Yunel Escobar’s long, winding road to the big leagues

Yunel Escobar has told his story before, about how at age 21 he left his family in his native Cuba without warning, gathered a group of close friends and escaped to the United States by boat to follow his dream of playing major league baseball. But Escobar has never talked about the American girl who helped put him in touch with the smugglers. He has never talked about his eight months living and training with the smugglers in Miami until he could pay for his escape. He has never talked, in this much detail, about the dangerous, winding path he took from Havana to Miami to the majors.

Long before Cuban players became the hottest commodity in baseball and Escobar became a steady and much-needed presence with the Washington Nationals, he was just a young baseball player dreaming of a big league future and willing to risk everything to get it.

“I got to the U.S. and went to work so that I could help my family,” Escobar said in a lengthy interview in Spanish. “My mind was focused on helping my family. Becoming a baseball player in this country was big for me. Not everyone makes it.”

Longing for the big leagues

Baseball is in the blood of all Cubans. Escobar’s grandfather signed him up to start playing at 8. By his teenage years, he was good enough to travel with the junior national team.

Escobar’s love of baseball was fueled by television broadcasts and video games, both forbidden in Cuba. He paid to watch MLB games and favorite players such as Alex Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and fellow Cuban Livan Hernandez on a TV with a hush-hush antenna at a friend’s house. He also grew to love Ken Griffey Jr. because of a video game he played often in secret. A friend had smuggled in a console and charged the equivalent of 50 cents per hour to play.

“Even if the game was in the fourth inning and your hour was up, you were off,” he said.

Escobar longed to be like those MLB players. One day, he decided to look like them. In 2004, Escobar, then 21, was playing for the Industriales, a professional team in Havana. The standard uniform included old-style pants with a stripe down the side and high socks, but Escobar decided to wear long pants down to his cleats.

Escobar was benched in the fourth inning. His manager scolded him, and Escobar pushed back. He said officials from the baseball commission accused him of subversion and suspended him 21 games. Officials told him he would be sent to a lower-level team and even mentioned early retirement.

He also wanted to play shortstop every day but was blocked by veterans. And life was hard already — he was making the equivalent of 10 dollars a month and living with his parents in Marianao, a poor neighborhood in Havana.

“I need to get out of here,” he said. “I can’t be in Cuba any longer. I don’t know anything but playing baseball.”

But how? Escobar got to know a woman, five years older than him, who was friends with his neighbors. An American of Peruvian descent, she was visiting Havana from Miami, according to Escobar, as part of a church trip.

The two started dating. She told him she could him get out of Cuba, and he trusted her. When she returned to the United States, she contacted smugglers and agents, including Joe Kehoskie, then an agent who represented several Cuban players, and introduced herself as Escobar’s girlfriend.

“I was trying to make some plans to make that happen without committing federal felonies in the process,” Kehoskie said. “But those guys got impatient and ended up with a couple of smugglers and were brought directly to the U.S.”

Escobar said his American friend called one day and put him on the phone with the smugglers. They wanted to get into the growing Cuban baseball player smuggling business and told Escobar to gather a group of five. Escobar told only his non-baseball-playing cousin, Jan Carlos Escobar, and his closest baseball player friends, all similar ages, including his half-brother Yamel Guevara, a good pitching prospect. He didn’t tell his parents.

Sharks and smugglers

The smugglers told Escobar to be ready to be picked up on his street corner at 4 p.m. on Sept. 24. They hired a truck to pick up Escobar and friends, who had all faked injuries to miss practice that day. The fee was $10,000 per player.

“We didn’t bring anything,” Escobar said. “In our minds, we were going straight to the ocean and leaving the country. We thought we were headed straight there.”

Instead, Escobar said, they met up with the rest of the group, 36 in all. They tried to leave the country Sept. 27, but the weather was bad. The guides took the group to a different part of Cuba. According to Escobar, they hiked through a jungle and crossed a 400-foot-wide river and slept that night in the trees, where mosquitoes attacked every inch of flesh.

“Never again,” said Escobar’s cousin, Jan. Added Escobar: “If we had known what it would be like, I would have stayed in Cuba.”

The next morning, they reached a beach. The guide signaled their 32-foot boat with a lantern. The rough passage to Florida took three days. According to Escobar and his cousin, everyone slept on the deck and got sunburned. They ate crackers and drank water. When they ran out of gas, the motor fumes made everyone vomit. Sharks circled the boat.

“We were scared,” Escobar’s cousin said. “You don’t mess with the ocean.”

Escobar said the boat dropped everyone off at a remote island near Key West on Oct. 4. The Coast Guard picked them up. Escobar said he spent two days at Krome, an immigration detention center in Miami, and kissed the ground when he was released. He called his mother, who feared he was dead. The smugglers picked up the players and took them to their Miami home.

For eight months, Escobar and company lived with the smugglers. The original plan was to take the players to another country, such as the Dominican Republic, with fake passports where they could train, establish residency and perhaps command higher signing bonuses by escaping the June 2005 amateur draft. The smugglers wanted to tap into the market that had seen defectors such as Jose Contreras, Kendrys Morales and Danys Baez command multimillion-dollar deals.

But Escobar said the smugglers didn’t know what they were doing. He refused to leave the United States because he was scared of getting caught and being sent back to Cuba. And his baseball friends, save for he and Guevara, weren’t prospects.

The smugglers — now in prison for other crimes, according to Escobar and Kehoskie — gave the players food, clothes and baseball equipment and treated them well. They took them to daily workouts and tryouts with scouts. Escobar’s girlfriend wanted him to live with her, but he couldn’t leave the house until the smugglers were paid. That meant Escobar needed to enter the 2005 draft.

“I was anxious to get out of that house, move on with life, get signed by a team,” he said. “I wanted to get out of there.”

The smugglers tried to auction off the players to agents. Kehoskie was invited down from Upstate New York to meet them. He said no to the smugglers’ request of $200,000 up front — “they described it as a referral fee, but it clearly it was a smuggler’s fee or even a ransom payment.”

“They were mismanaged for months,” Kehoskie added. “They tried to get free agency for them and failed. They basically dumped all of these guys in the 2005 draft as a way to get rid of them because of the expenses that were piling up and the pressure was on.”

Reaching the majors

Many scouts and agents hadn’t heard of Escobar because he had played in only a few international tournaments and wasn’t a big name in Cuba. But one day while working out, Escobar met former Florida International University assistant baseball coach and Detroit Tigers scout Rolando Casanova, who felt sorry for Escobar and trained him in his free time. Casanova, who died in August, arranged tryouts with other teams’ scouts.

“He was the man who did everything for me to get where I am today,” Escobar said.

Bart Hernandez, who represented Escobar from just before the 2005 draft until last year, first saw Escobar at a showcase game at Broward Community College. Escobar’s arm, big hands, bat and confidence stood out. “You could see the tools the kid had,” he said. “You could feel the kid was a major league guy.”

The Braves drafted Escobar in the second round, signing him for $475,000. Four other players were drafted no higher than the 14th round, falling quickly out of the minor leagues. Guevara, the hard-throwing prospect, hurt his arm because of the many pre-draft tryouts and wound up in independent league baseball.

Escobar said he paid the smugglers $50,000, enough to cover the group. He estimated he spent $70,000 more to get seven family members out of Cuba over the years, including his mother, father, grandmother and sister. He longs to return home to visit and see family he left behind. He also said he is no longer in touch with the girlfriend who helped him escape. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.

“I’ll always be grateful to her,” Escobar said. “When I signed, I asked if she needed anything, but she did it for love.”

Since then, Escobar has endured his growing pains and built a career as he matured. He made his major league debut in 2007 with Atlanta and was traded to Toronto in mid-2010, both places where his behavior got him in trouble. He was traded to Tampa Bay before the 2013 season and finally Washington this offseason. While Cuban players are signing for record-breaking deals in the $70 million range, Escobar worked to build his career. He has two children, a big home in Miami and luxury cars, and he can provide for his family — a stark contrast to his beginnings.

He is reminded of it all the most when he steps onto the field to play.

“I always stop to think about everything, ‘Look at what I’ve got, look at what baseball has gotten me and my family and look at what I’ve accomplished,’” he said. “When I enter that stadium to play baseball, I think about my family. I think about my future even though I know I’m not 22 anymore. I’m 32. I give it my best.”