By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
So far, the plan had worked perfectly. Sitting in the back seat of Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar's Ford Bronco were Vladimir Núñez and Larry Rodríguez, two of Cuba's best young pitchers.
All they had to do was drive 130 miles of bumpy Venezuelan highway from the small town of El Tigre, where Team Havana had beaten the locals, to Puerto la Cruz and hop a ferry to the sports agent's home in Isla Margarita. If they made it, the easygoing 38-year-old Cuban-American would deliver another batch of island greats to freedom.
But then Hernández Nodar asked a simple question. "Where are your passports?"
The pair responded that the head of the Cuban delegation had the documents back at the hotel in El Tigre where el equipo was staying.
Hernández Nodar hatched a plan, and two days later, he was back at the hotel in Rodríguez's uniform. He waited for the rest of the team to board the bus, and then persuaded the cleaning lady to let him into the leader's room. He had forgotten something, he said. After rummaging around, he found the passports in a duffle bag in the closet.
That was October 10, 1995. It was the type of audacious move that, less than a year later, would land Hernández Nodar in a Cuban prison, where he would spend 13 years sleeping on floors alongside killers and rapists, defecating into holes in the ground, and spending entire days alone until his mind snapped and he pleaded to be killed.
From May 1995 to March 1996, his cousin, Joe Cubas — dubbed by the Sun-Sentinel the "James Bond of the grand old game" — grabbed all the headlines, staging news conferences after signing Cuban stars such as Marlins World Series MVP Liván Hernández, onetime Marlins closer Vladimir Núñez, and Rolando Arrojo, a star pitcher on the expansion-year Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He was cheered while walking the streets of Little Havana.
But Hernández Nodar, who arrived back in Miami this past November 6, quietly worked behind the scenes. It was he who lent Cubas money when he was penniless. And it was he who bankrolled the trips to far-flung places — from Japan to Tennessee — to track down prospective defectors. (Cubas could not be reached for comment.)
Hernández Nodar gained the players' trust by buying them meals or slipping $20 bills into their pockets so they could take gifts back to their children in Cuba.
"No one knew the other side of the coin, the one who did everything," says Liván Hernández, a defector Hernández Nodar helped smuggle out in September 1995. "He played the part of the driver, the one who got us the tickets, the food. Juan is the best. He's a man of his word."
Cubas told the Sporting News in August 1998: "I believed that I could accomplish this. And there wasn't one soul around me that believed in me. Not my wife. Not my family... Not anyone."
Cubas apparently forgot his cousin, Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar.
A heavyset man with kind eyes and a ready smile, Hernández Nodar moved with his family from Cuba to Miami in 1960 when he was 2 years old, a fact that, years later, would influence his treatment at the hands of Cuban authorities. He moved with his parents and brother to Puerto Rico and then the Dominican Republic. When Hernández Nodar was 13 years old, his parents sent him back to the Magic City to live with his grandmother and learn English.
Passionate about baseball, he played center field in Little League and Pony League, but wasn't good enough to be a standout player. While attending Miami Senior High School, he "pushed old people around in wheelchairs" at Palmetto General Hospital in Hialeah and after graduating drove a big rig.
He married, had children, divorced, started a second family, then a third, all the while traveling — Venezuela, Miami, the Dominican Republic. He worked on his father's farm in Venezuela and then ran his own trucking company in Florida. He returned to Miami in 1992 with plenty of money after selling the farm. He was 31 years old.
Ten months later, he packed up his family and bought a seven-bedroom house with a pool on Isla Margarita, a Caribbean getaway 25 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela. He became a developer, building small six-unit condo complexes.
In October 1994, he met up with Joe Cubas, the son of one of his father's sisters, in the Dominican Republic. Cubas asked him to help a Cuban pitcher defect, and though the team never showed up, in May 1995, the two cousins formed a partnership.
Soon they were whisking Cuban peloteros off to the Dominican Republic, where they could forgo the draft and become free agents. Osvaldo Fernández, a gold medal Olympian who would pitch for the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds, signed in July 1995. Liván Hernández, who quickly netted a $4.5 million contract with the Marlins, signed in September, while Vladimir Núñez and Larry Rodríguez signed the following month with the Arizona Diamondbacks for a combined $3 million.