Yasiel Puig's Defection Story Is Crazier Than You Could Imagine

Over at Los Angeles Magazine, Jesse Katz has a story in which he attempts to reconstruct Yasiel Puig's journey from Cuba to the major leagues, which you should absolutely make some time to read in full. It's a great story full of scenes that feel ripped straight from a screenplay, but above all it reveals that Puig's past is incredibly complex and harrowing.

Much of the detail in Katz's story comes from a Cuban boxer named Yunior Despaigne, who along with Puig, Puig's then-girlfriend, and a Santeria priest defected from Cuba in June of 2012. Despaigne and Puig have since become estranged, and Despaigne is now a witness in a lawsuit that was brought against Puig by a jailed Cuban national who claims Puig snitched him out to the Cuban government after he offered Puig a path to defection. Based on Despaigne's testimony and his conversations with Katz, here is what we think we know about Puig's defection:

  • He was brought to Mexico and stashed in a dingy motel for weeks by a group of smugglers with ties to Mexican drug cartels
  • A small-time crook from Miami named Raul Pacheco promised to pay the smugglers $250,000 to deliver Puig, who would then give Pacheco 20 percent of his future contract earnings
  • Something went wrong during the negotiating process, and Puig (and Despaigne) were essentially held hostage by the smugglers while they shopped Puig around to various agents
  • Puig was eventually rescued from the motel by a group of men hired by Pacheco to stage a kidnapping at the motel and get Puig out of there
  • Still wanting their money, the smugglers threatened Despaigne and his mother, claiming they'd harm them and Puig unless they were paid
  • One of the smugglers, Leo, was killed execution-style after Puig allegedly asked a business associate of his, Gilberto Suarez, to help him make the threats stop
  • After Puig and Despaigne's falling out, one of Puig's former teammates turned Despaigne's brother in to the Cuban authorities, claiming that he tried to convince him to defect

There's a lot more in the story, which, through no real fault of Katz's, raises just as many questions as it answers, and leaves room for plenty of new interpretations of Puig. The worst case scenario is that Puig is a ruthless opportunist who will betray and harm others for his own good. A more charitable interpretation sees Puig as someone trying to survive and navigate his way through a dangerous underworld full of crooks, drug dealers, and smugglers.

To Katz's credit, his story is written with a great deal of respect for nuance; the ambiguity here isn't a literary device, but related to all the things we don't know. It's unlikely that we'll ever know everything about Puig's past—and, again, much of Katz's information comes from a source whom Puig's lawyer dismisses as a bitter "hanger-on"—but we do know that he's much more than a two-dimensional caricature. He's a man who has seen, and possibly done, some seriously bad shit. Katz only got to speak with Puig for a few minutes while working on the story, but Puig did speak candidly for a brief moment during their talk:

There is a saying in Cuba, Puig told me: "Dormir es cuando te toca a morir." The phrase loses something in translation, but not much: Sleep is when it's your turn to die. "For that reason," he continued in Spanish, "I sleep with one eye open."

[LA Magazine]