Professional baseball player Yasiel Puig has built himself quite the resume since making his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013. Hailing from Cuba, the outfielder defied the odds to make his way to America to achieve his dream. As a youngster with enormous talent, Puig’s story is not the ideal rags-to-riches kind of glory tale- it has more twists and turns than that. He’s also just getting started.
Keep reading to learn everything about Yasiel Puig’s incredible journey to MLB!
He Grew Up In Cuba’s Interior
Puig grew up in Cienfuegos, about 150 miles away from the capital of Havana, in the tiny town of Elpido Gomez. Most of the town’s residents work at the sugar cane factory, where his father Omar was employed as an engineer. To keep the employees’ children out of trouble, a decision was made to give the families a place for their kids to play.
The factory made a baseball diamond on its grounds for the kids. This was where the aspiring baseball player discovered his passion for the game, telling Los Angeles Magainze reporter Jason Katz “I was born to play baseball.”
Baseball Was Calling To Him
Baseball and other sports continue to be important vehicles for Cubs to realize its international objectives. This is no different than what Europe does with kids with incredible soccer talents. Puig would devote his youth perfecting his craft for the sport he fell in love with.
But, being Cuban also came with a curse.
Fidel Castro Put An End To Professional Baseball
Fidel Castro reportedly hated baseball and decided, against the will of his people, to end to the Cuba Baseball League. However, the popularity of baseball remained widely popular in the nation of Cuba. In the aftermath of the 1959 socialist revolution, the Cuban National Series was formed after the dissolution of the Cuba League.
Each player in the National Series was required to play for a team which represents their home region. Therefore, Puig played for the Elefantes of Cienfuegos. If Castro’s goal was to eliminate the commodification of baseball players, Puig’s belief was the opposite.
Behind The Scenes Of State Run Baseball, The Cuban Government Is Omnipresent
Scouts from outside of the country visit and attempt to lure first-rate baseball players out of Cuba with the promise of big contracts waiting for them in the United States.
Undercover state spies will pose as scouts as a test of loyalty of players, and to see who has intentions on fleeing the country. Players often find themselves feeling pressured to turn in their teammates. And sometimes, they need to play both sides.
Puig Faced A Similar Counter
In his second season with the Elefantes, the outfielder was approached by a young couple. It was in a very public place, at a popular ice cream shop.
The couple informed the Cuban that there was a man waiting to pay him a large sum of money if he agreed to play baseball in the United States. Puig would report the encounter to the sports ministry, but the seed was planted in Puig’s mind, that perhaps, riches awaited him in America.
Scouts Have Developed A Network To Help Cuban Prospects
Scouts have gained expert knowledge to help them transport top prospects out of Cuba. These individuals attempt to situate them on the baseball diamonds in the United States. Additionally, they’ve mastered the immigration policies of the United States and several other countries to help speed up the process.
But most importantly, they are familiar with the rules of the Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. The scouts pay to house the players, pay for their travel expenses, and to pay to obtain fast-tracked immigration documents. For their hard efforts, they receive a percentage of the player’s lifetime MLB earnings.
With many athletes securing contracts in excess of $30 million, the potential payout appeared to be worth the risk.
Puig’s Decision To Leave Cuba Came in 2009
Puig began contemplating leaving Cuba while competing in the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands. Following his team’s success at the 2009 Invitational, several of his Cuban teammates used the trip abroad to defect, including Aroldis Chapman, who is now a New York Yankees pitcher.
However, during that trip, Puig was caught shoplifting shoes from a Dutch store. Following the incident, his name was conspicuously missing from the 2011-2012 Cuban baseball roster. The National Baseball Commission of Cuba explained that he would return after serving a suspension, but was in fact never reactivated due to setting a bad example.
What this meant was Puig had nothing to lose by working with scouts to get out of Cuba.
