TAMPA, Fla. -- Evel Bastida said it was in Cuba, before defecting to the United States, that he decided he was not interested in partial victories. If he was going to risk his life in the hope of taking his shot at the major leagues, he was not going to compromise his income potential.
"I got out either to die or to triumph," he said.
For him, freedom meant free agency.
Bastida's agent, Joe Kehoskie, had already begun working to make that happen by the time Bastida arrived in Florida in early December 2000 with fellow suspended Havana Industriales teammate Mayque Quintero. Kehoskie, who through an intermediary had been in contact with the players when they were in Cuba, was well on his way toward securing the paperwork that would make the players citizens of the Dominican Republic.
With those papers, Kehoskie expected that Bastida, an infielder, and Quintero, a right-handed pitcher, would be able to avoid baseball's annual talent draft in June, as had other Cubans before them. That's the way the game has been played for much of the past decade by agents and players looking to circumvent Major League Baseball's policy of forcing Cubans into the draft unless they establish legal residency in a third country.
But then, suddenly, baseball balked.
The commissioner's office rejected the notion that just three weeks after arriving in the U.S., Bastida and Quintero had acquired legitimate passports -- and thus citizenship -- from the Dominican Republic, a country in which they had never set foot.
After years of rumors involving immigration irregularities with Cuban defectors and agents, baseball had decided to delve into a practice that agents say baseball itself tacitly spawned by treating Cubans differently than other foreign players, who are regarded as free agents.
"They were false passports," said Rafael Perez, manager of the Major League Baseball's office in the Dominican Republic.
It's a characterization that makes Kehoskie livid.
"The papers were issued via my partner in the Dominican, who's a Congressman," Kehoskie said of Victor Garcia Sued, a politician with baseball business interests in the island nation. "It's actually a felony on several levels to submit false documentation to the federal government. We clearly aren't going to get involved with anything like that, and for Major League Baseball to suggest we (would) is just foolish."
When pressed by ESPN.com, Perez conceded that his office was never able to prove the passports were phonies. But, he said, he was highly skeptical because Kehoskie and Garcia Sued declined to provide the actual passports, providing baseball only with color copies of the passports.
Correcting himself, Perez said, "We never were able to determine they were legitimate. So therefore we came to the conclusion they were fake."
Luis Ernesto Camilo, director of passports for the Dominican Republic, was unavailable for comment. His secretary directed ESPN.com to a member of the organization's legal staff, who declined to confirm or deny whether the passports are legitimate.
The fact that Bastida and Quintero never went to the Dominican is merely a "paperwork distinction," said Kehoskie, who kept the players in Tampa during the process to prepare them for professional scouts. Kehoskie said the actual passports were not provided to baseball officials because the officials wanted to keep them for an indefinite time, and Kehoskie and Garcia Sued didn't want to risk losing them.
"They certainly weren't any more or less fake than other papers issued down there," Kehoskie said.
|Four baseball players and a coach who defected from Cuba on Fidel Castro's birthday in 1998 were held in the Bahamas while awaiting visas to the U.S.|
On that point, the agent and Perez, baseball's new watchdog in the Dominican, begin to find common ground. In January, in a case unrelated to Bastida and Quintero, baseball had discovered that two Dominican players had used false birth certificates when they signed pro contracts.
"You never know with these countries," Perez said of poor, loosely regulated Latin American countries. "Things get done easier down here."
The practice of using third countries to avoid the draft was pioneered by Joe Cubas, a Miami-based agent with deep roots in the Cuban-American community. In the mid- and late-1990s, he engineered the defections of Livan Hernandez, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Rolando Arrojo and other Cuban players.
In the defining moment of his career, Cubas chartered a Lear Jet to fly El Duque from the Bahamas, where the player was picked up at sea, to Central America. In Costa Rica, the legendary Cuban pitcher quickly acquired residency papers. As a free agent, Hernandez signed a $6.6 million contract with the New York Yankees, who went on to win three World Series titles with him on staff.
The other agent who has had success in lining up foreign papers for Cuban defectors is Gus Dominguez, who is based in Los Angeles. In March, a Dominguez client, Andy Morales, signed a $4.5 million contract with the Yankees after defecting to the U.S. on a boat and then acquiring residence in Peru.
