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?"
Juan Ignacio Hernandez Nodar
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.
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.
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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.