He Would Soon Begin His Journey
With his childhood friend, boxer Yunior Despaigne and two other people, Puig decided to flee Cuba- a trek that took 30-plus hours. They hiked through mosquito-infested swamps and crocodile-infested mangroves to meet with scouts, called lancheros, at a beach that was frequently patrolled by the police.
After a few close encounters, the group was finally plucked off the beach by the lancheros, who’d arrived late to the pick-up point along the Bay of Pigs. Their destination was to an island off Cancun known as Isla Mujeres.
It Wasn’t Smooth Sailing To The Island
Despaigne was the only person to speak publicly about the group’s journey. He recounted that the boat ran out of fuel in the open waters of the Caribbean.
One of the lancheros used a radio to talk to a friend to bring them more gas, but he didn’t arrive until the next morning. That left the boxer, Puig, and the rest of the group to drift in the water after dark. Once they refueled, they arrived at Isla Mujeres in daylight hours when it was too risky to enter the port.
Due to the high value placed on Puig, the leader of the lanchero’s personally supervised his journey.
One Of The Lanchero’s Led The Group
A burly man named Tomasito was the head lanchero. He led Puig, Despaigne, and the rest to a ramshackle boardinghouse far from the resorts. As it turns out, he wasn’t the average lanchero, but the leader of a ring of lanchero’s who move Cubans out of their home country.
He would take them away from view at Isla Mujeres until their families in American could pay the standard charge of $10,000. If a family fails to make a payment, the lancheros release the person into the streets where they’re sure to be captured.
Tomasito Was Taking Advantage Of A 1995 Revision Of The Cuban Adjustment Act
The 1995 Revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans to seek asylum in the United States under two conditions. The first, is that they need to prove that their nationality is Cuban. Secondly, they need to enter the United States from dry land and not from open waters. For Cuban baseball players, it gets more complex.
According to MLB rules, a Cuban player can become a free agent only if he first establishes residency in a third country. This happened to Chapman, who gained residency in Andorra before coming to the United States.
There Are Upfront Costs To Remove An Athlete From A Country
The player needs the appropriate documents in order to secure residency. Financing Puig’s extraction was Miami businessman, Raul Pacheco. He allegedly agreed to pay Tomasito and the lancheros $250,000 to get the Cuban baseball star out of his home country.
Puig, according to the document, would then agree to pay Pacheco twenty percent of his future earnings. Under his agreement, Pacheco stood to cash in big from his initial investment. But, he needed to keep up his end of the bargain first.
Not long after, a Chicago native has earned himself a name for sports agents who happened to save the day.
Phone Calls The Lancheros Placed To Pacheco Went Unanswered
Satellite phone calls to Miami went unanswered. It was becoming evident that Pacheco could or would not pay the agreed upon price. Furious at his actions, Tomasito and his lancheros added a non-payment fee of $15,000 for each that passed.
For weeks, Puig, Despaigne, and their friends were imprisoned in one room of the boardinghouse, awaiting for Pacheco’s payment. Little did they know, Pacheco had previously been arrested in 2008 for attempted burglary and in 2010 for using a fake credit card. His shady past may have something to do with not paying the sum.
A Rival Group Became Aware Of Puig’s Potential
Thanks to a rival group, they became aware of the Puig’s potential as a player, having the audacity to poach him from Tomasito.
First, the leader of this group was reportedly a conglomerate of Miami-based businessmen who are themselves Cubans, El Rubio, contacted Tomasito and offered to pay him $250,000 that Pacheco originally owed. Tomasito would agree, but before the deal was even completed, Jaime Torres arrived on the scene, complicating the transaction for a few reasons.
Torres Is A Sports Agent For Cuban Defectors
The Chicago native has earned himself a name for sports agents. He represents many notable Cuban athletes from the likes of Jose Contreras and Gerardo Concepcion. Torres arrived on Isla Mujeres to meet with Puig, who agreed to have Torres represent him as his agent.
