MIAMI — Three hours out of the Florida Keys, within wading distance of Cuba's north-central coast, a 28-foot speedboat slowed, its pilot cut the engine, and the sleek hull slid silently to a stop on an ink black sea.
Rain squalls had passed, but a trailing band of storm clouds lingered, hiding the moon -- perfect cover for the night's illicit mission: smuggling.
The unusual contraband loaded aboard that night in 2004 wasn't dope; it wasn't even the typical, ragtag human cargo of desperate asylum seekers. But the value of even a small boatload of the smuggled goods could run into the millions of dollars.
On Big Pine Key, a three-hour high-speed cruise across the Florida Straits, Ysbel Santos-Medina waited to take delivery along a stretch of beach about 30 miles north of Key West. The former truck driver and small-time drug trafficker, a mastermind of smuggling logistics, had arranged everything. His last responsibility would be forwarding the goods to California.
Medina's contraband on that summer night represented the latest thing in Caribbean region smuggling -- five Cuban baseball players.
Today, top pitchers and shortstops have surpassed dope, rum and tobacco as the commodities of choice for traffickers working the old Spanish Main.
Each of the smuggled ballplayers -- former stars of domestic Cuban teams -- arrived in the U.S. hoping to follow in the cleat marks of previous defectors such as pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez of the New York Mets.
Their crossing that night was financed, according to court documents and testimony, with payments totaling $225,000 by an Encino sports agent who would become the first agent ever convicted on federal charges of smuggling athletes.
But this was no isolated episode. Since 2000, about 40 other Cuban players have been spirited out of the island nation on similar smuggling runs. Origins of this odd black market can be traced to the confluence of three seemingly random elements:
* A crackdown on athlete defections by Cuban leader Fidel Castro's government that has intensified over the last decade;
* Exceptions to federal immigration policy that apply uniquely to Cubans seeking asylum;
* Uncertain enforcement of arcane rules by Major League Baseball dating back 30 years that reflect baseball's efforts to conform with the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.
Joe Kehoskie, a Syracuse, N.Y., sports agent who has represented more than a dozen Cuban athletes, said the smuggling of baseball players "has become a cottage industry," an example, he said, of "bare-knuckles capitalism."
A rash of defections by prominent ballplayers during the 1990s prompted Castro's government to impose restrictions on Cuban players and teams engaged in international competition. Those restrictions became most severe after the 2002 defection of pitcher Jose Contreras, now with the Chicago White Sox.
Cuban authorities ordered widespread suspensions of players seen as defection risks. Since then, only one is known to have defected at an international event -- while smuggling has soared.
"It's like somebody threw a switch," Kehoskie said. "They stopped defecting at tournaments and they all started taking speedboats to Miami."
The timing of changes to Washington's policy added to favorable conditions for smuggling.
Since the mid-1990s, Cuban immigrants -- like others from Haiti or elsewhere -- have been turned back if intercepted at sea, but they are allowed to remain in this country legally simply by reaching shore anywhere in the U.S.
The unique rule for Cubans has led to some rough landings. One smuggling run in the summer of 2004 ended when the pilot ran his boat full-throttle onto a Florida beach, saving his passengers a return trip to Cuba.
Major League Baseball's rules are more complicated, but equally arbitrary as they apply to Cubans.
Under terms of the 1970s-vintage Kuhn Initiative, named after then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, U.S. teams were barred from signing players living in Cuba to contracts -- an extension of State Department bans on American companies doing business with Cuba.
Arriving on the shores of Florida makes a Cuban defector eligible for U.S. residency, however, and subject to Major League Baseball's annual amateur draft. The player then can negotiate only with the team that selected him in the draft.
To encourage more-lucrative bidding wars, agents generally advise Cuban players to seek residency outside the United States, allowing them to negotiate with multiple teams as free agents under baseball's rules.
Contreras, for example, claimed Nicaraguan residency after his 2002 defection, then signed a $32-million contract with the New York Yankees.
Risks and rewards
It took two tries during the summer of 2004 for the five players in Medina's boat to reach Florida.
A month earlier, the same players -- along with 17 other Cuban passengers -- were intercepted approaching the Keys. Customs agents fired on the speedboat, disabling its engine, then arrested the pilot and sent all the passengers back to Cuba.