By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
HAVANA -- Reynaldo
Ordóñez Fiallo received a gift from
America one day last month -- a new, unmarked baseball glove
made of beautiful tanned leather. As a bonus, the glove came with a tag
bearing a color photograph of his father, the slick-fielding shortstop for
the Mets, who is also named Rey Ordóñez.
6-year-old ran around his grandmother's apartment, showing
off not only the new-smelling glove but the picture of the star shortstop.
The glove, though, had not come from his father, but from a godmother in
Miami. In fact, family members here say that the elder Rey Ordóñez,
who will make $1.6 million playing for the Mets this season, has played
almost no role in the boy's life since leaving Cuba in 1993.
"He has never
taken any interest at all in the boy," the child's mother,
Hilda María Fiallo, said.
of abandonment is not the only kind of experience lived out
by the families left behind as many of Cuba's best baseball players have
fled the island in recent years. There are, too, tales of success and
responsibility, even reunification.
Indeed, the details
of Ordóñez's defection and what has happened since
are complicated. When Ordóñez defected, his son was an infant, and he
and Fiallo hoped they would be reunited in the United States as soon as
he broke into professional baseball. But those plans were ultimately
derailed by time and distance.
Since 1991, roughly
30 players have defected. For all of them, the
decision was a calculated gamble involving conflicting ambitions and
risks: the dream of playing in the major leagues; a desire to provide for
their families; the possibility that they would never see their families again,
or that their relationships with them could be permanently damaged.
And those gambles
have played out differently. Some families have
risked their lives at sea to escape and reunite. Some players have only
been able to funnel money, clothing and mementos to their relatives. And
there are a few, like Ordóñez, who have become estranged from those
they left behind.
a former first baseman on the Cuban national team,
defected in 1996 and has managed both to support his family and reunite
with his wife and daughter in Florida as he tries to earn a spot with the
Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He is now a designated hitter in the minor
leagues for the Class AA Orlando Devil Rays.
But for Jorge
Luis Toca, his act of daring and selfishness has produced
more mixed results. Also in the minor leagues, he has sent money back to
his parents and brother, but his relationship with the mother of his
3-year-old son has deteriorated, and it is unclear if they will ever share a
life together again.
"It's a difficult
step to take this decision," Colina said of the option to
defect. "One doesn't know if one will be able to get the family out. It's
not easy. I decided to go ahead and whatever happened, happened."
The exodus began
in earnest in 1991, when René Arocha, a pitcher with
the Cuban national team, walked off an airplane that made an emergency
stop in Miami, and, in short order, stepped into a contract with the St.
Louis Cardinals, for whom he pitched from 1993 through 1995.
and a Cuban economy devastated by the collapse of
the Soviet Union, underscored the promise of American baseball and
multimillion-dollar contracts. Meanwhile, the Government's attempts to
brand the players as traitors and stanch the exodus have backfired. In
1996 and 1997, for instance, the authorities banned several prominent
players from baseball, accusing them of plotting to defect, only to see
several loyal players, like Orlando Hernández, defiantly leave the island.
Only a handful
of the defectors have made it to the major leagues.
Among them are Rolando Arrojo of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Liván
Hernández of the Florida Marlins, Orlando Hernández of the Yankees
and Osvaldo Fernández of the San Francisco Giants.
the Cuban authorities have not permitted the families to
follow. A notable exception was made when John Cardinal O'Connor's
personal request to Fidel Castro resulted in Orlando Hernández's being
joined by his former wife and two children. They now live in Miami.
In Cuba, the
Government treats the players who left as if they do not
exist, never mentioning them again in the state-controlled press. On the
streets, however, they have become folk heroes to many citizens.
For their families
left behind, the players are often something between
invisible and heroic.
Sources of Money and Vessels of Pride
Like many Cuban
émigrés, most of the players send dollars back to
their families, either through licensed travel agents or an established
underground system of couriers. The remittances provide a desperately
needed economic boost.
support, players who make it onto professional teams,
even in the minor leagues, are also a source of great pride, a pride,
however, often tempered with a sense of loss, especially for older
parents, who cannot envision themselves emigrating.
Tears still form
in Francisca Gomez's eyes when she explains the decision
of her son, Toca, to leave Cuba. Sitting in her living room in the town of
Remedios, Gomez says she understands why he left, but she wonders if
she will ever see him again, filling the front door of her house with his
"He didn't want
to go," she says. "He had everything here. A house. A
family. His son."
