Yandy Diaz's incredible journey from Cuban prisons to the MLB All-Star Game

The 31-year-old had a long, difficult trip over the past decade of his life before reaching baseball glory
Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays
Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays / Mike Ehrmann/GettyImages

Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies of the Atlanta Braves, Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, as well as Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees highlight the 2023 MLB All-Star game as perennial All-Stars—superstars that represent their ballclubs on a year-to-year basis. Royals' backstop Salvador Perez is being sent to his eighth team amongst the Junior Circuit's elite, second in Kansas City history behind only Hall of Famer George Brett. Clayton Kershaw is on his 10th National League All-Star nod, just a year after starting the 2022 game, tied with Pee Wee Reese for most in Dodger Blue. Their careers are storied and the chapters are rich with people lining the gates and owners' pockets to see the greatest that this generation of baseball has to offer.

Yet beyond the name recognition of the Freddie Freemans or Pete Alonsos making the trip to the state of Washington, there are currently 28 first-time All-Stars including a different first baseman. Obviously, the first baseman in question is Yandy Diaz. Diaz, one of the three first-time All-Stars out of St. Pete, represents everything that the Rays are an embodiment of in 2023.

Tampa Bay Rays All-Star Yandy Diaz's life could have gone in a much different direction

Armed with a sweet swing, cleats as colorful as a Seth Rollins outfit, and a personality the size of his biceps, Yandy Diaz is everything the Rays had hoped for when a 2018 trade brought him to the franchise, and his game is finally being recognized on a national scale. Yet, the story begins internationally in Holguin, a Cuban municipality, at the height of Raul Castro's regime. The abhorrent conditions of Cuban prisons are one of the few things that have left an indelible mark on Diaz, according to a story by Paul Hoynes that ran at Cleveland.com after his signing. It was those prisons that he found himself in on three different occasions, not knowing if he'd ever see broad daylight again, trying to escape the totalitarian state of the Cuban PCC for a better, far less restrictive way of life.

Cuban prisons are notorious for their human rights violations. Extended periods of solitary confinement for minor infractions are commonplace, yet are sometimes considered freedom to a prisoner because of how incredibly overcrowded their prison population has become, leading to frequent riots, constant assaults from despotic correctional officers, and insufficient facilities without a focus on sanitation or medical care. The exiguous amount of food leads to malnourishment, while the pipes of the few toilets that work are constantly bursting. The conditions are uninhabitable and inhumane.

Diaz, who made all of his defection attempts with childhood friend Leandro Linares, likened their final defection attempt to that of a human trafficking scheme, with them as the victims, just to make it out of Cuba. Smuggling out of Cuba, the journey began with Diaz hiding in the bushes of a Cuban beach and ended with sharks attacking the raft holding him, Linares and two smugglers in the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite all of that, the two finally made it out of Cuba on the fourth attempt through the Dominican Republic with their new plan, though went out of their way to secure Haitian residency. The move to establish residency in one island in the Caribbean over another is shrewd for an international baseball player, as players signing out of the Dominican Republic are subject to more restrictive fiscal policies by the league. These policies primarily cap the signing bonus a player can get out of the D.R., but no such policy exists in Haiti.

Diaz's comparison to human trafficking was ultimately agreed upon in a court of law shortly after he moved to the States. Bart Hernandez, Diaz's agent who helped smuggle him overseas, was indicted in February of 2016 in Florida for human trafficking Cuban ballplayers. A jury convicted him on two of the four charges brought against him just over a year later. Hernandez was also the agent that helped Marlins' Jorge Soler defect two years prior. Soler is also a first-time All-Star in 2023.

Diaz and Linares did not know where this journey would take them. With a lot of anxiety and apprehension as to where their futures were heading, they took a bet on themselves. The bet paid off for Diaz when he inked a deal for $300,000 and an opportunity with the then-Cleveland Indians in September of 2013. From there, Diaz endured the trials and tribulations that come with the not-so-glamorous life of a minor league ballplayer that isn't an organizational prospect. However, he made it through the minors rather quickly with Cleveland thanks to potent bat-to-ball skills and outstanding plate discipline.

Despite his lack of success in Cleveland, it's that makeup that made Tampa Bay target him in a three-team trade that also included other All-Star first basemen Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana. The Rays took a short swing that was able to maintain its plane and barrels baseball and extended its length, while also improving the stance with an emphasis on balance versus what it was in Cleveland. From there, the Rays did a lot more work and saw results year-over-year, which I broke down in a separate article following the 2021 season. The 2022 season resulted in a 142 OPS+, rating 42% better than league average.

But it's 2023 that has been the crown jewel. That 142 OPS+ has been improved upon by 14%, landing at 156. The .318 batting average and .403 on-base percentage possessed by the Rays' dynamic leadoff hitter are the best among qualified hitters in the American League and he's already only two home runs shy of his career-high in the beginning of July. Diaz has been rocking Tropicana Field like he rocks the baby on his 2023 home run trot, a shoutout to his wife who is expecting the couple's first child soon. Everything continues to go right for Diaz, who has been elected to start at first base in his first MLB All-Star game on July 11 in Seattle, Washington.

Diaz, 31, recently told Rays field reporter Tricia Whitaker that he wasn't even sure he'd make it to the majors when defecting, and now he's less than a week away from being an All-Star 10 years after escaping Cuba as a 21-year-old.

Diaz will be joined by Randy Arozarena as Rays representatives in the starting lineups, while shortstop Wander Franco and Shane McClanahan (inactive) have also been named All-Stars.

With the exception of McClanahan, who was the starting pitcher for last year's American League squad, all three will be heading to the festivities for the first time in their MLB careers. You can watch the game on FOX at 8 p.m. ET.