Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin has never gone into detail about his defection from Cuba and his path to freedom in the United States.
But his story has come to light through a civil lawsuit that Martin filed a year ago in Broward County (Fla.) Circuit Court against his former agents and a Mexican-based company, Estrellas del Beisbol, which managed him.
According to the suit, Martin’s journey included more than a six-month stay in Mexico, during which he says he was held captive with other Cuban players, while his family was held at a house in South Florida.
Martin alleges that he and his group were held hostage by a number of gunmen, including Eliezer Lazo and Joel Martinez Hernandez, who are serving prison sentences in Mississippi for money laundering and Medicare fraud.
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Lazo, Martinez Hernandez and a woman named Yilian Hernandez have also been charged with conspiring to smuggle, kidnap and extort Cuban defectors — including Martin — in a federal indictment that was unsealed Dec. 4 by the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Florida.
Major League Baseball and the Players Association are aware of the situation but declined to comment.
Martin, playing in the Dominican Winter League, couldn’t be reached and his attorney, Paul Minoff, declined comment. Two U.S.-based attorneys listed in the lawsuit as representing Estrellas del Beisbol did not return messages seeking comment.
Estrellas del Beisbol and Martin’s former agents, meanwhile, have their own lawsuit against Martin for breach of contract.
Martin’s lawsuit tells a different story of his defection than the one most commonly told. It was believed that Martin defected in 2010 during the World University Baseball Championship in Taiwan, spent some time in Japan and then had a difficult limbo in Mexico.
According to the lawsuit, though, Martin made arrangements through a contact in Miami to escape Cuba on a charter boat in August 2010. He would be joined by his wife, Yaimira, who was his girlfriend at the time, his father, his father’s girlfriend and a friend.
The lawsuit says Martin and his group failed to locate the boat off the Cuban coastline and, in that process, crossed paths with a man named Jesus Toledo, who convinced them of a safer route out of the closed communist country.
They followed Toledo onto a yacht that eventually landed in a locked port in Cancun, Mexico. They were then taken to a house where Lazo and Martinez Hernandez were holstering guns. Lazo, the lawsuit says, had a family connection to Toledo.
At that initial encounter, Lazo allegedly told Martin: “You are worth a lot; I am not going to let you go.”
That was the beginning of Martin’s six-month stay in Mexico and, shortly thereafter, he and his group were split up.
Martin joined other Cuban players at a complex in Monterrey known as “The Ranch,” while his family reached South Florida, where they stayed in a house owned by Lazo.
At The Ranch, Martin and the other players were supposed to train. However, according to Martin’s lawsuit, there was no baseball or workout equipment at the complex. They occasionally would train at a nearby stadium and worked out a few times in front of MLB scouts, the lawsuit says.
Martin impressed several teams and eventually agreed to a five-year, $15.5 million deal with the Rangers that became official on May 4, 2011, after he successfully made it into the U.S.
But Martin wouldn’t be receiving all of the money. In fact, he had signed over a good chunk of it in an agreement with Estrellas del Beisbol, a company run by Lazo and Martinez Hernandez. In it, Martin agreed to pay them 35 percent of his salary, which is substantially higher than the standard 5 to 7 percent cut that most agents receive.
Estrellas del Beisbol then reduced its fee to 30 percent with the other 5 percent going to Bart Hernandez, Martin’s agent at the time. However, the lawsuit says that Martin wasn’t given a choice in choosing his agent.
Instead, Lazo introduced Martin to Bart Hernandez, a certified MLBPA agent who has worked closely with Praver Shapiro Sports Management of Miami. Barry Praver of Praver Shapiro did not return messages seeking comment.
Lazo told Martin and the rest of the Cuban players that Bart Hernandez would be their agent and Martin couldn’t object, according to the lawsuit, “considering that he was being held involuntarily in Monterrey while his family was being involuntarily held in Miami, in Lazo’s house, of all places.”
Documents in the lawsuit show that Martin has already paid $1.35 million to Estrellas del Beisbol, although he seeks to get that money back. Martin alleges that EDB is “a front for the illegal human trafficking of Cuban citizens, focusing on nationally recognized Cuban baseball players.”