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The Incredible Story of Baseball Player César Prieto, the Star Who Escaped from Castro to Play in the MLB

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A deserter is someone who runs away from an obligation. It is a person with few scruples and convictions who abandons a cause they defended. Therefore, Cubans —those who flee and escape the misery and repression of the Castro regime— are not deserters, even though the Castro regime insists on making us believe so by calling people who leave the island like that.

Cubans who escape communism, like the promising young baseball player Cesar Prieto, are ordinary people who risk their lives in search of something that does not exist on the island, and yet, they hold dear: freedom.

The tragedy in Cuba is such that Cubans throw themselves on makeshift rafts into the ocean to try to reach the United States. Thousands of Cuban athletes in their country don’t have the opportunity to shine and be adequately remunerated as in the rest of the world. For this reason, the most talented ones choose to escape from their delegations when they travel abroad, accepting to be treated as traitors and deserters by the Castro regime.

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That is the case of César Prieto, who in May 2021, before playing the first day of the Pre-Olympic of the Americas held in Florida, fled from the communist regime to seek a future in the United States.

Many media covered Prieto’s escape from the Cuban baseball delegation. At that time, the native of the Abreus municipality was already considered the star hitter of the Cuban team and a prospect with a bright future playing baseball. The official delegation, following the regime’s narrative to the letter, expressed its anger at the sportsman for running away. But while fleeing Cuba to play in the Major Leagues may seem like a sensible decision, it is not an easy one to make.

Prieto, for example, had to forget about representing his country in a competition that gave quotas for the Olympic Games. He finally made up his mind: no matter the risks, for the Cuban baseball player the only option was to flee. Behind him, there was a plan that backed him up.

A risk worth taking

Sports Illustrated published one of the most famous sports chronicles of this year, in which Greg Bishop tells the story of how César Prieto’s escape from the Cuban delegation came about.

In the story, the protagonist is not the Cuban baseball player, but the extractors: Jo Hastings and Billy Henderson.

Hastings, 63, is a Cuban-American woman who came to the United States when she was just four years old. She worked as a stewardess for decades, opened a restaurant, married her husband David, and devised a way to help Cuban athletes flee the island to get to the United States.

Billy Henderson, 39, is a former police officer who served with the Marines as a combat medic. Henderson met Jo at age 14 when he needed to help his mother financially. The Hastings opened their doors to him by giving him odd jobs, inviting him to important Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, and, in short, tucking him in as one of the family.

How did these two people —a former police officer and a restaurant owner— become “extractors” of Cuban athletes? Thanks to Jo’s idea.

As a Cuban, she knew firsthand the hardships many compatriots face in fleeing her country, like turning to the ever-untrustworthy coyotes or hiring dangerous speedboats that might not make it to their destination. There had to be a better way, Jo thought.

And she found it.

But for that, she needed Billy’s expertise, a man capable of carrying out escape missions without having a problem taking physical risks when extracting athletes.

It was in 2015 when Jo approached Billy with the idea of helping Cuban athletes escape. At first, he was reluctant to accept the job, but as they researched, generated contacts, and talked about the potential earnings from representing players who could make it to the MLB, his doubts dissipated.

César Prieto’s escape

Organizing an escape is not easy. In 2019, César and Jo met for the first time via FaceTime. There, the young baseball player explained to his extractor that he wanted to play baseball at the highest level and would do whatever she said to get it.

From there, preparations began for an escape that was constantly postponed between the pandemic, the cancellation of sports activities abroad, a failed trip to Mexico, and the few windows that Jo and Billy found to extract César Prieto.

Finally, in 2021, the time came, as the Cuba delegation traveled to Miami. Baby J’s plane, Prieto’s code name in the mission, was about to land, and Jo and Billy had the flight schedule, airport details, and hotel entrances and exits to carry out the escape.

cesar prieto

César Prieto representing Cuba in a tournament held in Honduras (Image: EFE).

Upon landing, the extractors were to identify the bus where the Cuban delegation would go to their hotel in West Palm Beach and follow it closely with a dark SUV until the right moment to activate the escape.

