By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Hernández Nodar contends he and Cubas had agreed to split the 5 percent agent fee allowed by Major League Baseball. But the Cuban immigrant says he received only 30 percent of the agreed share. He broke with his cousin in May 1996 and teamed up with another disgruntled agent who had worked with Cubas: Thomas Cronin. The two decided to fly to the Communist island.
"I knew the star players and was shocked to find out they were as broke as everyone else," says Cronin, a real estate agent from Cape Cod. "They would ride a bicycle ten miles to the ballpark, and half the time the pizza they were [promised] after the game never came."
So on August 10, 1996, Hernández Nodar flew to Havana with copies of visas to third countries for Liván's half-brother Orlando "El Duque" Hernández and shortstop Germán Mesa, two of the players Cronin had befriended.
By the time Cronin arrived three days later, the plan had fallen apart. At noon August 12, security guards found immigration papers Hernández Nodar had brought to the ballpark. "They put me in a car. There are no explanations." Then they stuck him in a cab from Sancti Spíritus to Holguín, a 250-mile trip. "I had to pay the fare," Hernández Nodar says, laughing. "They took me prisoner and made me pay for the cab."
After his arrival, he was made to sit in a chair all night. "No one said anything."
Then, on October 29, came the trial. It lasted four hours. Because he had been born on the island, he was considered a Cuban citizen. "When I got to court, the judge already had the paper with the verdict in her hand," he recalls. Seven days later, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. (He would be released on parole two years early because of good conduct.)
Hernández Nodar was thrown into a cramped cell with 80 prisoners. Most were hardened criminals, but "one was serving 30 years for stealing a chicken, another 20 for taking a light bulb." There were no toilets or beds. He survived his two-month stay there — he was respected because he was from America and knew baseball.
After being shuffled from one holding cell to another at Havana's Combinado del Este, on April 1, 1997, Hernández Nodar was transferred to building number two, where all the inmates worked — except him. All day long he would sit in a corner, alone with his thoughts. "I think they did it on purpose, to try to drive me crazy," he says.
To pass the time, he wrote his life story in his head. It would be titled The Longest Inning, and the chapters would be named for baseball plays: "Sacrifice Fly," "Suicide Squeeze," "Double Play."
On December 5, 2001, Hernández Nodar was transferred to minimum security in a cavernous warehouse with 200 cots. After almost two years there, he was told he would soon be free. Only one last official signature was needed. It never came.
He was moved back to Combinado del Este, and in November 2004, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for two months. "What I want is for you to kill me," he told his jailers.
Finally, on February 15, 2008, Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar was released on parole. This past October 17, he finished his 15-year sentence and was a free man. He had spent 13 years, 2 months, 27 days, and 4 hours behind bars. He had seen his father and mother four times during his prison term and his youngest son twice.
When he returned to Miami earlier this month, his three sons and two daughters had all grown up, cell phones had shrunk to an improbable size, television screens had flattened, and a new skyline had risen downtown.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Hernández Nodar sat inside his mother's 2002 Mitsubishi in the parking lot of a Cuban restaurant on Calle Ocho and listened to a recording of Liván Hernández on a Univision Radio talk show.
When he heard the star pitcher refer to him as "my brother," the 51-year-old man in the car wept.