Juan Ignacio Hernández Nodar was released three months ago after serving 13 ½ years and has been getting his exit papers in order, said Thomas Cronin, a Cape Cod businessman and partner in the effort to help the players defect.
Hernández Nodar’s arrest, and El Duque’s ensuing lifetime ban from Cuban baseball, put a damper on a gusher of defections in the early 1990s by players such as Liván Hernández, El Duque’s brother and a star on the Marlins’ 1997 World Series championship team.
`THEY TRUSTED ME’
Cronin said he had become friends with several Cuban baseball stars during visits to Havana in the early 1990s, and they sought his help when they wanted to escape. “They trusted me, because I was an American,” he said.
He in turn contacted Hernández Nodar, a Cuban-American sports agent in Miami and cousin of famed agent Joe Cubas, who was involved in several high-profile defections in the early 1990s. Cubas has confirmed he was aware Hernández Nodar and Cronin were in contact with El Duque, but denied being part of the 1996 defection plan.
“We had half the Cuban Olympic team ready to defect at a tournament in Mexico” in 1996, Cronin told El Nuevo Herald in a telephone chat as he boarded a plane for Miami so that he could meet Hernández Nodar upon his arrival. “But the government made a lesson out of Juan Ignacio and El Duque, and everything went cool.”
Hernández Nodar flew to Havana in 1996 carrying copies of visas to third countries he had negotiated for El Duque, Germán Mesa and Alberto Hernández, Cronin said, “to show them that we were the real deal, that we . . . were ready for their defections.”
But security agents detained Hernández Nodar at a baseball game and found the migration documents, he added. Cronin said he was detained at the Havana airport when he arrived three days later but was allowed to leave, apparently because he is a U.S. citizen.
But prosecutors considered Hernández Nodar to be a Cuban citizen because he was born in Havana. He moved with his family to Miami when he was 2 and became a U.S. citizen later, Cronin said.
He was tried in a very public trial, in which several players testified for the prosecution, and was sentenced to 15 years on charges of illegal migration procedures and conspiring to help players defect.
El Duque, a star pitcher who is no relation to Hernández Nodar, fled in 1997 through The Bahamas and signed a contract with the New York Yankees.
“Juan Ignacio and I have been in touch by phone and e-mail several times for the past three days,” Cronin said. “He has all his papers to leave on Friday for Miami, and I will be there to receive him.”