On the highway, in the middle of following the green bus carrying the Cuban delegation and Baby J, Jo detected that there was another SUV following the Cubans, although she didn’t know exactly what their intentions were. She assumed they were agents guarding the bus.

Billy and Jo, faced with the unexpected company of another van similar to theirs, evaluate their options. They didn’t want to ruin the escape. First, the ex-cop says that the extraction should be done on the spot, as soon as possible, because there wasn’t going to be another window. Then he remembers a friend of Jo’s, who lives near the hotel, and they ask for help in blocking the green bus on a one-way street that ran between the parking lot and the lobby.

Thus, Billy and Jo’s dark SUV was able to get close enough to throw off the agents who couldn’t see the badly parked van that pulled into the opposite direction of the exit, near the Cuban delegation’s bus.

There began the moment of truth. Billy gets out of the SUV, asks Jo to take the wheel, the ex-cop makes eye contact with Prieto —who, although he does not know him physically, identifies his extractor— he says goodbye to a friend from the delegation to whom he gives his last 100 pesos, and drives off to his new life.

Billy and Prieto arrive at the van. Jo, who had trouble getting a fast start, finally manages to accelerate out of the hotel and head for a nearby shopping mall. The entire sequence, from the arrival at the airport to the final escape, was recorded with a GoPro. The images were shared exclusively by Sports Illustrated, which not only published Greg Bishop’s article, but also a documentary titled The Extractor. The escape was complete, and the Cuban baseball player was preparing for his new life.

Bishop —who had already written about Jo and Billy in 2019, when they helped Cuba’s double Olympic gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez escape in Mexico— told El American that this was one of the best stories he’s ever written.

“I’d say it’s up there, absolutely. I think it should be a movie. I’d describe it as perhaps the most unbelievable story I’ve ever told. And I’d rank it up there with covering the Humboldt bus crash, the strength of the Hilinski family, the traditions of the Acoma tribe, the first Tom Brady avocado ice cream story (kidding!), and a few others,” Bishop said. “It’s definitely one I won’t forget any time soon.”

cesar prieto

César Prieto with the bat (Image: EFE).

Bishop said that when he met Cesar Prieto, during filming for the documentary, he was left with the feeling that the Cuban baseball player was definitely born to achieve his dreams.

“He was quiet, but respectful,” the journalist said. “He asked questions, despite the language barrier (and, to be fair, his English was far better than my Spanish). He seemed driven. He talked about his passions. He put us on the phone with his dad. I left thinking: this kid will be successful, whether in baseball or whatever he decides to do.”

After his escape, Prieto didn’t stop training and bonded with Billy, who helped him with his training to gain muscle mass. Before long, several MLB teams were interested in the Cuban prospect. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles.

“Because César arrived in the U.S. toward the end of the signing cycle, most MLB teams had already used up their funds. César signed with Baltimore for just a $650,000 bonus. The Orioles offered the highest bid and, with no star middle infielders signed to big contracts, the clearest path to the majors. Had Billy and Jo used a riskier method to get César to the U.S. earlier, that figure—and their cut—would almost certainly have been higher,” Bishop’s chronicle reads.

David, Jo’s husband, is usually in charge of the company’s accounting and also represents the Cuban baseball players who help them escape. But it’s not an easy business. Behind all that action in the missions, there is a lot of immigration and legal paperwork; plus a lot of investment to support their athletes and finance the escapes.

There are also doubts. Billy, the superhero who stars in the action sequences in this saga, boasts about helping to fulfill the American dream of some young athletes from another country, but he is approached with doubts when he feels he hasn’t had enough financial reward to achieve that dream for himself.

Both he and Jo are still waiting for the big money that can come from a top prospect making it in the majors, in the form of agent commissions. Not every baseball player who helps will make it. Some don’t even stick with baseball, as they are overwhelmed by their new lives of freedom.

Perhaps that great baseball player who resolves their doubts is César Prieto, whose career is going very well at the moment. The young player is already, in fact, one of the Orioles’ ten most promising prospects, making remarkable improvement in his fielding skills, hitting .298 in Double-A and nearing his first 100 career hits. Will Cesar Prieto be an MLB star? Only time will answer that question.

Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.

Contacto: [email protected]

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