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Agent, trainer smuggled Cuban ballplayers into US. Now they're headed to prison

Jay Weaver, Miami Herald on

Published in Baseball

MIAMI -- A Miami federal judge said Thursday she was struggling with the "paradox" of the good and bad sides presented in court about sports agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, who were found guilty of smuggling Cuban baseball players into the United States to capitalize on their multimillion-dollar major league contracts.

But in the end, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams condemned their wrongdoing while giving Hernandez a nearly four-year prison sentence and Estrada just over five years.

"This case is not about the love of the game," Williams said, echoing the defense teams' theme during the sentencing hearing. "This case is about money."

Hernandez, 54, and Estrada, 36, must turn themselves in to prison authorities in mid-December, though a federal prosecutor who sought higher sentences for the defendants wanted the judge to make them surrender Thursday.

"The truth is, these defendants received about $20 million on contracts worth $230 million," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson, accusing them of collaborating with gun-carrying smugglers and corrupting young ballplayers in pursuit of greed.

Since their guilty verdicts in March, Hernandez and Estrada have been allowed to live in their homes with bail while wearing electronic ankle bracelets. Hernandez, who ran a sports agency, owns a home in Weston. Estrada, a former catcher on the Cuban national team and ex-coach at Coral Park High, lives in southwest Miami-Dade.

Neither defendant said anything during Thursday's hearing because their lawyers plan to appeal their convictions.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Marcus invoked the image of Wednesday's final game of the World Series between Houston and Los Angeles to dramatize that dozens of Cuban ballplayers smuggled into this country -- Astros infielder Yuli Gurriel and Dodgers outfieldier Yasiel Puig -- have struck it rich in Major League Baseball.

"The biggest beneficiaries are the players themselves," said Marcus, whose client, Hernandez, did not represent those two stars. "They're all here, and they're living their version of the American Dream."

Marcus and fellow attorney Daniel Rashbaum tried to portray their client as a loving family man and inspiring mentor who cared for his roster of Cuban ballplayers on and off the field. They called former Cuban ballplayers and friends to testify about Hernandez's character.

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