But, seeing Torre’s trust in the baseball player might have caused Tomasito to get greedy. He contacted El Rubio and demanded $400,000 for Puig. El Rubio agreed but contacted Puig and Despaigne to tell them someone would be coming for them in the night. If they left, they would have to leave with Torres but if they stayed, Tomasito would kill them.
Some people view the athletes as victims of a system, but this was an exception for Puig for a particular reason.
Puig And The Others Slipped Out Of The Boardinghouse
Puig, Despaigne, and their two companions crept to a getaway boat, avoiding detection by Tomasito and his lancheros. Safe with the sports agent to negotiate an MLB contract, Puig only needed one more thing.
The Office of Foreign Asset Control must give its approval for an American company to hire a Cuban national. The approval process is quite simple: first, establish residency in another country, then present two documents to the OFAC for approval. For Puig, his residency was approved in two weeks at $20,000.
Puig Entered The United States By Walking Across The International Bridge
After filing his papers to the Immigration Office in Hidalgo, Texas, Puig sought for legal asylum under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996. On June 28, 2012, the outfielder would sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers for a seven-year $42 million contract. El Rubio and his partners would net twenty percent of contract by earning $8.4 million.
But, Tomasita and his lancheros were understandably angry that Puig was stolen from them. Which is why Puig, as well as Despaigne and El Rubio, have received threats for their actions.
Some People View The Athletes As Two Different Things
Some people view the athletes as victims of a system that exploits their talent for the financial gain of others. But, some view it as the heroic effort to liberate these talented players from a harsh oppressive government and allow them to realize their full potential in a free market society.
Others point to the immigration loopholes and note that they seem designed to give Cuban baseball players a real path to the big leagues. Yasiel Puig’s story serves as a conversation-starter about a dangerous process that took him to uncharted territory.
After his dangerous journey, Puig was sure to prove the Dodgers how much value he really had.
Puig Slayed At Rookie Ball
The curious case of Yasiel Puig finally returned to the diamond after a one year hiatus. The Dodgers assigned the outfielder to their Arizona Rookie League team where he hit four home runs, 11 RBI and a .400 batting average in just nine games.
With a staggering on-base percentage of .500, the Dodgers saw enough and advanced him to Class-A with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. He was certainly on a fast track, though it’s not all that surprising.
The 2013 Spring Training Leader In Batting Average Didn’t Start In The Majors
The Dodgers optioned Puig who was their most productive hitter in spring training. His batting average of .527 would be enough for the outfielder to begin the 2013 season with Double-A Chattanooga. Puig was making major strides in hopes of landing a full-time role with the team.
By going to Chattanooga, Puig will see a less hitter-friendly, more major league type of environment. During his time in the minors, the Cuban continued to defy the odds by hitting eight home runs and 37 RBI in only 40 games.
His Major League Debut Occurred Three Months Later
On June 2, 2013, the Dodgers called up Puig from Chattanooga, making his debut the following day. In his first career-at-bat, he singled to left-center off San Diego Padres pitcher Eric Stults. But, his second game was much more impressive.
The outfielder became the first Dodger ever to have a multi-home-run game in one of his first two appearances. He hit a grand slam off of Cory Gearin of the Atlanta Braves in his fourth career game. This was a steady start for the Cuban defect.
Thanks to a nickname provided by sportscaster Vin Scully, Puig established a foundation.
Puig Continued To Dominate In His Rookie Season
Being named National League Player of the Week for the first week of June was just the start for Puig. He had 27 hits in his first 15 games, which tied both Joe DiMaggio and Terry Pendleton for second-most behind Irv Waldron and Bo Hart with 28.
Additionally, he became the first player in major league history to record at least 34 hits and seven home runs during his first 20 games. Puig would even set Dodger records for most hits through 20 games.
His 2013 Season Would Be Enough To Earn Himself A Nickname
Dodgers baseball isn’t complete without the iconic Vin Scully. The retired sportscaster called games for the team for an incredible 67 years. But, not many people know he’s the one who gave Puig the nickname “Wild Horse.”
