The Miami Herald
Jun. 02, 2002

For Cuban athletes who defect, success in sports is elusive



  When Larry Rodríguez and Vladimir Núñez defected together from a Cuban national baseball team seven years ago, they were certain they'd wind up in
  the same major league stadium someday. Last month at Pro Player Stadium, that dream came true.

  But it didn't happen the way they'd imagined. While Núñez was on the mound shutting down the Los Angeles Dodgers, Rodríguez was sitting 20 rows
  behind the plate in section 149.

  Núñez has become the anchor of a Marlins bullpen that includes two other defectors, Michael Tejera and Hansel Izquierdo, while an arm injury ended
  Rodríguez's career in the low minors four years ago.

  Despite the high personal price many Cuban athletes pay to defect, the typical experience of what happens here is Rodríguez's, not Núñez's. Leaving
  fame, family and friends behind in Cuba to pursue athletic success here is a gamble -- and it's one most defectors lose.

  Of the approximately 60 Cuban baseball players who have defected since the first, René Arocha, walked off the Cuban national team at Miami
  International Airport in 1991, just 14 have made the Major Leagues. The remainder, saddled by injury, slowed by age or simply not talented enough to
  compete outside Cuba, have wound up playing in Taiwan, Mexico and Nicaragua, have turned to coaching, retired or taken on construction, clerical and
  other jobs.

  The odds against success have turned out to be just as high for defectors in other sports. Over the same 11 years, dozens of Olympic athletes have
  defected in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. The most recent, soccer players Rey Angel Martínez and Alberto Delgado,
  defected in January in Los Angeles.

  But like their baseball brethren, only a few have found success in their chosen sports here.

  Swimmers Daimara de Muñoz and Nubis Rosales, who defected in Puerto Rico on the Fourth of July, 1998, haven't seen their families for four years and
  remain in San Juan, where they're no longer swimming. Boxer Ramón Garbey, a three-time world amateur champion who defected in 1996, has lost a
  quarter of his bouts since turning pro and does not rank among the top 10 cruiserweight title contenders. And former national team catcher Angel López
  nearly lost his life at sea, then languished for four years in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico before arriving in the United States too old
  to merit serious attention from big-league scouts.

  Yet none expresses regrets about leaving Cuba.


  ''It was worth it,'' says López, a minor leaguer in the Marlins organization who now knows his two young children only through photos and phone calls.
  ``If you're working in a factory eight hours a day, you still have your house. You have your car. You have peace. That's what we didn't have in Cuba.''

  In many ways, Rodríguez, 27, is luckier than most. Shortly after defecting from a Cuban team on a training trip to Venezuela, he received a $1.3 million
  bonus for signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks -- then one of the richest bonuses ever paid a rookie free agent. He pitched parts of three seasons for
  four teams in the low minors, losing more often than he won, before blowing his arm out in 1998. He had repeated surgeries and tried to come back, but
  his fastball never regained its 95-mile-an-hour pop.

  Now, Rodríguez plays outfield in a Miami recreational league, contemplates more surgery and dreams of a comeback that may never happen.

  ''What I want is the opportunity,'' he says in rapid-fire Spanish. ``I'm not interested in [playing] for the money. Right now I'm just interested in the
  opportunity . . . because I want it more than I did at first.

  ``I miss it. It's something that I did for 25 years.''

  Rodríguez invested his bonus wisely, buying stocks, property in Venezuela, a house in Northwest Miami-Dade and a Hialeah video-rental store, which he
  manages with his wife. And he still has nearly half the bonus the Diamondbacks gave him in the bank, he says.

  But none of that mattered two years ago when his grandfather, Ordulio Valdez, who had helped raise him, was dying, and Rodríguez was unable to see

  ''It's really bad when you have the money, you have the time, you have everything you need to go and visit with him for 10 minutes. But you can't,''
  Rodríguez says. ``How am I supposed to feel? He's the one who taught me how to be a man.''

  Like many athletes who have defected, Rodríguez says he wasn't motivated by politics but by the desire to provide for his family. In Cuba, it would have
  taken him more than 800 years to earn the $200,000 minimum salary he would have received if he reached the big leagues -- never mind a bonus.


  The paradox is that Rodríguez had first to give up his family in order to help it.

