International News

New Florida Law Tries To Prevent MLB's Cuban Stars From Falling Prey to Human Smugglers

On Saturday, news broke about Cuba's latest high-risk defection. Yasmani Tomas, a top slugger for Industriales, had fled Cuba for potential millions as a Major League Baseball star. But as All-Star Yasiel Puig's harrowing tale showed the world earlier this year, that path from Castro's island to big league ballparks often detours into blackmail and death threats at the hands of cartel-linked smugglers.

The problem is that, thanks to the Cuban embargo, MLB requires defecting players to go to a third country before signing U.S. contracts -- a rule that has created a violent side industry for Mexico's drug gangs. A new Florida law just signed by Gov. Rick Scott hopes to take a bite out of that gray market business.

The law, which Scott officially signed on Friday, requires MLB to change its rules so that Cuban ballplayers can directly sign deals with American clubs. If the rules don't change, Florida's two pro teams -- the Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays -- would lose out on $3 million in annual state tax breaks.

The bill was inspired by tales of Puig's terrifying ordeal -- originally broken by Los Angeles Magazine and later followed by ESPN. The star outfielder survived a speedboat ride to the Yucatan peninsula only to find himself held hostage by the smugglers who'd brought him.

The crew demanded a percentage of his future MLB earning's before freeing him to get to the States. A bloody conflict of lawsuits and alleged violence has followed Puig as he's become a star for the Dodgers.

It's not clear, though, how much Florida's law can really change the dynamics of Cuban-U.S. baseball relations. MLB points out that Cuba's own laws still prevent players from signing with U.S. teams.

There's certainly no shortage of stars looking to leave the island for MLB contracts; at least 20 have arrived since 2009, Reuters reports, and have signed $300 million worth of deals.

As for Tomas, it's not clear where he is at the moment or whether he'll avoid Puig's rocky road to American baseball. According to Cuba's official newspaper, Granma, at least, he escaped "through unscrupulous, illegal human trafficking."

Don't be surprised to see him in a big league park soon:

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink