Leonys Martin seemed like yet another Cuban baseball player with tremendous promise when he signed a $15.5 million contract with the Texas Rangers in 2011 as an outfielder.
But there is apparently a darker story behind Martin’s climb from poverty to Major League Baseball success.
On Wednesday, the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami charged three people — Eliezer Lazo, 40, formerly of Miami Lakes, Joel Martinez Hernandez, 37, formerly of Miami-Dade, and Yilian Hernandez, 30, of Hialeah, Fla. — with conspiring to smuggle, kidnap and extort the 25-year-old Rangers outfielder.
The three are also charged with smuggling 13 other Cuban baseball prospects to the United States — all of them going from Cuba to Mexico and then the U.S.
Yilian Hernandez, arrested Wednesday by Homeland Security and FBI agents, was scheduled to have her first appearance in Miami federal court Thursday. Lazo and Martinez are serving prison sentences of five and seven years, respectively, for 2012 money-laundering convictions related to Medicare fraud.
In announcing the case in a news release, prosecutors cited a lawsuit filed by Estrellas del Beisbol but provided few details.
The Mexican company, in which Lazo and Martinez had a stake, says it became Martin’s management agency after he was smuggled into Mexico. But last year, Estrellas del Beisbol sued Martin in Broward Circuit Court in Florida, accusing him of violating his contract by failing to pay the company up to 30 percent of his salary from his multiyear deal with the Rangers.
In a countersuit, Martin accused Lazo, Martinez and others of an “illegal scheme” involving smuggling him and his family from Cuba to Mexico in 2010 and holding all of them “hostage” until Martin obtained a contract and could pay a “ransom.”
The next year, the counterclaim said, Martin wired $1.35 million to Estrellas, but “the payment was made out of fear for himself and his family, not with any intention of validating” his management agreement with the Mexican company.
Martin’s lawyer, Paul H. Minoff, declined to comment about the litigation or the indictment filed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys H. Ron Davidson and Evelyn B. Sheehan.
Martin, born in Villa Clara Province, played for the Cuban national baseball team in international competitions, including the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Estrellas’ breach-of-contract suit says the Mexican company signed Martin the next year but does not mention how he got to Mexico.
The suit describes Estrellas as a “baseball academy that cultivates and trains amateur baseball players who desire to play professional baseball in the United States and, specifically, sign a contract with a team affiliated with Major League Baseball.”
Under Estrellas’ deal with Martin, from Nov. 11, 2010, the company agreed to provide training, food, housing and sports clothing, the suit says. In exchange, Martin agreed to pay 35 percent of any future professional baseball contract to Estrellas, the suit says.
That figure was later reduced by 5 percentage points as a side fee to Martin’s agent, Bartolo Hernandez, the suit says. He was not charged in the Miami indictment.
On May 4, 2011, Martin signed a $15.5 million contract with the Rangers, with a $5 million signing bonus, for the 2011-15 seasons.
Estrellas says in its suit that Martin paid the company $1.2 million but that he still owes $450,000 for 2011 and $375,000 for 2012.
Martin’s lawyer, in the counterclaim, offered a strikingly different account, saying the player signed the management agreement under duress.
Martin’s counterclaim describes Estrellas as a “nonexistent entity that serves as a front for illegal activity, such as human smuggling and trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.”
Martin acknowledges that while he was in the “involuntary custody of his kidnappers,” specifically naming Lazo and Martinez, he was given food, clothing and shelter, as well as “intermittent opportunities to practice baseball.”
He says his family was provided similar support.
But Martin says Estrellas’ operators held him “against his will” in Mexico while his family “remained hostages” at Lazo’s home in Miami-Dade.
Martin says “Bart” Hernandez was introduced to him as a baseball agent who could help him obtain a contract.
“However, at no time was there any negotiation with anyone, and Martin did not voluntarily agree to have [Bart] Hernandez represent him or sign any agreement of any nature with” him, the counterclaim says.
Martin’s career got off to a slow start. But after spotty play in 2011-12, the outfielder batted .260 with eight home runs and 49 RBIs in 147 games with the Rangers last year.