't want to know. Ignorance is bliss when it comes to illegal activities.
But even executives who have spent years in the international player market are marveling at the mystery and innuendo surrounding 19-year-old Cuban phenom shortstop Yoan Moncada: his legal exit from Cuba, his subsequent romantic pairing with a player agent, and his representation by an accountant who has never had an athlete client in any capacity. Nobody has seen a Cuban defection story quite like this.
"It doesn't make it comfortable for me, but in a way, we sort of have come to expect it with this market," one American League team executive said of Moncada's situation. "It makes us ask questions, but in the end, someone is going to spend smartly to get the services of a player that can change a franchise. Most teams are going to have a little reservation about the story itself, but I don't think it's going to stop the industry from paying."
The thing about the story is that it's so unusual. The details of Moncada's journey are nothing like those of the usual high profile Cuban free agent. And many of those details remain obscured.
"I don't know if I have the full facts," said one National League team executive.
Major League Baseball declined to give the details of their investigation of Moncada that led to him being declared a free agent last month. Moncada still needs to be cleared by the Office of Foreign Assets Control before he can sign.
Moncada is now reportedly in Florida after having spent four months in Guatemala establishing residency for his free agency. Presumably, Moncada will spend some time in St. Petersburg where his agent David Hastings, a CPA by trade, resides and runs his own accounting firm. Hastings, like Moncada, has kept a low profile, although he agreed to an interview last week.
"In some ways," Hastings said to start the interview, "I hope you understand that I won't be able to answer all your questions."
Moncada, Hastings said, arrived in Guatemala in August after having spent June and July in a country outside of the United States that he would not name. Some reports say he was in Argentina.
Moncada's exit from Cuba was legal. He received a visa from the Cuban government to travel outside the country. Eventually, Hastings confirmed, Moncada ended up in Guatemala.
Hastings won't talk about what role Nicole Banks—a California based agent with previous experience representing Cubans—played in Moncada's travels.
Banks is rumored to be romantically involved with Moncada and to have possibly had his child in September. In early October, a baby registry existed on the website thebump.com that listed Banks' and Moncada's names with a due date of September 2014. That registry has since been changed to show only Banks' name and a September 2015 due date.
Details of Banks' personal relationship with Moncada would be irrelevant if not for the fact that a September 2014 due date would place Banks in Cuba during December 2013 or January of this year. Hastings acknowledges that Moncada did not leave Cuba until June.
So the plans for Moncada's exit from Cuba may have been hatched as early as last year, and may have been formed with help from an American citizen who is also a player agent. Because Moncada's exit from Cuba was legal, it's unlikely that Banks would face any charges of violating the U.S.'s embargo with Cuba. But nobody outside of Moncada's inner circle knows the full details of the relationship and the people who do know aren't speaking about it. Hastings only acknowledges that Banks is involved in some way. Some speculate that Moncada and Banks are married, which could have aided his exit from Cuba.
"You'll have to ask Nicole," Hastings said when asked about Banks' role.
Hastings became involved, he said, after one of his clients—presumably Banks, although he wouldn't confirm that—brought Moncada to him.
Banks did not respond to several requests for comment on this story.
Banks' participation in the process would have likely aided Moncada. She has previously helped Cuban players obtain legal means of arriving in Guatemala and has processed the paperwork for players to obtain free agency. In September, she spoke to VICE Sports about the process.
"'Carta de invitación' is basically that someone in Guatemala sent them tourist visas and they left Cuba with that," she wrote in an email. "The person who sent the visa was responsible for their expenses etc. With the new Cuban immigration, any Cuban (there are exceptions) is able to get a passport and travel outside the country."
University of Miami law professor David Abraham said the Cuban government relaxed its rules regarding travel visas three years ago in order to encourage more foreign investment. Cuba banked that most people who obtained travel visas would return to Cuba. Many haven't.
"Now they are measuring the gains against the losses," Abraham said.