Toca is currently
playing first base for the Binghamton Mets, the
franchise's Class AA club. He escaped Cuba on a tiny launch last year
with three other players and a pitching coach.
however lonely, still support his decision, saying he had
no choice. He had been suspended for life from Cuban baseball in July
1997, after he and several other players spoke on the telephone to
Arrojo, the pitcher who had fled Cuba in 1996.
"He had no other
way out," said his father, Juan Antonio Toca García, a
56-year-old dental technician. "His life and his only job was to play
say he calls every week and sends money. But they say
the financial assistance is secondary to his athletic success. They feel an
injustice was done to him here.
"He doesn't even
have to send anything home," Toca's father said. "As
long as he triumphs. That's enough. That's enough joy for us."
Many in Orlando
Hernández's family feel the same way. The pitcher was
suspended from Cuban baseball in 1996, after the Government accused
him of plotting to defect, as his half brother, Liván, had in 1996.
who had regularly pitched for thousands of Havana fans,
found himself relegated to working as a physical therapist in a psychiatric
hospital for $8 a month. Now, since his defection, his relatives in his old
Havana neighborhood say he has continued to help them in large and
small ways, with even distant cousins receiving autographed pictures. He
sends money to his father, his former brother-in-law, his nieces, his aunts.
maternal grandmother, María Julia Pedrozo, said she
recognized that she will probably never see her grandson again, but she is
still proud he left. "He had to leave," she said. "There was no other
remedy. He was shut down completely and for this he left."
even some younger family members of ballplayers
who have made it in America are desperately grateful. For instance,
Miguel Colina, who said he makes less than $20 a month delivering
bread on a bicycle, respects his brother, the first baseman in the Tampa
Bay organization. The $300 a month his brother sends is just enough to
keep the extended clan fed and clothed.
everyone here is in flames," Miguel Colina said, with a
tinge of bitterness. "I feel good because I know that at least someone
escaped from here and he's got a secure future."
After the Defection, a Creeping Estrangement
There is pain,
though, for others left behind, including some who
helped the players escape. For the understandings some players
reached with their families before they left have later been ignored.
Fiallo said it
was she who first urged a frustrated Ordóñez to leave the
island. Though an enormously talented fielder, Ordóñez feared he would
never surpass Germán Mesa, the top shortstop in Cuba, she said. Every
year Mesa started ahead of Ordóñez on the Havana Industriales.
"I was the one
who encouraged him to do it," said Fiallo, who met
Ordóñez in 1991 and married him a year later. "He could never have
done it alone. He is the most timid there is. The day he left here he told
me that he wasn't sure he had the courage to do it."
was chosen in April 1993 for a spot on the national team
going to play in a tournament in Buffalo, the couple began plotting his
defection, Fiallo said. She wrote her father in Miami, Arnaldo Fiallo, who
had left Cuba in the early 1980's, and laid out careful instructions to pick
up her husband, Fiallo said.
Because the Government
can deny exit visas to the families of people
who leave illegally, Fiallo said they decided to get divorced. It was
supposed to be only a paper divorce, she said. They intended to reunite
as soon as Ordóñez found work.
Four months later,
Ordóñez walked away from his team's lodgings in
Buffalo and climbed into a car driven by Lázaro Megret, a radio
executive from Miami who was also a friend of his father-in-law's family.
"There is no
food for my son to eat in Cuba," Ordóñez told a reporter
from The New York Times shortly after his defection. "I felt making
$118 a month, which I get playing baseball, there was little I could do. I
can do more for them by being here."
was eventually drafted and signed by the Mets, and he has
earned hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last several years.
Fiallo said she
and Ordóñez talked on the telephone over the next year,
planning their future, but she was repeatedly denied official permission to
leave. Distance and time took their toll on the relationship, she said. In
December 1994, she learned Ordóñez had remarried.
Fiallo said she has not spoken to or heard from Ordóñez since that day.
Ordóñez declined two requests to be interviewed for this article.
"You can write
what you want in your newspaper," he said earlier this
month in Miami. "I'm not going to talk about my family."
His former wife
says Ordóñez has done virtually nothing for his son -- no
money, no gifts, no mementos, not even a letter, she said. Once, two
years ago, Ordóñez called the boy on the telephone.
