The story is almost stereotypical. A young athlete escapes an unpredictable future in their birth country with nothing but their talent and a dream. Then, they climb the ranks to achieve fame and glory. Major League Baseball star Yasiel Puig fits this story. He journeyed from Cienfuegos, Cuba to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds – in the most competitive league on Earth.
Such a story is curious if not a reminder that ideological battles between governments hurt citizens most. Also, it shows that American foreign policy must work to cohesively integrate poverty-stricken countries into the global economy, and not only for the benefit of talent exchange. Add the fact that Puig’s reach quickly spanned beyond baseball – to the Wild Horse Children’s Foundation, which has the mission of inspiring “children and families in underserved communities” and one has a picture of how baseball and poverty can interact.
Although Cuba’s poverty statistics are difficult to pin down, Yasiel Puig was born in a challenging environment, to say the least. In fact, his home country had “limited access to food, transportation, electrical power and other necessities.” Meanwhile, most Cuban salaries are around $20 per month.
Puig was born to “an educated but poor family” 150 miles southeast of Havana and began playing baseball at 9 years old. His immense and bombastic talent landed him on the Cienfuegos Camaroneros and the Cuban National B team, which paid him $17 a month. It was here that his story both deviated from that of typical athletes and also melded into the often-told Cuban fairy tale, one where baseball and poverty do not interact as much as fuel one another.
During an international tournament in Rotterdam, Puig and teammate Gerardo Concepción attempted to defect. Only Concepción succeeded though and Yasiel entered a kind of patriotic recidivism. Attempted Cuban defectors can experience imprisonment and other perilous actions if authorities catch them.
Puig then set his sights on escaping again (some estimate half a dozen times). He endured a harrowing trip out of Cuba, eventually landing in Mexico and establishing residency. This made him eligible for a Major League Baseball team to sign him. Although the specifics of the path are fascinating, involving the drug cartel Los Zetas, human traffickers and allegations of torture and bribery, they are also distressing. Puig understandably skirts talking about it. Nonetheless, at age 21 he received a rebirth. A Dodger scout signed him to a seven-year, $42 million contract and invited him to the United States to begin his Major League career.
Twelve months later, Puig had one of the most explosive entrances in the history of baseball. Thirty days in, he launched 44 hits, second only to Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, and ended his rookie season with a .319 batting average, 19 home runs and a .925 OPS. The statistics complimented his style of play, which some describe as ebullient. This led legendary broadcaster Vin Scully to nickname Puig the ‘wild horse’ for his bombastic energy. In his first full year in the big leagues, he was an All-Star and the rest was history. Through talent and extraordinary luck, he was able to establish a sense of security for himself. The story of baseball and poverty indeed offered an impetus for his success.
All of this led to his idea for the Wild Horse Children’s Foundation, which had its first event in the Dominican Republic in 2016. Over 250 families in the Santo Domingo area received food and supplies for the holiday season. Two years later, he sponsored a trip back to Cuba that raised awareness for underserved communities and distributed baseball gear to children. From his humble beginnings in Cienfuegos to auspicious times in the United States, Puig kept kids and their wellbeing through sport in his mind. “I started the foundation because I want to help the people in Los Angeles and Miami and the Dominican Republic.”
Ultimately, Yasiel Puig’s story is only half-written. He has many years left to play baseball and widen his influence with the Wild Horse Children’s Foundation. The circuitous path out of poverty is one that players know well in the Major Leagues, especially players from Cuba. His commitment to helping those in the position he was once is a shining achievement.
– Spencer Daniels