  ''Why did I stay? To help my family,'' he says from behind the counter of his video store, tucked in a neat new strip mall east of the Palmetto Expressway.
  ``I wanted to lift my family out of poverty because I was poor. I didn't have anything.

  ``But it's been 7 ½ years since I've seen them. I gave up one thing for another. That was the decision.''

  Rodríguez, who met his wife in Venezuela, left an extended family behind on the island -- his 88-year-old grandmother raised 24 children and nearly 100
  grandchildren -- and he's trying to provide for them all. The family's modest apartment on the second floor of a cinder-block building in Artemisa, about an
  hour's drive west of Havana, is full of furniture and a refrigerator Rodríguez bought shortly after defecting. And he continues sending money regularly.

  But sometimes he wonders whether it's enough. And though he doesn't regret his decision to defect, he isn't so sure he'd do it again knowing the price
  he'd have to pay.

  ''I would think about my family first,'' he says. ``It's the biggest thing in the world. I'm very happy and content with my family here, but I can't forget the
  sadness to have left my family [in Cuba]. If I could go there, if I could set foot in Cuba, I would be happy.''


  Joe García, a spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation, which has helped thousands of refugees acclimate to their new surroundings, says
  the toughest thing most deal with is the loss of family. ''It's total isolation. You're talking about total disassociation with everything you know,'' he says.
  ``It's overwhelming at first.''

  Pitcher Eddie Oropesa, who left a pregnant wife behind when he defected in 1993, had to wait three years to see his son for the first time. The
  separation left him homesick and depressed -- one bout with emotional stress caused him to pass out on the mound during a minor-league game -- and
  greatly affected his performance on the field.

  After being reunited with his family in 1996, Oropesa quickly advanced through the minor leagues and now, in his second big-league season, ranks
  among the National League leaders in games pitched.

  Rigoberto Betancourt's pitching career ended nearly 20 years before Arocha defected. In those days -- the late 1960s and early '70s -- few athletes
  considered defection possible. So even though Betancourt said three major league teams were interested in signing him during his prime, when he won
  40 times and averaged better than a strikeout an inning in 108 games, he never gave the offers serious thought.

  Fast forward to 1999. Betancourt, pitching coach for the Cuban national team, is in Baltimore for an exhibition with the Orioles. After hiding for hours in
  the bushes of a park near the team hotel, he goes to the police and asks for political asylum, leaving a wife, a house and two grown children in Cuba.

  ''I was thinking that I'd come here and enjoy the fruits of my labor. That was my goal. But everything went wrong,'' says Betancourt, who lives with his
  29-year-old son in a cramped Hialeah efficiency and works the graveyard shift as a cashier at a convenience store.


  When Betancourt arrived in Miami, his mere presence was touted as a slap at the Castro regime. He was greeted by politicians and sports agents,
  praised on radio and interviewed on television. But the attention quickly faded, leaving him alone in a strange city with no money, no work and no family.

  ''Sure I feel abandoned,'' he says. ``Not frustrated. Abandoned.''

  Interviews with the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins failed to produce a job offer -- ''We had discussed some things. I don't think we were to the point
  of hiring him,'' says former Marlins official Al Avila -- though Betancourt, 55, stubbornly clings to the hope that a major league club will soon be calling.

  In the meantime, the man who once coached the best amateur pitchers in the world now works with headstrong Little Leaguers three days a week at a
  park in Southwest Miami-Dade.

  ''With what I know technically, I could be a pitching coach for any team in the big leagues,'' he says.

  Despite all that, he refuses to be bitter. A small, stocky man whose dark hair is now streaked with gray, Betancourt smiles often, frequently punctuating
  the retelling of his tale with a hearty laugh.

  ''The only thing keeping me going is my faith,'' he says. ``I am a man with a lot of spirit. I'm going to succeed.''

  He's written a how-to book on pitching techniques and started work on an instructional video.

  His son, a doctor, recently left Cuba -- though Betancourt won't say how -- and his wife and a second grown child have secured U.S. visas in Havana and
  should arrive here this month.

  ''This is the land of hope,'' he says with conviction. ``This is the country where you can succeed. It's the best country in the world.''

  It's just that, well, it would be a little bit better with baseball. At least that's what López has found.

  ''It's been a difficult process, but I think God was always with me,'' the 34-year-old catcher says. ``In the most difficult moments, He helped me. But I'm
  where I want to be, playing baseball.''