Cuban Baseball Agents: Risks and Lies
It's agent versus agent in the world of Major League Baseball.
Carlos Perez parks his Mercedes sports car outside an office complex west of Coral Gables. He barks in Spanish into his ever-buzzing BlackBerry, takes the elevator to the third floor, and saunters into the office of the company he founded, Miami Sports Consulting.
He walks by walls full of strategically placed photos of himself with baseball royalty — José Reyes, Hanley Ramírez, Mark McGwire, Tony LaRussa — and even the Mermaids, the Miami Marlins' now-disbanded cheerleading team.
He hangs his jacket on an Arizona Diamondbacks coat rack, plunks his heavy frame into a New York Yankees leather office chair, slaps his mouse against a Major League Baseball mouse pad, and gets to work on a gargantuan computer monitor.
He is 54 years old and has a pale, bald head. His belly juts from a dress shirt tucked into designer jeans. He wears Versace eyeglasses and a clunky, ornate wristwatch.
When Perez is about to sneeze, he pulls a tissue from a Marlins-branded box. When he has a drink, he's careful to use a St. Louis Cardinals coaster. He scrawls something on a Yankees notepad, rips off the piece of paper, and tosses it at a reporter. It reads, "Leugim Barroso." That's the name of a recent Cuban defector now in the Chicago Cubs' minor-league system. "Another client," he says with a shrug.
This is Carlos Perez's big-league American dream. Only 14 years after escaping Cuba and ten years after applying for a $10-per-hour job with the town of Hialeah Gardens, he has carved out what appears to be a lucrative niche.
As Miami's most visible representative for Cuban ballplayers, he regularly appears in the sports pages with talented young defectors such as slugging third baseman and outfielder Adonis García and highly touted pitcher Onelki García. He lives with his wife Liseth in a three-bedroom house near Sweetwater that he bought for $465,000 in 2005. He's a Bentley-driving, freedom-loving exile Arliss, making a living in the muddy confluence of sports, global politics, and American law.
But lately, things have soured for Perez. Rival agents keep poaching his players. He's suing one of his former clients and preparing to go after another. He's out hundreds of thousands of dollars and has had to take out multiple mortgages on his home. "That's why it's difficult to represent Cuban players," he laments before switching from Spanish to a beat poet's broken English: "It's my money! It's my pocket! It's my wife! I refinanced! Look at the money they owe me!"
He points at a whiteboard hanging innocuously on a wall, lost among the major-league swag. Written neatly across the top: "Money owed to MSC." It's a list of the expenses, Perez impatiently explains, that Miami Sports Consulting has dropped on several of the players it has represented.
Printed next to dollar amounts are names, including those of top Cuban-born prospects in the free world. Onelki Garcia: $80,000. Reynel Medina: $110,000. Adonis García: $105,869. Yasiel Balaguer: $200,000.
The total written at the bottom: $544,379.
An assistant gently grabs a reporter's notepad: "He'd rather you not write those things down."
Some of the best, and most colorful, players in major-league history — from curve ball artist Camilo Pascual to cigar-chomping, mutton-chopped ace Luis Tiant to the baby-faced pure hitter Tony Oliva — have come from the Tennessee-size island 90 miles south of Key West.
Those players plied their trade in Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., through the '50s, '60s, and '70s as baseball fanboy Fidel Castro took power and cloistered Cuba from the world.
From the mid-'90s through the turn of the millennium, the American big leagues reveled in the invasion of the Cuban pitcher. José Contreras and Liván Hernández strolled to freedom during international tournaments in Mexico. Liván's brother Orlando took a more scenic route, which involved a speedboat trip, a Coast Guard interception, and a near-international incident. Those three aces have thus far racked up a total of six world championship rings, two World Series MVP awards, and earnings of around $150 million.
The players don't escape without help. The Hernández brothers have a man named Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar to thank for their riches. He spent 13 years in Cuban prison for spiriting players out of the country and into Miami.
The men who aim to bring America its next great ballplayers idle in speedboats off Pinar del Río or in cars near hotels in Berlin, Buenos Aires, or Caracas — wherever Cuban national teams happen to be playing.
They are martyrs or gangsters, or a little of both. They do it for nothing but the love of freedom, or they charge $500,000 for a 90-mile boat trip because they know their cargo has a fat contract waiting in the United States.
At some point — either before leaving Cuba or postdefection — every player needs a baseball agent. The seedier practitioners of this trade are often called buscónes, or searchers. Sometimes they bully clients into paying. "I've heard of agents who hold players at gunpoint," says Gus Dominguez, a Cuban-American from Los Angeles who has negotiated contracts for major-league Cuban exiles such as Rey Ordóñez and Yuniesky Betancourt. "I've heard of agents who threaten to break their clients' legs or arms."
