At 19, Cuban slugger Yoan Moncada became the highest-paid prospect in MLB history. But two years later, he’s still acting like a kid.
This story is also posted in Spanish. It appears in ESPN The Magazine’s April 10 MLB Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
by Eli Saslow –
Alex Vega has built his auto business in Miami fulfilling outlandish demands from the rich and famous, but one day in the winter of 2015 he got a call from a client with a request Vega could hardly fathom.
“Ten cars?” Vega remembers asking the caller, trying to suppress his disbelief. “You want to start out with 10 customized cars?”
On the other end of the line was Yoan Moncada, an entirely unproven teenager who was also the highest-paid 19-year-old in the history of baseball. He had been in the country for a handful of months, and he had yet to play a major league game in the United States. His last means of transportation had been his older sibling’s hand-me-down bicycle, which he had pedaled 3 miles each day down a dirt road to a baseball stadium on the southern coast of Cuba. Now he planned to drive his new fleet of cars under his baseball agent’s insurance policy.
Moncada told Vega he wanted to begin by purchasing and customizing a BMW i8, then a Lamborghini Huracan and a BMW X6 — more than $500,000 in all. Moncada said he wanted the luxury cars souped-up and ready for spring training. Then he made one last request: He asked that each car be stamped with a personalized logo of his initials.
“Are you sure you’re ready for all this?” Vega asked him.
It is the same question many in baseball now pose to Moncada, whose talent has developed with a hyperspeed that’s forced the rest of his life to catch up. In less than two years, he’s moved from Cuba to Ecuador to Guatemala to the United States. At 19, the switch-hitting second baseman shattered MLB’s record international signing bonus, earning a $31.5 million payday — four times more than what he could have earned as the first pick in the MLB draft. “New family, new language, new friends, new life, new rules,” Moncada says now through a translator. “I knew I wanted to come here to play baseball, but I never thought about dealing with all of this.”
Moncada begins this season with yet another transition, this time to the White Sox, who traded pitcher Chris Sale to the Red Sox in December for Moncada and a few other prospects. Moncada will start the year in Triple-A, but by making the trade, the White Sox staked their future on a prospect who could still break either way. Moncada is the player the Red Sox trusted with $31.5 million but could never trust to show up on time for his mandatory English classes. He is a versatile defender with natural speed and a sculpted upper body, and yet his agent says Moncada has sometimes mowed through 85 Twinkies in a week. And, just months after he arrived in the U.S., he was on the phone with Vega, negotiating for cars even though he didn’t have a driver’s license.
Vega has worked on cars for rappers, NFL players and even Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals star who he hoped would open up the hockey market. But his biggest business is in baseball — he estimates he’s worked with about 300 players, most of whom had a desire to show the money they could burn. Mets star Yoenis Cespedes asked Vega for a different luxury car to drive each day of the week. Hanley Ramirez wanted a $550,000 Lamborghini that would literally spit fire from its exhaust. Yasiel Puig asked about a tricked-out helicopter that would get him to the stadium on time. Juan Uribe had come looking for a limousine van with a wraparound couch and two big-screen TVs.
“Usually, we come up with a bigger-than-life idea and then I make it happen,” Vega says. But this time, with Moncada, Vega found himself as the rare salesman who had to become the realist. He told Moncada to save some of his bonus. He could do a few cars, he said, but not 10.
“It’s a long career,” Vega remembers saying. “I want to work with you for a long time. We’ll get to 10 eventually, but not yet. You need to slow it down.”
IT WAS NOT advice Moncada was used to hearing, since his very arrival in the United States had always depended on urgency and vigilance. There are so many routes for a baseball player out of Cuba, and as Moncada matured into one of the island’s top prospects playing for Cienfuegos, he spent his teenage years considering each possibility. He paid attention to the stories of Puig being detained by a Mexican drug cartel and Jose Fernandez jumping overboard to save his mother at sea. He knew about Aroldis Chapman defecting from the Cuban national team during a tournament in the Netherlands and about Jose Abreu eating his fake passport while on an airplane to Miami.
What all of those stories had taught Moncada was that he would leave Cuba only under one condition: “The legal way or not at all,” he says. “I wanted it to be safe and simple.”
And so began a journey that turned out to be every bit as complicated and unconventional as the rest. Moncada says he asked Cuba for permission to leave in 2013, but the government delayed its decision and stalled for more than eight months. During that time, Moncada fathered a child with an American woman who had once worked for baseball agents. (She would later deny that she played any role in helping him leave Cuba.) He also reconnected with an old Cuban friend, Carlos Mesa, who had played some minor league baseball in the United States. Mesa told Moncada that he knew someone who might be able to help.
Mesa spent a lot of time in St. Petersburg, Florida, at a nearby restaurant called Habana Cafe, a place popular among baseball players during spring training, and he had become friendly with the owner, Josefa Hastings. She was a former flight attendant who used her fluent Spanish and her Florida business connections to help a handful of Cuban baseball players navigate their new lives. She had come from Cuba herself at age 4 and had spent her career training and hiring Cuban waiters and cooks. “My main skill is that I understand how big the gap is between those two countries, and I know how easy it is to fall into that gap,” she says.
Mesa asked her to help Moncada, and Hastings says she occasionally spoke with the prospect on the phone in Cuba to discuss the logistics of visa applications and paperwork. When Moncada finally procured his legal permission to leave Cuba, the only country that would give him a travel visa was Ecuador, so Hastings and Mesa flew to meet him in Quito, the capital city.
What Hastings knew about Moncada then came mostly from the whispers she overheard in her restaurant: a five-tool franchise player, a switch-hitter, a natural speedster with a power hitter’s physique. Hastings arrived in Ecuador expecting to find a finished product. Instead she met a 19-year-old who could barely summon the composure to look her in the eyes.
“Here’s a kid who had just left behind the only thing he had ever known, and he was like a dog with its tail between its legs,” she says. “He was shy, skittish, lonely, confused. He was just so unbelievably scared.”
Within days, news of Moncada’s departure from Cuba had spread throughout the baseball world. “He was this shiny $50 million diamond that everyone was looking for,” Hastings says, and so she and her husband, an accountant named David Hastings, hired a former police officer to live with Moncada in Quito. Moncada spent two months living and training there — working out with Mesa on a youth soccer field, because there were no public baseball fields — until he was granted another visa, this time to travel to Guatemala, where he could find better baseball facilities. He spent six months there, establishing residency so he could qualify to enter the majors as a free agent.
In November 2014, Josefa and David flew down to plan a showcase for Moncada. As soon as they announced the date and his location became public, Moncada’s safety was in jeopardy. More than once, David says, including on the date of the event, cars chased him through the streets in kidnapping attempts.
As about 75 scouts made their way into the stands to watch Moncada, Josefa Hastings found him sitting in the dugout, stoic and alone. He hadn’t faced live pitching or played in front of a crowd for nearly a year. Now a few hours of batting practice and timed running drills would determine the difference between tens of millions — and whether he’d be able to leave behind this life, in which he’d grown accustomed to a state of constant fear.
In the dugout in Guatemala, Hastings sat down next to Moncada and tried to teach him an expression in English.
“Go big or go home,” she said, but all he did was stare back at her blankly before walking out onto the field.