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Originally published March 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 15, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Mariners' Betancourt can't leave journey from Cuba behind

Yuniesky Betancourt locks eyes on the locker across the way, twirls a bat, fiddles with his shoelaces. He's polite and respectful, even...

Seattle Times staff reporter

EORIA, Ariz. — Yuniesky Betancourt locks eyes on the locker across the way, twirls a bat, fiddles with his shoelaces. He's polite and respectful, even charming, but it's clear he'd rather be anywhere but here, talking about the events of the past year.

His mother and grandmother are safe in Miami now, out of Cuba, coming to Seattle next month when the Mariners' season starts. Betancourt is responsible for their reunion. He just can't detail how it happened.

Then there's the matter of the federal court case involving his former agent Gus Dominguez, who will stand trial for 53 counts of immigration violations starting April 4 in a Florida courtroom. Betancourt is believed to be a star witness for the prosecution, and the Mariners confirmed this week that he has been called upon to testify.

The team asked the court to minimize the disruption, but Betancourt will miss at least one game. He has not been charged with any crime.

And so there is something underneath the permanent smile worn by the carefree shortstop. The life he left behind is following him, bearing down.

"The way he plays baseball is a reflection of his life," says Carlos Garcia, the Mariners' third-base coach and Betancourt's interpreter. "Because he lives making adjustments from one place to another."

"Never a safe way"

Betancourt left Cuba on a speedboat headed for Miami on Dec. 4, 2003. He never confirmed the exact dates, but court documents from the Dominguez case show specifics. He also claimed he traveled across the Gulf of Mexico, but court documents refute that.

The Cuban police went straight to the family's house and told Maura Betancourt her son died in an escape attempt. Betancourt wondered if he would never see her again, a real possibility.

Almost immediately, Betancourt says he began looking for "responsible people" to bring his mom and grandmother, Maria, to the United States.

"There is never a safe way," Betancourt says, "but we try."

Betancourt won't say how he brought them over. He mentions an airplane, but people with knowledge of the Cuban scene say they more likely traveled the same way he did.

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"Probably 50 Cubans arrive a week in Miami," one said. "If you have money, you can do it."

Maura Betancourt and her son were reunited on Oct. 16. Emotions overwhelmed him. He tried to hold it in, until he couldn't any longer, his chest heaving between sobs. They hugged and kissed and cried. They talked about the future. It had been three years.

Maria Betancourt arrived in December, and the family spent the offseason together. Her grandson bought the family a house near Miami, where the kitchen filled with smells of Cuban food — fried plantains and rice and beans.

"I don't know how I didn't gain any pounds," Betancourt says. "Because I was eating pretty good."

He took his mom and grandma shopping and talked about Seattle, his place, his car, how close their seats would be at Safeco Field. Betancourt unleashes that familiar smile when he talks about that part.

"They are here," he says. "And that's what counts. Their life is going to be completely different."

Betancourt says he isn't planning on bringing any other family members, although it's unlikely he would admit to that.

Contradicting stories

Court documents from the Dominguez case show that Betancourt was eventually driven to Los Angeles. His next stop was Mexico, but authorities there arrested him for a fraudulent passport and tossed him in a Mexican jail. He came back to the United States on Oct. 10, 2004.

Because Betancourt didn't go directly to Mexico and establish residency there, he should have been sent to baseball's draft, per Major League Baseball rules. But it's too late for that now.

The New York Post reported seeing Betancourt at the Yankees facility in March 2004, which didn't jibe with his story that he went straight to Mexico. There were other clues that told Joe Kehoskie, an agent who has represented 15 Cuban players, something about the story wasn't right.

For instance, Dominguez was shopping Betancourt in 2004, but when Betancourt signed with the Mariners for $3.65 million in January 2005, all of a sudden, Jaime Torres was his agent.

"This is definitely one of the stranger stories involving Cubans," Kehoskie says, "and that's saying something."

That adventure is part of the case against Dominguez and four other defendants. And it shows how drastically defections have changed in Cuba since 2000.

Back then and before, Cuban players would travel outside Cuba to tournaments. Then they would walk away, never to return.

Shortstop Rey Ordonez, currently in the Mariners camp, defected in Buffalo, N.Y. This used to happen with between five to 10 players a year, Kehoskie says. Since 2002, he can remember only two Cuban players — Jose Contreras (Mexico, 2002) and Kenny Rodriguez (Ecuador, 2006) who have defected on foreign soil.

Then there is a new approach — the business of smuggling humans across borders.

"People in Miami try to paint it patriotic," Kehoskie says, "but it's really just human trafficking. People die on the trips all the time. It's crazy. I'm eager to sign good players, but I'm not interested in going to federal prison in the process. You can find yourself facing a manslaughter charge."

To Kehoskie and other agents, the interesting part of the case is that prosecutors waited two years to try Dominguez. Kehoskie says that there is no shortage of smuggling trips, no shortage of cases, and that those involved are usually indicted immediately.

Betancourt says he hasn't so much as given a deposition yet. He talks of Dominguez with mixed emotions. After all, Dominguez is the man who brought him here, who gave him freedom and opportunity. And now, Betancourt is set to testify against him.

"I'm glad it happened, because that gave me an opportunity to come back here and play baseball again, which is the game I love," Betancourt says. "And that's how I make my life, how I raise my family and how I support my family. I mean, the other business, I don't know. I gotta do what I gotta do."

Hope for Cuba

When Cuba announced recently that Fidel Castro was ill, Kehoskie says it prompted celebrations in Miami and yawns across the water in Cuba. There is speculation that if Castro passes, Castro's brother will take over and nothing will change. But there is also a possibility, one Betancourt clings to, that life might actually be different.

"Nobody knows anything," Betancourt says. "He seems to be sick. And nothing happens. People thought he was going to die two weeks from then. And nothing happens. So it might change. I hope there's not a civil war. We just want whoever is up there to live lives like everybody else."

Betancourt is so easy with that smile, so charismatic and adaptive, that it's easy to forget all the things he's gone through. The trip out of Cuba. The cross-country drive. The Mexican jail. The settling in Seattle. The reunion with his relatives.

And now, the trial looms.

The defensive wizard has shown no signs that it's affecting him, and many Cubans play better once their family arrives in the United States. If anything, he seems unburdened now, his family safe.

"These guys that come over the way he came over, and have gone through what he's gone through, I've never gone through that," general manager Bill Bavasi says. "He's in a great position. I don't think there is anything that he has to worry about as compared to what he's lived through. But what he's lived through, it's nothing to him. It's just something to you and I."

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

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