Dominguez should know about the dark seams of the business. In 2006, he was indicted for smuggling ballplayers through Key West. The feds built their case on the word of a convicted drug trafficker who claimed Dominguez had paid him $225,000 — borrowed from major-league catcher Henry Blanco — for the work.
Dominguez was convicted and served four years in federal prison. Since his release, he has successfully appealed two of the counts against him. "I will clear my name," he says. He maintains that the Cuban baseball players contacted him after their defection and that he represented them not for any profits, but to aid his countrymen.
His case elucidates the dangerously fine line between agent and smuggler. "I'm sure there are other people out there who have done worse things than Gus," says Carlos Alfonso, director of international operations for the Tampa Bay Rays and himself an exile. "But they haven't gotten caught."
Despite a clampdown on international play, Castro's grip on his country's ballplayers appears to be weakening. Young guys such as 26-year-old Yoenis Céspedes are the new prototype. Billed as one of Cuba's best sluggers, he released on YouTube a bizarre showcase of his talents. The video, produced by a Dominican buscón, featured a Stars Wars-themed intro, footage of a potbellied man salsa dancing, and a dramatic conclusion involving a hog roasting on a spit.
The Oakland Athletics recently signed Céspedes for $36 million over four years. You can bet executives from every major-league team gratefully pored over the weird video, because Cuba remains a scouting abyss. "There's been such an outpouring of young guys in the last few years," acknowledges Andy Mota, a former Houston Astro and current local agent with clients including Miami Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramírez, "you don't even know who's a good player."
The confusing gold rush has created an opportunity for at least one Miami-based buscón who isn't afraid of big risks.
After Gus Dominguez's conviction, the herd of agents representing defectors thinned to about six or seven. They are a combative but secretive guild, constantly filing lawsuits against one another for poaching their clients. (Top defectors, from Contreras to Cincinnati Reds fireballer Aroldis Chapman, have been embroiled in lawsuits involving broken contracts with agents.)
Then, about two years ago, some guy nobody knew suddenly began making a splash, hyping open workouts with new defectors and being reckless as hell. "Nobody knows what Carlos Perez is doing," says a Miami-based agent of top Cuban clients, who asked not to be identified. "We think he's crazy."
In Havana, everybody has a two-centavo hustle. Baseball players peddle their used equipment to tourists. Artists smuggle their work overseas. The government pays a starvation wage, so if you don't elbow for extra scraps, you die.
This was where Carlos Perez developed his fast-talking entrepreneurship. He was born in the capital city in 1958, months before Castro took power. On his florid website, Perez brags that despite his current bowling-pin body type, he was a "local judo champion" in Cuba.
Most boys in the baseball-mad nation want to bat and field when they grow up. Not Carlos Perez. "I always wanted to be an agent," he says. "I love to do business. I love to talk."
He worked in Vedado, near Havana's crumbling downtown, for a government sporting agency. He was "vice president and sponsor of sports events in Cuba," according to a later job application. It was in 1998, he added, that "I came to live in USA."
His cousin Lazaro Collazo was then a well-known assistant coach for the University of Miami baseball team. Collazo was also the director of a nomadic training academy called Hardball Baseball League. Lazer took Perez under his wing, having him handle his public relations.
Perez worked Spanish-language telephone sales for commission. He represented Cuban artists — actors, models, ballet dancers, singers — from his garage and eventually turned that gig into a short-lived agency called Ricard Productions. In 2002, Perez scored the title of Hialeah Gardens' commissioner of baseball — essentially overseeing its youth programs and baseball diamonds. Being the Bud Selig of a predominantly Spanish-speaking Northwest Miami-Dade town paid a starting rate of $10 per hour.
In 2003, Collazo's baseball operation nearly harpooned the entire UM baseball team. NCAA investigators discovered that the then-39-year-old had paid college kids to work for him, a violation of financial-aid restrictions. The school lost several scholarships, and he was forced to resign after 17 years at the university. (Collazo has a knack for making unfortunate headlines. Two years later, he was fired as head coach of Gulliver Prep High School's baseball squad after whipping out his genitals, according to a Coral Gables police report, and angrily wondering if his teenage players "had a set of these or were equipped with a vagina.")
Soon after taking the job in Hialeah Gardens, Perez started his own league — called Fastball Academy — in the town's Westland Gardens Park, apparently making his own boss queasy. In a July 2005 letter preserved in city files, Hialeah Gardens parks honcho Walter Dubon scolded Perez for using town supplies, such as envelopes and postage, for the academy's business: "You are being verbally warned in regard to your outside employment activities."
