Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar flew to Havana, Cuba, in August 1996 with hopes of making the biggest score yet in the shadowy trade of helping elite Cuban baseball players defect to the U.S. major leagues.
The former truck driver, then 38 years old and an American citizen, already had helped four Cuban pitchers escape and net big-league contracts worth almost $11 million combined. One of them, Liván Hernández, would win the World Series Most Valuable Player award the following year.
But Mr. Hernández Nodar, whose family fled Cuba when he was two, was after even bigger game: Cuba's winningest pitcher, Liván's older half-brother, Orlando "El Duque" Hernández.
Cuba's world-class players are barred from the U.S. by Cuba's supreme leader Fidel Castro, who treasures them as symbols of Communist superiority. That Aug. 12, Mr. Hernández Nodar was arrested while attending a game in central Cuba. A Havana court sentenced him to 15 years in prison, calling him a "parasite benefitting from the huge efforts of our working people."
He was held for 13 years, two months and 27 days, nearly all of it in Cuba's notorious Combinado del Este prison. Last November, he was finally allowed to leave Cuba.
"I was the forgotten man," said Mr. Hernández Nodar, now 51, as he drove through the dusty streets of Boca Chica, the Dominican seaside town where he now lives. He shared for the first time the full story of his arrest and years behind bars. His odyssey is rooted in the two nations' mutual passion for baseball, an integral part of both their shared history and their hostile relations of recent decades.
His years in prison included solitary confinement, attempts on his life, a nervous breakdown, suicide attempts—and a remarkable friendship with another prisoner that helped him survive.
The ordeal, he says, cost him dearly. He missed watching the Hernández brothers become major-league stars. His cousin and former partner in the business, Miami-based agent Joe Cubas, earned millions of dollars on contracts of Cuban players. The two men no longer speak.
He missed his children—two by his current wife and four from previous marriages and relationships—grow up. "My family doesn't know me anymore," he says.
Nevertheless, he's picking up where he left off 14 years ago. "For each year I spent behind bars, I vow to get one Cuban player into the U.S.," he says. "The will to do this is more important than the money—and I've got plenty of will."
In Cuba, baseball has always been political. When the sport was introduced in the 1860s by a Cuban returning from studies in the U.S., Cubans saw it as a way to distance themselves from their Spanish colonial rulers, who favored bullfighting. U.S. teams traveled to Havana for spring-training games, and Cuban players thrived in the U.S. (continue reading story here)