Baseball is America's pastime. But it's also an international business that sucks in scores of foreign-born players every year. Behind that business are men who secret ballplayers into the United States in exchange for a slice of their future earnings.
This side of baseball tends to remain in the shadows. Every once in a while, however, an arrest or a lawsuit peals back the lid on this lucrative smuggling industry.
That's what happened yesterday when Feds announced an indictment against three Cubans for trafficking their fellow countrymen into the U.S. and keeping at least one baseball star hostage until he paid up.
See also: Cuban Baseball Agents: Risks and Lies
Federal prosecutors announced yesterday that they were charging Eliezer Lazo, 40, Joel Martinez Hernandez, 37, and Yilian Hernandez, 30, for alien smuggling, extortion, and kidnapping conspiracy.
The announcement made a passing reference to a company called Estrellas del Beisbol (Baseball Stars).
Human smuggling is nothing new in South Florida. In October, four Haitian women died off the shore of Miami while trying to reach the U.S. in a boat that capsized.
But court records and news clippings reveal that Lazo, Martinez, and Hernandez were more than ordinary Caribbean coyotes. They were key players in a tri-national smuggling operation that stocks the Major Leagues with Cuban peloteros.
Lazo -- who has been arrested for battery and burglary but never convicted of a felony -- was first busted for human smuggling back in 2008. He and an accomplice were stopped by the Coast Guard with five passengers aboard their boat as they tried enter the U.S. from the Bahamas.
He pled guilty and started serving an 18-month sentence on July 2, 2009.
In February of 2010, however, Lazo incorporated Estrellas del Beisbol Corp here in the state of Florida -- apparently while still inside federal prison.
Around the same time, Martinez and Hernandez were setting up a similar company in Mexico.
On July 14, 2010 -- just weeks after his release -- Lazo and another man again caught by the Coast Guard 50 miles towards Cuba. The 28-foot twin-motor powerboat they were steering had been reported stolen hours earlier in Key Largo. On board, authorities found 32 tanks of gasoline and several cases of water.
Lazo claimed that he had bought the boat from an unknown man for $10,000 and was on his way to Cuba to visit his sick mother.
During an August 9, 2011 hearing, prosecutors claimed Lazo had obtained the boat in order to smuggle aliens and was going "straight back to what he was doing before, which is alien smuggling." The court gave him the maximum sentence of two years in prison.
Yesterday's indictment puts this history of human smuggling together with Lazo and the Hernandezes' shady Estrellas del Beisbol sports agency.
Last year, Estrellas del Beisbol filed a lawsuit against Leonys Martin Tapanes of the Texas Rangers. The company accused the Cuban-born outfielder of breaching his contract by failing to pay Estrellas up to 30 percent of his salary from his $15.5 million deal he inked with the MLB club in 2011, according to the Miami Herald.
In his own lawsuit, Martin accused Lazo and Martinez of running an "illegal scheme" to smuggle him and his family out of Cuba into Mexico in 2010. He also accused them of holding him and his family "hostage" until Martin penned a Big League contract and could a "ransom."
In his suit, Martin claimed he paid Estrellas $1.35 million "out of fear for himself and his family, not with any intention of validating" his deal with the agency, the Herald reported.
It appears as if Estrellas del Beisbol would smuggle Cuban baseball stars by sea to Mexico, have them sign extortionary contracts, then secret them over the border and to Miami, where they or their families would stay until paying in full.
Last year, similar operations were outlined in the New Times story Cuban Baseball Agents: Risks and Lies.
Incredibly, both Lazo and Martinez are currently serving time for another offense: 2012 money-laundering convictions related to Medicare fraud.
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Ah, baseball: money laundering, Medicare fraud, human smuggling, grand theft auto, kidnapping, and extortion. And that's not even getting into the steroid scandal.
Only three months 'til Spring Training!