So two months later, Perez jumped to Sweetwater, just north of Florida International University's main campus. He became the town's sports coordinator, with a salary of $24,960. After a little more than a year, he became the parks and recreation director, earning $31,000 annually. And Perez set to turning the modest hamlet into his own personal baseball fiefdom.
He moved Fastball Academy to Sweetwater's Ronselli Park. According to a later probe of Perez's reign as sports czar, he posted signs stating his department was no longer accepting personal checks for the town's summer baseball program — just cash and money orders. He stood by the batting cages on the weekends, charging kids $25 to $50 to take swings. He even required them to wear Fastball Academy T-shirts.
He sold a "sponsorship" to the local Subway for $200 but never advertised the sandwich shop at Ronselli Park, as he told the owner he would, an investigator found. He collected $500 from a bus driver in exchange for steady gigs shuttling Sweetwater's baseball players around town.
The final straw: "He conducted a nightclub out of the park," Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño recalls with a hint of awe. "They had DJs, and they were charging admission at the entrance. Allegedly, they had liquor."
Upon that discovery, the mayor fired Perez in January 2008. Then Sweetwater police began investigating the former parks and recreation director's reign. The mayor's chief of staff, Francisco Lago, began receiving phone messages that included heavy breathing. The caller demanded the investigation be called off. It was Perez, according to a police report, who intoned, "I will destroy your life."
On April 15, a Sweetwater police officer arrested Perez outside his peach-painted home on SW 102nd Avenue. He was charged with grand theft, fraud, extortion, corruption by threats to a public servant, and obstruction of justice by tampering. According to Sweetwater Det. Reny Garcia, Perez had fleeced the town out of nearly $10,000 through myriad schemes.
Once at the police station, according to Garcia's report, Perez suddenly sputtered that he was having a hard time breathing. A paramedic treated him and found nothing wrong.
Detective Garcia and Mayor Maroño say Perez eventually reached a plea deal with prosecutors. The mayor recalls he paid restitution. It's impossible to verify those details because Perez's criminal record isn't available online or at the courthouse, though it is described in Sweetwater records. Perez denies any guilt, though he declines to speak about the specifics of the case: "They accused me of many things and proved nothing."
Perez tells New Times he filed a lawsuit against Sweetwater for defamation stemming from the arrest. He sent a March 2011 letter threatening litigation, but according to a federal and local search, he has not yet filed that suit. "He tells people that he sued us and he won $8 million," Maroño says. "That's how he won the house and the cars that he's driving. It's not true."
Perez brags that he broke into the business of representing ballplayers through Wasserman Media Group, a high-profile sports agency with clients including Oakland Athletics designated hitter Hideki Matsui, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, and defector Yoenis Céspedes. Though until recently, Perez's corporate website claimed he had been Wasserman's director of baseball operations, Shelley Lewis, the agency's senior manager of publicity, says, "Carlos never worked for us." Andy Mota, Wasserman's Miami-based agent, clarifies that Perez "was kind of my bird dog."
In July 2010, Perez struck out on his own, incorporating Miami Sports Consulting. He named as president his disgraced cousin Collazo.
"He told me he was dedicating his practice to Cuban kids," Mota says. "I told him he had his work cut out for him. When I deal with professional baseball players, all I have to worry about is their contract. But with Cuban kids, you have to be their everything. But I guess you can hit the jackpot every now and then."
In January 2011, the next great Cuban ballplayer wooed suitors at an empty baseball diamond in Overtown. Yasiel Balaguer wore a gray Lycra Nike shirt showing off his pecs and thickly muscular arms and a Cuba National League hat pulled low over his flat boxer's face.
He'd been 18 years old for all of three weeks and in the United States for two months.
But as a steady stream of reporters and major-league scouts arrived to watch him take swings and catch flies, he smiled wryly and doled out sound bites like a veteran. "I realized that once I made it to the national team, I'd still be a nobody," Balaguer, who grew up outside Havana, said in tumbling Cuban Spanish. "I decided that I should come to the best league in the world to help my family."
His agent, Carlos Perez, greeted a news crew at the baseball diamond and then held court in his gaudy office. He declared that "interest in Yasiel is growing every day."
Perez says he first heard of Balaguer's defection when he received a phone call from a panicked Miami relative of the player in November 2010. Balaguer and slugging third baseman Adonis García had just walked away from their Cuban squad in Mexico, the caller said. There they had been detained by local authorities.
