By Bob Nightengale |
Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols stood down the right-field line, wiping away the perspiration from his forehead, staring straight ahead, cringing at the biggest news in the sports world.
Robert Kraft, billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, was snared in a sex trafficking investigation in South Florida. There were 173 men named in all, including the likes of Wall Street financier John Childs, former Citigroup president and COO John Havens, Kenneth Wessel, the 75-year-old president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Indian River County, and three former police officers.
Yet, it was Kraft who made the headlines, sullying his reputation as the most successful owner in all of sports.
“I really don’t know the details what happened,” Pujols told USA TODAY Sports, “but it’s all part of the human trafficking, sex trafficking problem we have. It happens in our backyard, and we don’t even know it. It’s crazy how much this happens in our own country. It really blows your mind.
“I know it’s a very dark subject people don’t want to talk about, but you know what, man, we need to have our kids understand it, so they don’t become one of the victims. This is about awareness and educating people.
“Sometimes, it takes something like this to let people know what’s going on.”
Pujols and his wife Deidre launched a campaign three years ago against human trafficking, Strike Out Slavery, with the Major League Baseball Players Association and Major League Baseball committing $500,000 this month for the cause. Pujols will leave Angels camp for several days this week to travel to New York, where he and his wife —who’s currently on a mission in India, Cambodia and Thailand — will be honored by the United Nations Women for Peace Association.
“To me, it means more than all of the awards I have won,” says Pujols, the three-time MVP and former Roberto Clemente award winner. “Deidre opened my eyes to this, and it’s something I want to be involved with the rest of my life. It’s heart-breaking to see what’s happening out there.”
Kevin Malone, the former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Montreal Expos, is dedicating his life to the cause, too. He is the co-founder and president of the United States Institute Against Human Trafficking. He and the Pujols family have begun working together, trying to end sex slavery of minors in America.
“This isn’t about Robert Kraft,” Malone said in a telephone interview. “This isn’t a one-off. This is a wake-up call.”
Even if those charged will face nothing more than a $500 fine and community service work, don’t ever believe this is a victimless crime.
“Anyone who says this is a victimless crime,” Malone said harshly, “doesn’t know what they’re talking about. This particular incident proves it. These women are enslaved. They have pimps or traffickers or slaveholders who are coercing them to do it. They are fighting for survival.
“I haven’t met a child, boy or girl, whoever said they dreamed of being sold for sex. Not one. You telling me that selling yourself 10, 20 times a night is fun.
“But because it is sex-related, nobody wants to talk about it.”
The sex industry is so prevalent that when Deidre Pujols was speaking with the Strikeout Slavery Campaign at Nationals Park last summer, women in the crowd were handing out fliers to nearby strip clubs and massage parlors.
“Can you believe it, right in front of everybody?’’ said Pujols, who also has Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals and Chris Davis of the Orioles as part of their campaign. “The more people we can have getting involved, the better the results will be.
“Look, we are not the police here. We’re not going to be breaking down doors. We’re just one of the boys wanting to help.’’
Pujols and Malone realize the enormity of their war against human slavery, with 8,500 reported cases of human-tracking victims alone in this country in 2017, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, but even if they can help just a few young girls or boys, they’ve won the battle.
“It’s a challenge, but having Albert and Deidre involved like this, shines a light on our problem,” Malone said. “They’re even spending a lot of their own money to fight human trafficking. They are difference-makers, letting people know we have a huge trafficking problem in America.
“We’re talking about serious evil here. We met a victim who was chained in her attic, with a bucket by her side to go the bathroom, where men would come up and rape her 15, 16 times a night. There was a little boy that was sold for sex by his dad. It’s so perverse and sick. You’re talking about kids and lives being destroyed.
“So, when something like this happens to a guy like Robert Kraft, and guys can laugh and joke about it, just know there is now technology where we can get the information from web-scraping, or phone numbers. Everything is traceable. Nothing is confidential.
“If you’re involved with something like this, eventually, you are going to be caught.”
Malone says he hopes one day he can talk to Kraft.
“I feel bad for him,’’ Malone said, “but you know what, there also is good that comes from this. He created an awareness out of it. It was a wake-up call that this is happening all over America.
“Now, hopefully people will listen.’’