Agents in the Cuban market typically choose countries in which they have friends or contacts that can help arrange the necessary paperwork. Often, those also are countries that do not have good relations with Cuba's communist government, which has taken offense to the departure of Cuban players who were groomed since childhood to represent the country in baseball.
|The Dominican Republic passport for Mayque Quintero includes his photo and all the right stamps and signatures, but Major League Baseball argues it is a fake.|
"Major League Baseball clearly knows that they're forcing these players offshore to go get fraudulent papers," Kehoskie said. "The whole thing is just a gimmick to control signing bonuses of what they consider premium foreign players."
Not surprisingly, the club with the most resources is fine with the arrangement.
"I think it borders on arrogance to suggest that these people that have grown up in a system that forbids them from enjoying any kind of material wealth shouldn't be able to decide at some point to maximize their economic benefits," said Mark Newman, vice president of baseball operations for the New York Yankees. "There are U.S. industries that are moving jobs outside the country all the time, so I don't think it's wrong for some (player) to go to Peru or Costa Rica or Guatemala" for residence papers.
The issue came to a head in June when a Kehoskie client, Rolando Viera, filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Major League Baseball. Viera, who came to the U.S. legally and does not want to forfeit his U.S. immigration status to seek papers in a third country, says he should be a free agent like Dominicans and other foreign players because he remains a Cuban citizen in the eyes of the U.S. and Cuban governments. Viera lost the first round of the lawsuit, a request for a temporary restraining order preventing baseball from placing him in last month's draft.
Baseball's lawyers argued that Viera belongs in the draft like American and Canadian players because he is currently living in the U.S. and probably will stay in the country. They argue their policy is based not on citizenship, but residence, even when a player, as in the case of Viera, has not yet formally sought legal residence in the U.S.
"Residents of the United States, like Viera, are treated that they have to go through the draft," said Frank Coonelly, Major League Baseball's labor counsel.
"I believe the draft has nothing to do with us," Quintero said in February, when ESPN.com talked to him and Bastida.
WITNESS TO A DEFECTION
To understand to the issues of Cuban baseball defectors, ESPN.com approached agent Joe Kehoskie in January about his effort to orchestrate the impending departure of pitcher Rolando Viera.
ESPN cameras followed the story as it unfolded, filming in New York, Florida, Boston and Cuba, and interviewing Viera after he arrived in the U.S. in late April.
Watch the exclusive, behind-the-scenes report by ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey on "Outside the Lines," Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.
On the day Morales signed with the Yankees, Bastida and Quintero left Kehoskie. On the recommendation of Morales, they hired Dominguez, who, according to the agent, then moved them to Los Angeles and lined up residency papers for them in Peru. The commissioner's office finally got around to approving the players' status as free agents on May 29 -- though not as residents of that South American country.
In a memo sent to all teams that day -- the same day, Kehoskie notes with irony, that he informed baseball that he planned to sue baseball in court over its policy -- the commissioner's office approved Quintero and Bastida as residents of Mexico, despite conflicting birthdates for the players on their various documents.
Dominguez said he helped the players get immigration papers in Mexico so they could play in the Mexican league to stay in shape while continuing to negotiate with major league teams. Dominguez said they still have their Peruvian papers as well.
The number of countries Quintero and Bastida are now associated with rests at five. Not bad for a couple players who had never left Cuba until eight months ago. They are citizens of Cuba, alleged citizens of the Dominican Republic and legal residents of both Peru and Mexico. Meanwhile, they have spent most of their time living in the U.S., where they originally arrived on a boat.
"Citizens of the world, yeah," Dominguez said, laughing.
Quintero and Bastida signed to play on Wednesday with the Sonoma County Crushers, an independent league team in California. Both players were unavailable for comment on the latest developments in their careers. But while their dream of playing baseball with a major-league organization has not materialized, at least they know -- for what it's worth -- that as free agents every team has had a chance to sign them.
In March, that's all Bastida said he wanted.
"If I knew that I would have to go through the sea and pass through a draft, I would not risk my life to come here," he said. "I came here to be a free agent and to try to help my family (back in Cuba). This was my purpose."
His nightmare, too.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at Tom.Farrey@ESPN.com. Gerardo Torres, an ESPNdeportes.com editor, contributed to this report.
|Gus Dominguez helped Andy Morales land a $4.4 million contract with the New York Yankees this year.||