So Perez flew to Mexico, arranged for the players' release from detention, and signed them both to Miami Sports Consulting. He was flush with fresh Cuban talent that month: He had also signed pitcher Onelki García, whose 95-mph fastball would be lauded by Sports Illustrated. Perez claims García contacted him on Facebook upon defection.
With those studs in his stable, Perez's negotiating tactics became a bit strange. On January 20, he told New Times that the Oakland Athletics were ready to bid a whopping $18 to $20 million for Balaguer's services. The next week, after the team denied making any offer, Perez called in a huff. "I never said that," he claimed of the contract amount. And it was the Seattle Mariners, not the A's, who were now hooked on Balaguer.
That same month, El Nuevo Herald cited an anonymous source who claimed the A's and Yankees were interested in Adonis García. Once again, both teams publicly denied that report.
And despite Perez's claim that he spoke to Balaguer only after the player left Cuba, a potentially explosive new lawsuit might provide evidence to the contrary.
Baseball players are about the only Cuban defectors for whom American residency is undesirable. Once declared residents in the States, they are forced to enter Major League Baseball's amateur draft, where their contract is at the mercy of one team. Establishing residency in a third country allows them to enter the league as free agents — hopefully sparking a bidding war. So by February 2011, Perez says, he had arranged a visa and plane tickets for Balaguer to depart South Florida for Venezuela.
But Balaguer never showed up at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to catch the flight. Laments Perez: "A month later, I found out that he never left Miami."
Instead, Balaguer had jumped ship. He had chosen another agent: Jaime L. Torres, an attorney with offices in Boca Raton and Chicago and Cuban clients including Contreras, Chicago White Sox infielder Alexei Ramírez, and White Sox prospect Dayán Viciedo.
With Torres negotiating, Balaguer finally signed with the Chicago Cubs organization in December 2011. His contract is for the very earthly figure of $400,000 over one season.
On January 18, Perez sued Balaguer for breach of contract, claiming the kid had racked up $200,896.91 in expenses, payable now that he had signed his first professional contract.
Perez filed an expense report in court. It includes shopping trips to Sports Authority, Midway Sports, BrandsMart, and Rooms to Go, as well as some vague expenses: $1,067 for "pasaje a Texas" and $5,000 (or "$2,500 por cada uno") for "dinero enviado para traslado hacía la frontera" — money sent for transport to the border.
According to his own court filings, Perez also spent $40,000 on Balaguer in August 2010. That's three months before the agent says the player defected. Torres, the competing attorney, believes Perez has criminally implicated himself by filing the suit. "He's attempting to recuperate from Balaguer," Torres says, "what he paid to smuggle him into the United States."
Confronted with that claim, Perez responds, "If it's like that," he says, pounding on his desk, "then all the agents who represent Cubans should be in jail!"
Perez's attorney, Darren Heitner, threatens a defamation suit against Torres for the accusation. "My client has said many times that he is not involved in any way in Yasiel coming to the United States," Heitner says. "If the state is concerned in any way, the state can lead its own investigation, and that would be a criminal matter."
As to the discrepancy concerning the $40,000 expense before Balaguer's apparent defection, Heitner declines to comment: "I'm not concerned with the date that Balaguer came over."
But Perez's business model gets even flimsier. During an hourlong interview at his office, New Times asks if he is certified by the Major League Baseball Players Association — a requisite for officially representing MLB athletes.
Perez answers repeatedly, "Claro." Of course.
But as a reporter stands up to leave, Perez suddenly comes clean: "I am not certified as an agent at the moment." He adds that he applied for certification but was rejected and that he just needs a bit more experience.
The MLBPA, which doesn't disclose its reasons for rejection, confirms Perez was turned down.
In any case, Perez says he's a long way from recouping the half-million dollars in purported credit recorded on the whiteboard in the corner of his office. In July 2011, Sports Illustrated reported that paperwork establishing Onelki García's residency in Nicaragua had been falsified. That August, Adonis García was also deemed ineligible for free agency for the same reason.
And Onelki García ditched Miami Sports Consulting for another agent, convicted felon Gus Dominguez, who is barred from representing baseball players but still works as a "consultant" for a Los Angeles agency. Dominguez says the pitcher, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is still awaiting a decision from Major League Baseball as to his eligibility.
But Perez says he'll next sue Onelki García for the $80,000 in expenses he's owed. "Jaime Torres stole me a baseball player," he raps in broken English. "Gus Dominguez stole me a baseball player. Everybody stole me a baseball player!"
Michael E. Miller and Nicky Diaz contributed to this report.
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