The New York Times
April 25, 1999
Cuban Players Defect, but Often With a Cost

          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.

          The ecstatic 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.

          Fiallo's sense 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.

          Roberto Colina, 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.

          Arocha's success, 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.

          Almost always, 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.

          Beyond financial 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
          athletic frame.

          "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.

          Toca's relatives, 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

          Toca's parents 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.

          Hernández, 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.

          Hernández's 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."

          However envious, 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.

          "Economically 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."

          When Ordóñez 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."

          Ordóñez 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.

          The departure 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.

          Álvarez 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."

          Dependent on 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.

          And traveling 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.

          For instance, 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.

          Orlando Chinea, 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.

          Then Colina's 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."

          The conflicting 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.

          But Dianelis 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.

          Believing that 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.

          Fourteen hours 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.

          Colina, when 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