The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 26, 2000; Page D01

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 say
                  anything back."

                  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 has
                  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 this
                  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, Mike's
                  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 said.
                  "Elian was used. It was all about Cuba and Castro, not about the kid."