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."