For Elian, a Called Strike
Many Cuban-American Players Sit Out to Show Solidarity
By Scott Wilson and April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writers
MIAMI, April 25—He only had a few hours to decide whether to leave a
family he loved for a country he did not know and was taught to fear. The
airplane that would take his Cuban national baseball team to a series of
practice games in Connecticut sat waiting at a Miami airport.
At 17 years old, Michael Tejera, a promising young pitcher, chose the
United States during the fateful layover, seeking political asylum at his
uncle's urging without having considered the step before leaving Cuba less
than an hour before. He called his mother, Lizette, from a Miami radio
station with the news.
"I've defected," he told her. "Then we all started crying. She couldn't
Tejera wouldn't see his parents again for two years, when Miguel and
Lizette Tejera jammed into a 25-foot boat with dozens of others and fled
Cuba. Michael, then playing in the Florida Marlins' minor league system,
left for Miami for a reunion that, in some ways, is still unfolding.
Tejera, now 23, was one of several Latin American Florida Marlins, most
of whom are of Cuban descent, who did not suit up tonight against the San
Francisco Giants in support of the citywide work stoppage called by
Miami community leaders to protest the Saturday seizure of 6-year-old
Elian Gonzalez. Two Giants players--including Cuban-born pitcher Livan
Hernandez--sat out the game.
Players elsewhere also showed their support. In New York, Mets
shortstop Rey Ordonez and third-base coach Cookie Rojas--both of
whom were born in Cuba and live in Florida during the offseason--sat out
tonight's game against Cincinnati. Cuban native Jose Canseco elected to
not play in Tampa Bay's game against Kansas City. Yankees pitcher
Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who was not scheduled to pitch, was not
in uniform for his team's game against Minnesota.
The decision by the Marlins players--who also include starting third
baseman Mike Lowell, whose wife is Cuban and whose parents are
Cuban exiles--was a joining of hands with a community outraged over the
treatment of a child who lived among them for less than five months.
But supporting the one-day strike is more than a political statement. It
become a story partly about the sacrifices and separation of fathers and
sons. As with key elements of Elian's story, the boycott turns on deep
memories and personal hardships endured to make the passage from Cuba
to the Florida shores.
"I've been in this country 34 years--my parents came in 1966 with three
small children--and I owe it to them and my community to show my
support," said Fredi Gonzalez, the Marlins' third-base coach who
boycotted the game. "It's a fine line. You don't want to get involved in the
political arena. My parents took my brother and sister out of this situation
and I owe it to them."
The general strike called by more than 30 community groups kept parts of
this city shuttered throughout the day, but it failed to bring the city to a
stop. The decision by some Marlins to boycott a home game, however,
captured the city's attention.
The team's endorsement of the strike was viewed as a smart public
relations move in a community with a large Hispanic population. After
winning the World Series three years ago, the team's former owner traded
some of its most popular players, including Livan Hernandez.
"I don't think it had anything to do with PR," said Eric Carrington, the
director of media relations for the Marlins, who are averaging 14,000 fans
per game in a stadium built to hold 42,531. "It had to do with the emotions
and sensitivity of the staff--the people who work and play for the Marlins."
Since the Saturday morning raid that spirited Elian to a reunion with his
father outside Washington, Miami's Cuban-American community has
denounced what it views as an unconscionable armed assault on the house.
Many community members say Elian should be reunited with his father,
Juan Miguel Gonzalez, but not if that means sending the boy back to a
communist country some of them have fled at great peril.
Although the protests have divided the city, it has brought together
generations of Cuban families who observed the strike together and found
parallels between Elian's story and their own.
Tejera, who is on the disabled list, joined horn-honking protesters along
Little Havana's busiest streets today. His father, Miguel, took the day off
from his job at a Nissan dealership on Calle Ocho, a cultural main street in
the community. Michael remembers longing for his family to join him after
his 1994 defection, only to spend two futile years trying to secure their
passage. His father said the family talked about supporting the strike--and
eagerly decided to observe it together.
"This is a family decision," Miguel Tejera said. "We are all together on
and worried about this case. This decision is for the Cuban community,
and all of us are very upset about what has happened with this giant
Dominican and Puerto Rican players joined their Cuban colleagues in
protest. Assistant general manager Tony Perez, a Hall of Fame inductee,
was the most senior Marlins official to spend the day away from the
ballpark. Javier Castro, a clubhouse assistant, also won permission from
Marlins management to take the day off.
Cuban-American pitchers Alex Fernandez and Vladimir Nunez, closer
Antonio Alfonseca, pitcher Jesus Sanchez, outfielder Danny Bautista,
infield coach Tony Taylor and bullpen catcher Luis Perez also sat out the
game for the Marlins. Giants catcher Bobby Estalella, a Cuban-American,
also joined in the work stoppage.
Gonzalez, the third-base coach, arrived with his two siblings and parents
on a flight from Havana in December 1966. Now he has a 6-year-old son
of his own. "The laws should decide," Gonzalez said of Elian. "I want him
to be here with his father--that's best case scenario. But I don't know how
it will play out."
Lowell, who leads the Marlins with 19 RBI and is batting .313, was born
in Puerto Rico to parents who fled Cuba at a young age. He has
characterized his decisions as "certain things you have to stand up
for--things you believe in."
"I'm sure he had to struggle with this decision," said Carl V. Lowell,
father, who left Cuba when he was 11 years old and closed his Coral
Gables dental practice today. "I am proud of him beyond the baseball.
He's always made me proud as a person."
In the near-empty stands tonight, reaction to the players' and coaches'
absence broke down along ethnic lines, much as it has over the course of
the Elian saga.
Best friends Luis Mion, a Cuban-American banker, and Ken Kendal, an
Anglo high school football coach, came to the game together but with
different views on the importance of the protest.
"I believe in what they are doing," Mion said. "It's a statement of solidarity
with the community."
Kendal joked, "By looking at these stands, they need to get some
solidarity going so they can get some fans."
Will Williams, a North Miami Beach television cameraman, came to the
game looking for some traditional springtime escape from the drama that
has dominated news and conversation in South Florida for nearly five
"They have a right to do it, but I'm not for the whole thing," Williams
"Elian was used. It was all about Cuba and Castro, not about the kid."