For Cuban athletes who defect, success in sports is elusive
GAMBLE FOR GLORY
BY KEVIN BAXTER
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
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
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
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
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.
GRATEFUL FOR `PEACE'
''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
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
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.
LOSING TO GAIN
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
``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
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
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
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,
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.
HAILED IN MIAMI
When Betancourt arrived in Miami, his mere presence was touted
as a slap at the Castro regime. He was greeted by politicians and sports
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
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
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.''