Seemingly from the moment Cuban refugee Yasiel Puig showed up at Dodger Stadium out of nowhere, arriving last June unwilling to discuss his unknown background, the talk behind the batting cages has been rife with unprintable rumors.
There were rumors Puig was smuggled out of Cuba by members of a Mexican drug cartel. There were rumors he still owed the smugglers money, and that his life could be in jeopardy. There was talk about Puig being essentially owned by a Miami businessman with a criminal record who hired those smugglers in exchange for 20% of the ballplayer's future earnings.
Who knew that all those rumors could actually be true? According to a richly researched and chillingly written story by Jesse Katz in the May issue of Los Angeles Magazine, Puig's journey to Los Angeles was even more harrowing than realized, and continues to be more frightening than imagined.
In an account featuring on-the-record interviews and court records, Katz details how, in June of 2012, Puig was smuggled to Mexico by members of the Los Zetas Mexican drug cartel, his trip funded by a Miami air-conditioning repairman named Raul Pacheco who was on probation for attempted burglary. The smugglers held Puig in a seedy Mexican hotel for more than two weeks while attempting to extract increased payments from Pacheco. Eventually Puig was taken from the hotel by a gang organized by Pacheco and soon thereafter joined the Dodgers by signing a $42-million contract.
The stunning timeline doesn't even scratch the surface of a compelling tale that recounts Puig's humble childhood in a tiny rural village, how he was dropped from his Cuban league team for disciplinary reasons, reports of his failed defections, and accusations that he turned in potential defectors to the Cuban government while planning his own escape.
The story is recommended reading for anybody searching for a better understanding of the 23-year-old enigma who can be both thrilling and baffling, both on and off the field, the Dodgers' most exciting and aggravating player. Even more, the story is an absolute must-read for Dodgers fans and players, because its edges are filled with a danger that may have not dissipated.
Where there were once rumors, now there are questions:
• The story reports that late in the summer of 2012, the smugglers still wanted their money, and threatened to harm Puig unless he paid. Now that Puig is a multi-millionaire, are the smugglers still involved, and could that involvement one day lead to Dodger Stadium?
• The story notes that in the fall of 2012, one of the smugglers was killed, execution-style, after Puig allegedly complained about the harassment to his former agent, Gilberto Suarez. Could there be revenge involved, and could that one day lead to Dodger Stadium?
• The story details how Pacheco will be given 20% of all of Puig's future earnings in a deal that is not unusual for desperate Cuban players. Does this mean that the rumors of Pacheco's appearances around the Dodgers last year were true? Is this Miami man quietly pulling the strings on Puig's turbulent life?
The Dodgers refused to comment on the Puig issue Monday, and his agent, Adam Katz, did not returns calls. Puig has steadfastly refused to speak publicly about his past, and would not discuss it with Los Angeles Magazine's Katz.
Since security issues are best kept secure, the Dodgers are just probably being responsible in not acknowledging what they are doing to protect Puig and everyone — fans and players included — around him.
But they should clearly be doing something, specifically building on a boost in security that began last season. Shortly after Puig's arrival last summer, the bodyguard quotient around the Dodgers' dugout noticeably increased. This winter, that same security detail could be seen around Puig in public. One can only hope this season the added security remains, both on the field and in the stands, particularly when Puig is standing alone in right field.
Top-level Dodgers officials surely knew much about Puig's journey when they signed him. Although little is known about the backgrounds of many Cuban players, Puig's story is reportedly not that uncommon. His circumstances are more combustible only because he is one of the highest-paid defectors, and more money attracts more trouble.
As for Puig, the story probably won't change many of the two disparate opinions of him. He is painted as both a childlike refugee simply trying to adjust to a new world, and a cold-blooded, self-involved star with little respect for anything that does not make him shine.
The real truth about Yasiel Puig, of course, is probably somewhere in the middle, somewhere deep in a drama that continues to this day, more harrowing than believed, more frightening than imagined.