Developments in the case of Alfredo Despaigne –- Cuba’s brightest baseball star who was playing in the Mexican League with a falsified Dominican passport -– should raise eyebrows in Major League Baseball, not only because it’s the latest case of identity fraud to mark baseball operations in the Dominican Republic, but also because it sheds an ominous light on the ever-changing and stressful relationship between MLB and Mexico.
Despaigne, 27, is a three-time MVP of Cuba’s Serie Nacional de Beisbol with talent compared to the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes -- the three latest Cuban defectors to have a substantial impact in the majors.
Dominican authorities confirmed Wednesday that Despaigne had used a false Dominican passport on three occasions. While initial reports said Despaigne's passport was issued on April 24, 2013, sources told ESPNdeportes' Enrique Rojas that Despaigne had never visited the Dominican Republic and on that date, he was in Cuba playing for his club, Granma. Confirming the falsified passport has led to speculation that there is some kind of a conspiracy to lure the slugger to play in the U.S.
Last September, Cuban president Raul Castro announced sweeping policy changes that allowed athletes to compete abroad professionally. Since then, Despaigne and fellow Cuban national team members Frederich Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel -- both of whom signed contracts to play in Japan -- have been getting plenty of attention over whether they would follow the MLB path pioneered in 1991 by Rene Arocha, who braved the straits of Florida for a shot at the big leagues.
Despaigne, who made his debut in Mexico at the tail end of last season, has hit .342 with a .996 OPS in 19 games this season for the Piratas de Campeche. An outfielder who at 5-foot-8 doesn’t appear like a threatening figure, Despaigne has long wowed Cuban baseball fans with his monstrous homers. In 2012, he broke the Serie Nacional home run record previously held by Abreu and Cespedes. At the Caribbean Series in February, Despaigne, playing for Villa Clara, hit a mammoth dinger off New York Yankees pitcher Alfredo Aceves, leaving many to wonder if he was a major league-ready talent.
Whether or not this latest incident -- and its pending investigation -- will further erode the relationship between Mexican baseball and MLB remains to be seen. At the last winter meetings, MLB reportedly lobbied Mexico to not accept Cuban players because of the U.S. embargo and Mexico’s relationship with Minor League Baseball, a lobbying effort that did not sit well with some Mexican clubs hoping to use the relaxed Cuban government regulations to lure talent and fill seats in their stadiums.
But the more immediate impact of the Despaigne case may not come in Cuba or Mexico, but in the Dominican Republic, where identity issues have long been a headache for MLB, most notably the cases of Leo Nunez and Fausto Carmona, today known as Juan Carlos Oviedo and Roberto Hernandez, respectively. The two Dominican pitchers were both arrested and suspended for falsifying their identities and ages.
During the 2012 Caribbean Series held in Santo Domingo, MLB officials were adamant that identity issues were a thing of the past. But while Despaigne's case has yet to trickle into MLB jurisdiction, it certainly has opened the rumor mill enough to suggest otherwise.
Javier Maymi writes for ESPNdeportes.com.