Yozzen Cuesta went missing Wednesday night from his Cuban team at the World Baseball Challenge.
By early Thursday morning, the word filtered down from the Cuban delegation to WBC co-chair Jim Swanson that Cuesta, a first baseman and power hitter for the Ciego de Avila Tigres, had left the team with the intention of defecting from his country.
Swanson reacted by calling the RCMP and alerting the Canadian Border Services Agency, knowing Cuesta has likely left Prince George.
"We believe there's an agent involved, he didn't walk off into the woods on his own and he didn't board a Greyhound or jump on a plane on his own, he's had some help in order to do that," said Swanson.
"While I respect [Cuesta's] personal choice on that, we do as a committee prefer everybody goes home on their designated seats on airplanes here. We share the team's concern. We're not sure if he's safe now and we're not sure where the player is. We'd like to know who's a part of this."
Team officials found out about Cuesta's defection plan the day before the Tigres were to play JX-Eneos of Japan in the gold-medal game Thursday night at Citizen Field.
Cuesta was considered one of the top first basemen in the tournament. Although he had just three at-bats in Cuba's first three tournament games, splitting the playing time at first base with Humberto Morales, Cuesta put up big numbers in the final three games leading up to Thursday's gold-medal final against JX-Eneos of Japan.
He hit five-for-13 for a .385 batting average (eighth-best in the tournament) and drove in six runs (tied for second). His three-run home run in the fourth inning tied the game Tuesday against Chinese Taipei, a game the Cubans eventually lost 6-4, their only defeat in six opening-round games. In Cuba's 22-10 win over Team Canada on Sunday, Cuesta went 3-for-4, was walked twice, and collected three RBI, scoring two runs himself.
"Cuba brought a team to win this tournament and Cuesta is a very good player who hit a big home run for them," said Swanson. "He's a young, up-and-coming player who has played for the Cuban junior national team. He's shown a lot of power and he's looked good defensively as well."
Cuesta is the second high-profile Cuban baseball player in two weeks to leave his team without permission. On Aug. 11, Jose Dariel Abreu, also a first baseman, defected from his Cuban Cienfuegos club team while travelling in Haiti, later crossing to the Dominican Republic.
Abreu was the all-star first baseman for Cuba in the 2011 World Baseball Challenge in Prince George. A teammate of his on that team, pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, also defected this year and last month signed a $48 million six-year contract to play for the Philadelphia Phillies.
As a former national junior team player in Cuba, Cuesta has travelled several times internationally and was not considered a high risk to defect.
Team officials declined to comment Thursday.
Because players who defect are considered free agents, tournaments like the World Baseball Challenge are a magnet for Major League Baseball scouts. Over the past 10 days, 25 MLB scouts from 14 teams have visited Citizen Field to watch the games and the Cubans have drawn the most interest.
Until the Cuban revolution in 1959, Cuban players were free to sign with American teams in the major leagues. President Fidel Castro put a stop to that when U.S.-Cuba relations deteriorated and players have had to defect, lured by multimillion-dollar salaries.
"There are estimates there are 200-300 players in Cuba who would be signed immediately by major league organizations if they were allowed to do so," said Swanson. "Of the 22 players we have here, I'm pretty sure every one of them would get the interest of a major league organization should they be allowed to do that."
Because of the relationships he's developed over the years with the Cubans, Swanson said he's not concerned Cuesta's decision will hurt the chances of the host committee attracting a Cuban team for future WBC tournaments. The international event is held in the city every two years.
"They've lost players in Holland before for the tournaments they run there every two years and they've never declined to go to that tournament," said Swanson.