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Betancourt, Chapman, and the Sordid Business of Defection

(Image: AP/David J. Phillip)

This weekend’s three-game series between the Reds and Brewers includes two players – Yuniesky Betancourt and Aroldis Chapman – who took a more tortured path than most to the big leagues.  Both are Cuban players who defected from their home country to play professionally in the United States.

As someone of Cuban heritage, I’m particularly interested in players who have that background (my favorite player was Jose Canseco when I was a kid).  With Betancourt and Chapman on opposite sides of the field for the second time this season, I took a moment to look up stories about their defections.  Given that defection from an authoritarian state involves some risk, I should not have been surprised that the stories of both men contain some unflattering details.

This 2008 Vanity Fair piece on the road Cuban players have taken to MLB actually makes it sound like defection itself isn’t difficult, particularly for those who played for the Cuban national team.  Since that team travels the world, defection can be as easy as leaving a hotel in the middle of the night.  For others, defection involves smugglers, bribery, and shady backroom deals.  Betancourt’s defection may have involved all three.

A main character in the VF story is Gus Dominguez, who was an agent for Cuban players – including Betancourt – before serving time for transporting and harboring aliens (some thanks for helping bring players to the U.S. from a dictatorship).  During his 2007 trial, Dominguez testified about a dispute with Betancourt’s smugglers, which included a threat to break Betancourt’s legs.  The testimony didn’t seem plausible, but this is how Betancourt’s actions are described in the article:

It was the smuggler’s word against the agent’s, and there was really only one person who might have broken the tie: Yuniesky Betancourt… He’d already told three different stories, two of them to immigration agents, about how and when he’d come to the United States…As his former agent went to trial, [Betancourt] was back in Seattle, playing in their home opener. And on top of it all, he’d unwittingly provided the U.S. government with an explanation for why Gus Dominguez needed to smuggle ballplayers in from Cuba: to make back the money he’d lost on Betancourt—for, having stiffed his smugglers, Betancourt then stiffed the agent who had fed and housed him for six months. He signed the contract with the Mariners that Dominguez had negotiated on his behalf, but paid whatever commission he paid to someone else.

That’s stone cold, a side of Betancourt Brewers fans have not seen before.  Of course, it may not be accurate, but the idea of Betancourt pulling a double cross is intriguing, to say the least.

As for Chapman, his defection was much closer to the just-left-the-hotel variety.  However, a lawsuit brought against Chapman last year alleges the reason Chapman was in a position to defect easily was that he sold a couple of poor suckers out:

After authorities caught [Chapman] trying to [defect for the first time in 2008], he arranged a meeting with [Cuban President] Raul Castro. Chapman was kept out of the Cuban national series and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But the following year, Chapman was a witness in a trial against a Cuban-American named Danilo Curbelo. In his testimony, Chapman accused Cubelo and one other man of “human trafficking.” By July, Chapman was back on the Cuban national team. Late that year he was allowed to play at a tournament in the Netherlands, where he successfully defected. […]

The suit claims that, to square things with the Castro regime and to be allowed to play baseball again, Chapman set up Curbelo and his friend, falsely accusing them of enticing him to defect. (Defecting is referred to as human trafficking under the Cuban penal code.)

Again, these allegations may not be fair to Chapman, who has declined to comment on the lawsuit.  But if they are true, many fans would certainly see Chapman in a different light.

Even if these harsh depictions of Betancourt and Chapman are not accurate, they are at least a reminder of what an ugly business defection can be.  Next time Yuni pops out on the first pitch, it may be comforting to remember we have much less reason to be frustrated with him than some people (allegedly).