In Cuba, Baseball Scout Was A State Threat
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Juan Ignacio Hernandez Nodar, an American citizen who spent most of his life in Miami, embarked on a dangerous career path in the mid-1990s. His chosen profession landed him in a Cuban prison for 13 years. He endured solitary confinement, death threats and a nervous breakdown. He tried to take his own life. Wasn't until last November that he was set free.
Juan Hernandez Nodar is a baseball scout. Mr. Hernandez Nodar's crime: signing ballplayers, including pitcher Livan Hernandez, who's now with the Washington Nationals, and spiriting them out of Cuba for life in the Major Leagues.
Mr. Hernandez Nodar was scouting Livan Hernandez's half-brother, the star pitcher Orlando El Duque Hernandez, when he was arrested at a ballgame in Cuba in 1996. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and was finally released last year.
Juan Hernandez Nodar joins us from member station WLRN in Miami.
Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. JUAN IGNACIO HERNANDEZ NODAR (Baseball Agent): My pleasure, sir.
SIMON: First, how are you doing?
Mr. NODAR: Well, I'm doing fine. What can I tell you? I've been here almost six months already since I came back from Cuba, and a lot of things have been changed for me.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, could I get you to cast back to that day, August 1996, when you were arrested?
Mr. NODAR: Yes, sir. That day I left Miami was August the 10th of '96. I arrived in Havana around 11:00 that night. I rent a car and I drove to my family in the town named San Nicolas. And from there, the next day we keep traveling to all the way to Santi Espiritu. The youth tournament of baseball was taking place that week. And next day I got arrested at noon.
When the game between the United States of America and Venezuela finished, I got arrested. And three days later, I (unintelligible) find out, I was arrested in the charge that I was helping the Cuban defectors that left Cuba on the past month.
SIMON: May I ask, I mean now that you're safely out, were you?
Mr. NODAR: Were I?
SIMON: Were you guilty of that charge? I mean maybe it's an unjust law, but were you in fact...
Mr. NODAR: Let me tell you. I don't think it's any guilty at all, because all those players - Livan, Vladimir Nunez, Larry Rodriquez, Osvaldo Fernandez, which are the players I took charge of them - they left Cuba with a visa to enter the country to play tournaments. When they were there they decide to stay. There's nothing illegal of that. Because you decide to establish your residence over there, that's completely legal. So I believe they wrong with me.
SIMON: Mr. Hernandez Nodar, what was it like in prison for you?
Mr. NODAR: Well, I'll be honest with you. Prison in Cuba is awful because - let me put it to you this way. At the beginning, I was in a cell that the capacity of that cell was 36 persons and there were 82 of us in there. We were sleeping in the bathroom, in the floors. Every place we could find a little spot at night, we laid down over there and sleep.
And the food over there was awful. At the beginning I lost 63 pounds in less than four months due to not having to eat that type of thing. And believe me, it was awful. Awful.
SIMON: You were put in solitary confinement...
Mr. NODAR: Yeah, I was put in solitary in 2000 when the United States baseball team win the Olympics down in Sydney. I was very happy for that and the guard in the floor that I was grabbed me and put in solitary, because I was happy because the United States of America won the Olympics.
And I told him, hey, guy, I'm a U.S. citizen and I'm proud to be a U.S. citizen. I'm happy for my country. In the same way every time Cuba wins, you people get happy, I should get happy. We don't care about that. You don't suppose to cheer because the United States wins. It's something, you know, stupid things that if you analyze, they don't have to be like that.
There was a time that the prisoner warden told me, Juan, don't say anything else because you belong to Mr. Fidel Castro. You are his personal prisoner and nobody except him will allow you to do something.
SIMON: I gather you're in the D.R., the Dominican Republic now, right?
Mr. NODAR: Yes, sir. Since I come back, I went back to D.R., where I got most of my family. And I opened a baseball training camp over there, which the main thing is grab the young Dominican talents who are from 15 to 16 years old and practice them over there, feed them. We got room and board facility where we keep them over there. We teach them the language of English, we're giving classes, and we practice every day. We try to get them to sign with a major league team.
And most of those kids come from the streets and from the valleys and from the country, you know, that they decide not to go to school no more and start playing ball, because they think playing baseball is a future for them and their families.
SIMON: I'm assuming that perhaps only a small percentage of people at your academy actually make it into the major leagues.
Mr. NODAR: Right now we got 22 kids.
Mr. NODAR: And out of those 22 kids, I got three of them that baseball teams are interested on them, which they already given them tryouts and stuff like that. And if everything goes right, they should be signed by the end of the month of June or at the beginning of July.
SIMON: Which raises the question: What happens to the 19 kids who aren't signed? Are there lives better cause they were at your academy?
Mr. NODAR: Well, in the period they're in our academy, we try to keep them there, like I said, for a year. If we don't see that the kid's going to make it, we go straight to him and tell him, look, this is not for you, we recommend you to go back to school. And we even help them to go back to school.
SIMON: Are you still in a position or have any interest in helping Cuban ballplayers?
Mr. NODAR: All the time, sir. Any Cubans that would like to approach to me, my hands, my heart will be open for them, and I'll be more than glad to help them.
SIMON: Well, Juan Ignacio Hernandez Nodar, baseball scout, joining us from WLRN in Miami, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. NODAR: For me it's been a pleasure, sir.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.