For several months, Moncada was able to live in Guatemala in relative anonymity. Despite being a prized prospect and despite news of his exit from Cuba being known in baseball circles, most industry people had no idea where he was. Some speculated he was in Los Angeles. Some said he might be hiding in the Dominican Republic. But MLB.com writer Jesse Sanchez's story on November 2 announced to the baseball world that Moncada was living in Guatemala. Hastings said that article changed everything.
"At that point we were forced to put on a showcase as soon as possible," Hastings said. "Since that time, we've basically have had him sequestered, voluntarily, since it's not the best place for anyone that's potentially worth that much money to walk around."
Immediately after the story's publication, Hastings said he hired two armed guards to protect Moncada 24 hours a day. Hastings said several incidents since Moncada's location was revealed have had them fearing for Moncada's safety.
"It's certainly not the most perfect situation, but we've hired people that we think we can trust and we've managed so far, so we just keep our fingers crossed every day," Hastings said. "We've been down there several times. It's not like we just dropped him off and told him to fend for himself. We've done the best we could."
Ideally, Hastings said, they wanted to hide Moncada in Guatemala until they could obtain a visa for him to travel to the U.S. Then, they could hold a showcase in the U.S. without any safety concerns. But Hastings said the visa process was complicated and lengthy.
As of last week, Hastings said Moncada had a visit with the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala scheduled for January 15, but that he was trying to get an earlier date. Moncada's presence in Florida means Hastings has probably obtained that earlier meeting.
Moncada's workout in Guatemala on November 12 drew about 70-100 scouts and executives, a testament to the shortstop's talent. Some teams had as many as six people attend. A security guard from St. Petersburg stood on the third base line, and according to one person in attendance, had a gun holstered under each arm.
Moncada hit batting practice and fielded grounders. To the disappointment of many scouts, he was not able to face live pitching because the Guatemalan national team was in Mexico for the Central American Games. With Guatemala not being a predominant baseball nation, there were no other viable pitchers for Moncada to face.
"I think they are fairly naïve, the baseball people handling him," said one National League team executive. "It's a lot like a lottery ticket for them."
Hastings' inexperience has had other agents prowling. Two Scott Boras representatives, Alex Ochoa and Bobby Brownlie, were kicked out of the workout after they were spotted sitting in the stands, according to several people in attendance.
"They showed up at the showcase without an invitation, without a phone call, very arrogant as far as I'm concerned," Hastings said. "Since I had already talked to one of their representatives and told them I was not interested, but all of a sudden they showed up at the showcase and it was pointed out to me. I had security tell them to leave. I don't know what other reason they were there for, but again, they showed up without getting my approval, which I wouldn't have given them in the first place as I had already told them 'thanks but no thanks.'"
Boras sent the following statement: "We care about players. We know that understanding a player's value means seeing his skills in person. Our concern is that Cuban players often take advice from unqualified advisors. That undermines the true value of their skills. It has already cost Cuban players many millions of dollars. We want to see that change."
Hastings said he is not looking for a partner, although he declined to comment about whether anyone else was helping fund Moncada's representation.
"To this point I'm confident that I can represent my client adequately," Hastings said. "I certainly wouldn't do it if I didn't think I could. Now, could that change tomorrow? Sure. I'm open. I'm confident I can represent my client as well as anybody, at this point. "
Moncada's situation is also unlike other recent Cuban defectors because he falls under baseball's labyrinthine international signing cap rules as a player who is under 23 and doesn't have five years experience in Cuba's National Series. This means that the team that signs him will have to pay heavy fines, and give up the chance to sign other international amateur free agents. But teams are still eagerly lining up.
Some teams, like the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers, are ineligible to sign Moncada until July 2 because they spent past their allotted bonus amounts in 2013. Some teams, like the New York Yankees, will be unable to sign Moncada after July 2 of next year because they've exceeded their bonus amounts during this year's signing period.
The market for Moncada, then, will also depend on when he signs. Hastings will have to make a smart decision on how quickly he wants his client signed.
With his mad dash airport exit in 1991, Arocha set the template for the modern Cuban baseball defection. But it wasn't until Moncada was allowed to leave legally this year that the story got really weird.