It's Major League Baseball's dirty little secret -- and it's being laid bare in the Florida Keys this week in the federal trial of a top sports agent charged with smuggling Cuban baseball players to the United States in speedboats piloted by a drug smuggler.
The American market for Cuban ballplayers is enormous. Ever since the 1990s, when former Cuban national team superstar Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez escaped Cuba and defected to the United States -- where he was signed to a $6.6 million contract -- Cuban players have proven to be a major boon to the multibillion dollar industry.
In the past, agents specializing in Cuban players have actively courted players after they've defected. Some have gone further, using more aggressive, less legitimate means -- like moving the men to South American countries where entry to the United States is easier.
But the trial of Beverly Hills-based agent Gustavo Dominguez is another thing entirely, former law enforcement officials tell ABC News' Law & Justice Unit.
"This absolutely represents a new extreme," said Guy Lewis, Miami's former U.S. attorney, who also served as director of the executive office for United States attorneys from 2002 through 2004.
"What this represents is beyond just smuggling for profit," he said. "This is smuggling for super profit. … I would represent to you that this is absolutely more lucrative than smuggling drugs.
"It's a whole new ballgame -- no pun intended," said Lewis, now in private practice with the firm Lewis Tein in Coconut Grove, Fla.
Among the government's star witnesses are a convicted marijuana smuggler and several Major League ballplayers, including Chicago Cubs catcher Henry Blanco and Seattle Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.
Dominguez is also charged with transporting a handful of players from the U.S. Southeast to California, and harboring them in an apartment complex while he tried to sign them to Major League Baseball contracts.
The case has rocked the baseball world as the new season gets underway, and thrown a spotlight on the seldom seen back channels of the baseball industry.
"Though this case involves a Beverly Hills sports agent and talented baseball players, it is remarkably similar to the human smuggling operations that ICE encounters every day," said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement assistant secretary Myers when indictments were announced last year. "The ringleaders put the lives of illegal immigrants at risk and sought to profit from their labor. It is unfortunate that those who claim to support Major League Baseball taint America's pastime with these illegal human smuggling operations."
Calls to Dominguez's attorneys in Florida were not returned. The Major League Baseball Players Association declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing trial.
Dominguez is a legendary figure in the Cuban-American sports world who made his name and fortune representing Cuban ballplayers fleeing Fidel Castro's regime. He signed Rene Arocha, the first prominent Cuban ballplayer to defect to the United States, in 1991.
"Certainly there are agents who have worked very hard to effectuate the movement of Cuban players to the United States," said veteran sports agent Arthur Kaminsky, who represented Herb Brooks and most of the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team. "The players would show up on these strange islands that would qualify [for passport entry into the United States].
"The really dangerous action they were participating in was obviously sneaking players past the guarding eye of the [Cuban] police," he added. "Generally, the pattern was to take them to an interim island or nation, and then move them to the U.S.
"But this is certainly the next step," Kaminsky told ABC News' Law & Justice Unit.
The Dominguez case offers a rare window inside a world of intrigue, danger and sometimes heartbreak that underlies America's ultimate summer pastime.
Prosecutors charge that Dominguez was the brains behind an operation that brought players from Cuba into the Florida Keys on the type of speedboats more commonly known for smuggling drugs.
Government lawyers allege that Dominguez arranged for 22 migrants to be spirited across the Florida Straits and into Big Pine Key -- among them five rising stars in the Cuban baseball world -- but they were apprehended six miles outside of U.S. waters.
The following month, another fast boat carrying 19 people -- all of whom had been on the first, failed trip -- made it to the United States, the government charges.
"The players are very valuable, so if at first you don't succeed, try again," Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Daniel told jurors in opening statements Wednesday.
The alleged boat driver, convicted marijuana smuggler Ysbel Medina-Santos, was one of the government's first witnesses, appearing in court in faded blue prison clothes, according to The Associated Press.
Medina testified that he met Dominguez in 2003 through a mutual friend. Dominguez allegedly asked the smuggler to get two players out of Cuba. One of those players, Betancourt of the Seattle Mariners, is expected to testify for the government on Friday. He has not been charged with any crime.
Medina asked again in 2004 for transport for five players, but the smuggler balked, telling the agent he was still owed $100,000 of the $140,000 for the Betancourt smuggling trip. Defense attorneys elicited from Medina that he'd plea-bargained with federal prosecutors in return for his testimony.
Medina was apparently allowed to keep a number of his real estate properties that he would otherwise have had to surrender to the government as part of his marijuana smuggling conviction.
In what must seem a bitter twist of fate to Dominguez, Medina-Santos testified on Thursday that the agent lost hundreds of thousands on the targeted trips. After Betancourt made it U.S. shores, he got another agent, signed a multi-million dollar contract and never paid Dominguez, according to testimony.
"This baseball business was a failure,'' Medina-Santos testified on Thursday.
Betancourt is expected to miss the Mariners game Friday against the Cleveland Indians so he can testify at the Key West trial.
But not every player who defects from Cuba finds fame and fortune on the grass-green diamonds of America's big league ballparks.
Alberto Hernandez was once a star catcher for the Cuban national team before risking life and career to defect with "El Duque" late in 1997, according to the Sporting News. When Orlando Hernandez flew from Costa Rica to the United States to sign with the New York Yankees, Alberto Hernandez -- no apparent relation -- was left behind, and eventually forcibly returned to Cuba.
The Sporting News reports that Juan Ignacio Hernandez Nodar, a cousin and onetime partner to controversial sports agent Joe Cubas, was sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison when he was caught trying to help players defect.
It can be an unforgiving business.
Cubas was suspended from representing Major League Baseball players after an incident in the Dominican Republic with former New York Mets pitcher Alay Soler.
Soler partnered with Cubas in an attempt to defect from Cuba by coming into the United States via the Dominican Republic in 2004, according to the New York Daily News. When Soler got to the Dominican Republic, Cubas tried to get him to sign a contract that would give Cubas 15 percent of the player's contract -- exorbitantly higher than the more standard 5 percent agent fee.
When Soler balked, Cubas reportedly withheld his passport, severely complicating the player's attempts to get a U.S. visa. Soler eventually made it to Shea Stadium, but was dropped from the team last month.
He is unlikely to return to his native Cuba.
Of the five players Dominguez is charged with smuggling into the United States, two are playing professionally, both of them on AA farm teams.
Neither of the minor league players signed big contracts and neither repaid Dominguez's company, Total Sports International, the agent's partner Steve Schneider testified on Thursday.
"From an agent's point of view, there is no money to be made in the minor leagues, unless your clients get a sizeable signing bonus," Kaminsky said. "Agents don't even take cuts from the salaries of minor league players."