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José Abreu’s story is more than eating a passport

Thursday’s Say Hey, Baseball includes the worst month for baseball, a wind-up to keep an eye on, and José Abreu’s testimony. Sign up for this in your inbox!

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago White Sox at Chicago Cubs Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The fact that José Abreu had eaten his false passport while flying to the United States for the first time spread quickly yesterday afternoon as a headline, and with good reason. It’s exactly the sort of bizarre story scrap that sticks in your head as almost too intense to be real. Part of Abreu's testimony against the agent and trainer who allegedly illegally smuggled him and other ballplayers from Cuba to the U.S., the story mixes jarring details against the ordinary backdrop of a regular commercial flight. He describes ordering a beer and using it to help swallow the first page of his passport "little by little" after takeoff, able to recall every feature down to the brand of the drink more than three years after the flight.

It's the catchiest part of Abreu's testimony, the strangest, the most visceral. It's been the headline, and that makes sense. But it's only one piece of a larger and more complicated story that's not limited to Abreu. In other parts of his testimony, the first baseman described making $20 a month playing in Cuba before deciding to flee with members of his family, making the trip to Haiti in a crowded nighttime boat ride. Then came the opportunity to sign with the Chicago White Sox, and with it came the false passport and the millions of dollars owed to the agent who promised to get him to the U.S. and, finally, the situation in which he had little choice but to eat that false passport in order to make it disappear.

The stories of many other Cuban MLB players are not so different from this; there's Yoenis Céspedes on the witness list for this same trial and Yasiel Puig's tale of black-market smuggling and the late José Fernández's decision to dive from his escape boat to save his mother from drowning. The details change but the central theme does not, and it's the same for dozens of current major leaguers. Eating a passport is the headline, then, but a reminder of the pervasive risk and dedication in these baseball immigrant narratives is the story.