The Hall of Famer proclaimed it during the 2013 season after the outfielder hit a triple. Scully responded with “The Wild Horse is loose!” Thanks to the awesome name and reasoning, that inspired the Cuban to start The Wild Horse Foundation in 2016.
Puig’s Foundation Serves As A Great Purpose
The Wild Horse Children’s foundation aims to inspire children and families in underserved communities. The foundation focuses on promoting healthy living through education, sports, community development, and health and wellness programs.
In April 2018, the Dodgers star partnered with the City of San Fernando to renovate Pioneer Park. Plus, they planned to refurbish a dilapidated house on-site that had been boarded up for a near decade. Despite this work in philanthropy, Puig has yet to win the Roberto Clemente Award for his involvement with the baseball community.
Baseball fans didn’t like something Puig did during a road trip series in Cleveland.
He Welcomed Another Athlete To Los Angeles By Responding To A Mean Tweet
Every young athlete has their moments on social media, not thinking about what will happen in the future. One tweet using bad judgment can come back to haunt anyone. But, that was never the case for the Dodger star and the first overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Jared Goff, who grew up a Giants fan, had a checkered past with Twitter, once saying Puig needed a baseball bat to the ribs. Puig reached out after the draft and forgave him. A new friendship was suddenly formed with the hashtag #Puigmyfriend.
Bat Licks And Kisses From Turner Ward
Bat flipping and licking has been a Yasiel Puig thing since who knows when. But, those moments display annoyance to opponents and the appreciation of fans seeking more personality in the game.
Sometimes, they even drew frustration from his own team or laughter from the critics, especially when a flipped bat only led to a groundout or a single. To add on to this, Puig even introduced a new celebration in 2018. Anytime he hit a home run, he would kiss hitting coach Turner Ward on the cheek.
The Double Bird Incident
Baseball fans don’t like it when Puig flips his bat. But, one night against the Cleveland Indians, the outfielder did something different that was a bit dramatic. Cameras caught the outfielder no-so-slyly giving the double bird to Cleveland fans behind home plate after hitting a two-run rocket shot into the bleachers.
Those actions would be enough for baseball executive Joe Torre to layout a punishment for the star. For his obscene gesture and adolescent behavior, Puig was suspended for one game.
Will incidents like this keep Puig in La La Land forever?
That Wasn’t The First Incident
Flipping off fans wasn’t the only time Puig has tried the Dodgers’ patience. The Cuban was also involved in another incident, one that occurred months later. In August of that season, when he fouled off a pitch he felt he should have hit, Puig got into an argument with San Francisco Giants catcher Nick Hundley.
The exchange would be enough for both clubs to empty their dugouts and bullpens. Puig received a two-game suspension when he made his way back around to smack Hundley across the front of the catcher’s mask.
His Signature Moment Came In The 2018 NLCS
Yasiel Puig has had a lot of defining moments in Los Angeles, but this might be the most important. His single best moment happened during Game 7 of the 2018 NLCS. In an evenly played series, the outfielder’s blast was all that really separated the Dodgers from the Milwaukee Brewers.
It was celebrated with his usual bat-flipping and crotch-grabbing antics. The Brewers weren’t too pleased by his actions, but Puig helped his teammates win the pennant, which they lost to the Boston Red Sox.
He Was Traded In A Blockbuster Deal That Saw Him Leave Los Angeles
The Dodgers dramatically shook up their lineup in December 2018. They traded Puig, along with Matt Kempt and left-hander Alex Wood to the Cincinnati Reds for a pair of prospects in part of a seven-player deal. It’s a cornerstone move for the Reds who are looking to get back to their winning ways.
However, a World Series championship with the Dodgers wasn’t in the cars for Puig. But, he made a lasting impression that will never be forgotten by Dodgers’ fans. Good news, too. Puig will be reunited with Turner Ward in Cincinnati.