When 21-year-old Cuban outfielder Oscar Colas turned up in the Dominican Republic in January, he hoped to leave both his homeland and Japan's Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks behind him as a new baseball future in America beckoned.
Instead, he has become caught in the wheels of a system that does not always afford young Latin players the same level of diligence it does to ballplayers coming to Japan with major league experience.
Colas, who defected from Cuba after the 2019 season, is seeking a path to the major leagues that the Hawks are blocking. He is now trying to negotiate with the Hawks to end the impasse. But according to his agents, the Hawks have been insisting on their right to keep him through the 2024 season.
Colas and his mother Karelia, however, insist that in 2017 they were not shown the contract in advance to review, and were told at the signing it was only for three years. Karelia said that by arranging a deal with SoftBank and not explaining it to them, the Cuban federation deprived them of their rights and betrayed their trust.
"Yes, it is like the slave trade in a way, because of the way we were treated, not having any information about the clauses in the contract," Karelia told Kyodo News in a recent interview.
"We are humble people. We have never read or entered into any legal agreements before this one. Our ignorance and lack of understanding was taken advantage of by the Hawks."
Colas' agents, Charisse Dash and Alex Cotto, have pointed out a number of inconsistencies with the agreement.
The Hawks, however, as pro baseball teams generally do, insist that the players honor their deal.
Colas had wanted out in 2018 when he saw no chance of getting any playing time in Japan, but his mother said she talked him into returning for 2019.
"I wanted him to go back because it was the right thing to do because he had given his word," she said.
Colas' only playing time on the first team came last year when veteran countryman Alfredo Despaigne was injured. After seven games, it was back to the minors, where he led the farm team in home runs.
After the season, and after quitting his homeland, Colas believed the door to a contract with a major league team was open, only for the Hawks to close it.
The Hawks' hardline stance may be normal for a pro baseball club, but it seems unlikely a Japanese club would have treated a player from the United States the same way. And even if it was the Cuban federation that dropped the ball, the Hawks have not repaired the damage.
"If they had respect for him, they would have explained the contract. I believe there is underlying racism behind this," his mother said.
"This is utter disrespect for my son. It may mean nothing to them, but it is catastrophic for him. They would destroy his career."
But Colas is not the first young Latin player to feel exploited here.
The Hawks and their Cuban connection is a new evolution of a process that started with the Hiroshima Carp in 1990. That year, the Carp set up an academy in the Dominican Republic that soon began to deliver talented players on bargain-basement contracts.
Agent Don Nomura, who found the route Hideo Nomo used to move to the majors in 1995, also worked with two Dominicans to help them escape their Carp contracts. Because of his efforts and agitation, Robinson Checo, who won 15 games for the Carp in 1995 on a $40,000 minimum salary, and speedy young slugger Alfonso Soriano, both made it to the majors. There Soriano would hit 412 homers and be named to seven all-star teams.
Although the Carp players were badly underpaid compared to other imports, the big issue, as it is for Colas now, is the long years of team control that he never bargained for. Colas said he wants to be treated fairly for once and not be taken advantage of because of who he is and how poorly informed he was when he signed up at age 18.
"I never in a million years would let a client of mine sign a contract like that without it being thoroughly explained to him. It's unimaginable," Dash said.
Nomura said that has been part of the problem all along.
"It's seriously problematic for these young kids who don't understand what the contract is," Nomura said. "They have no idea because they hang a carrot in front of you, which at the time seems like a lot of money. When they actually see what other guys are making, they say, 'This is not what my market rate is' and they look at the contract…how it's written and they realize, 'Geez, I'm stuck here forever.'"
And now Colas' mother is braving possible retaliation from Cuba for speaking out about a system that sold her son down the river.
"I am not afraid because it is the truth," she said. "What right do these people have to ruin his career? He and his family are the ones who sacrificed, not them. We feel completely and utterly deceived."