"For him, it's as if the people here don't exist," she said.
of Toca, now with the Binghamton Mets, also left behind
some wreckage. Barbara Jackeline Álvarez, 29, says she lived with Toca
for five years and bore his son in 1996. She says she agreed to allow him
to marry a Japanese woman, Miyo Yamasaki, so that he could get a visa
to leave Cuba. Now, unemployed and alone with her son, she feels
Toca met Yamasaki
in 1995 during a tournament in Japan and married
her in Havana two years later while still involved with Álvarez, family
members said. When he defected, Yamasaki picked Toca up in the
Bahamas and because of the marriage he eventually was granted asylum
in Japan. He later moved to America and signed with the Mets.
said Toca told her the marriage to Yamasaki was merely a legal
tactic to gain residency in Japan, and indeed Toca and his Japanese wife
were divorced shortly after their arrival in Japan. Toca's mother called
the marriage one of "convenience."
relatives, Álvarez said Toca appears to have forgotten his
son. "He doesn't call the boy or anything," she said. "If he has sent
anything to us, then I don't know about it."
"He told me he
had to do it for himself and for the well-being of us,"
Álvarez said. "I feel tricked."
In an interview,
Toca said he had sent money for his son, but said he had
given it to his parents because he mistrusts Álvarez. He said their
relationship had died long ago. He also denied his marriage to Yamasaki
had been a ruse. "We had problems," he said of the divorce.
Toca, 28, said
he aches to bring his son to America. "I don't have
anything I love more in the world," he said.
A Cover of Secrecy on Methods Used
Almost all of
the families left behind are forced to confront the idea
of how they, too, might get to America. Many players have
repeatedly petitioned the Cuban authorities to release their families. They
have rarely prevailed.
with smugglers can be risky. If they make it to United
States soil, Cubans can apply for political asylum, but those who are
caught at sea or wind up in nations like the Bahamas can be returned.
As a result,
the efforts to smuggle relatives out of Cuba are often
shrouded in secrecy. Most players whose families have made it to
America have denied they knew about or had a hand in the plans.
the wife and two sons of Rolando Arrojo, the Tampa Bay
right-hander, joined him two months after his 1996 defection, but the
details of their flight by sea have remained closely guarded.
Silence is the
rule among relatives of defectors in Cuba, as well. The
secrecy is understandable.
a 42-year-old pitching coach, was among the four
players who, along with Toca, boarded a 16-foot boat and made the run
northward across the straits of Florida 13 months ago.
After a day at
sea, the players were picked up by a Bahamian fishing
boat, but only Toca was ultimately allowed to stay abroad because of his
Japanese wife. Chinea and the others -- Angel Lopez, Jorge Diaz and
Maykel Jova -- were returned to Cuba.
Since then, Chinea
says life has become intolerable. His house is kept
under surveillance, he said. He has been banned from working as a
"My future is
very uncertain," he said. "I cannot even be sure of my life
But for Colina,
the 28-year-old first baseman, life in America for the
moment is blessed because he has been joined by his wife and daughter.
Colina defected one night in November 1996, along with Jesús Ametller
and William Ortega of the Havana Industriales, during a baseball
tournament in Chiapas, Mexico. Saying they were taking a walk, they
met up with Joe Cubas, a Miami agent who specializes in helping Cuban
athletes defect, in a nearby cemetery.
After six months
in Costa Rica, all three signed minor league contracts
with American teams.
family had to execute its own escape. Dianelis Colina, 30,
said she tried unsuccessfully for nearly two years to persuade the Cuban
immigration authorities to let her rejoin her husband.
"They made our
lives impossible," Dianelis Colina, who worked as a
basketball instructor here, said of the Government. "As far as legal
means, he did everything he could."
versions of what happened next, offered by those in
America and those in Cuba, reflect the persistent fear of retaliation.
Roberto Colina's relatives in Cuba maintain he hired a speedboat in
Miami to pick up his family and whisk it directly to Tampa, paying
$9,000 for each passenger.
Colina maintains that she and the wives of Ametller and
Ortega did it on their own. Using money saved from their husband's
remittances, the women hired a smuggler in Havana and paid him $385
per person to take them to Florida in a rickety boat, she said.
Colina also said
he knew nothing of his wife's plan until she arrived in the
United States, and that he had battled despair with the consolation that
he at least could send money. "I still don't know how my wife arranged
things," he said.
their telephones were tapped, the women spoke about
their plans in code, pretending to plan a "birthday party" and referring to
the boat as a "cake," she said.
Colina said she
told her relatives the story about a speedboat coming
from Florida to allay their fears. When the escape ultimately took place,
she said, there were 15 people crammed in the boat. The engine gave out
twice during the night, and in the enormous quiet of the warm sea,
Dianelis Colina thought they might not make it.
"It was very hard," she said, her voice catching.
later, they arrived in the Florida Keys and waded ashore.
Dirty and tired, they hid in some bushes by the roadside until a relative
arrived with a car that evening.
he saw his daughter at a relative's house in Miami later that
night, fell to his knees.
"It was an immense
joy," he said.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company