Cuba coach defects as team leaves
Retired star pitcher stays behind after game vs. Orioles, Wanders
By Mark Matthews, Joe Mathews And Peter Hermann
A Cuban baseball pitching coach, after a night spent wandering
downtown streets, walked into the Central District police station and
asked for political asylum yesterday, just hours after his country's
team left Baltimore with a historic 12-6 victory over the Orioles.
Six other Cubans, all former ballplayers, missed the chartered plane
taking a 335-member delegation back to Havana, but U.S. officials
said they had no indication that they wanted to defect.
Cuban officials said the six had overslept at their Baltimore hotel,
spent the day visiting Washington and would probably leave today.
But last night, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Maryland
district director, Ben Ferro, confirmed that other Cubans may be
missing from the delegation.
"There may be others out there, and we are making ourselves ...
continuously available," he said.
The apparent defection of Rigoberto Betancourt Herrera, 54, added
a Cold War twist to the festive two-game series, which opened with
an Oriole win over Cuba in Havana five weeks ago.
It took Betancourt, a retired left-handed pitcher nicknamed "The
Little Giant of the Mound," eight hours to maneuver the eight blocks
between the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel and the police station.
Police say they don't know where the silver-haired man was before
he arrived at 10 a.m., wearing a light jacket, brown pants and his
blue Cuban delegation credentials around his neck.
Police called Spanish-speaking Officer Matthew Corell in from
patrol, and Betancourt immediately asked him for asylum.
"He specifically said he did not want go back to Cuba," said Lt.
Wesley M. Ormrod. "He wanted to stay here."
Betancourt told Baltimore police thathe has an uncle who lives in
Miami and that he left a former wife and children in Cuba.
Police called INS officials, who arrived 90 minutes later to handle the
asylum claim. In the meantime, Ormrod escorted Betancourt to a
back office where he had a Coke and a box of cookies. He
autographed his blue credential and gave it to Lt. Antonio Rodriguez
as a memento.
INS officials would not say yesterday where Betancourt would
spend the night.
The defection was not a surprise. For weeks before Monday night's
game at Camden Yards, speculation had focused on the superstars
among the Cuban players, who could command multimillion-dollar
contracts in American baseball's major leagues.
The Baltimore office of the INS was primed, posting agents around
the city to receive asylum-seekers. Cuban officials complained that
Joe Cubas, the well-known Miami-based agent for Cuban baseball
talent, was parked outside the Sheraton Inner Harbor at 4 a.m.
yesterday in a white stretch limousine.
Jorge A. Acosta, a member of the Cuban exile group Agenda: Cuba,
said he and Cubas sneaked into the hotel Sunday night and met with
three players, including pitcher Jose Contreras.
Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who had said earlier that defections
would sully the exchange, said yesterday, "We felt we accomplished
what we wanted to accomplish. We used baseball as a medium of
friendship between the two countries."
Some anti-Castro members of Congress suspected that a fear of
defections prompted leaders of the Cuban delegation to leave
Baltimore abruptly. Officially scheduled to leave at 3 p.m., players,
coaches, youngsters, workers and government officials were rousted
from their hotel before 4 a.m. and bused to Baltimore-Washington
International Airport for a flight that left at 6: 07 a.m.
"It was stunning," said Donna Marano, a conventioneer from
Pittsburgh staying on the Sheraton's heavily secured 12th floor. "All
of a sudden, they were gone."
Betancourt pitched in the Cuban major leagues from 1965 to 1975
and represented the national team three times in international
In Havana, baseball fan Luis Rodriguez described Betancourt as "a
good pitcher." He paused for sarcastic effect. "In his time. But he is
not the best around."
Noel Asencio, another Cuban, said, "We have many good players in
Cuba, so we don't feel it when one leaves because there are many
Last week, Betancourt told a Cuban news agency, "It is a huge
recognition and an emotional gift" to be invited to the game.
Betancourt was not exactly a Cuban national treasure, said Roberto
Gonzalez Echevarria, a Yale University literature professor and
author of a new book, "The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban
But, "given that Fidel Castro takes it upon himself to make this team
be his team, it's a major embarrassment to him," he said.
The professor said most Cubans are not likely to realize the Orioles
are one of the worst teams in baseball right now.
"The Orioles were playing like whipped dogs. They're barely a major
league team," Gonzalez said, noting that Castro gave an epic speech
yesterday extolling the Cubans' triumph. "If it wasn't so tragic, it'd be
The six Cubans who were said to have overslept were taken to
Washington yesterday morning by officials of the Cuban Interests
Section, the unofficial Cuban embassy.
Juan Vizcay was one of the ex-ballplayers who said he overslept. He
deflected any suggestion that he was a potential defector.
"I love very much my country. I love very much my people. It was a
confusion -- a problem," said Vizcay, 68, a retired second baseman
from Cienfuegos, Cuba. There was so much excitement at the game,
he said, that when he returned to his room at the Sheraton he was
"We were hitting the tambor [drum], dancing, singing. I was very
tired," said Vizcay, who was still wearing his Orioles-Cuba game
commemorative pin under his tan sport coat. "It was very good, very
exciting, and that was the reason we kept sleeping."
Cuban officials say the problem began in the early morning yesterday
when the team was roused for its sunrise flight. No one, they say,
remembered to knock on the doors where the former ballplayers
Luis Abierno, an Interests Section official, said he knocked on the
hotel room doors at 7 a.m. and the men were still in their pajamas.
Luis Fernandez, the spokesman for the Interests Section, asked,
"Have you seen the film about the kid the family leave behind?" he
said. " `Home Alone'? Same thing as in that movie."
Yesterday, Cuban officials said they loaded the six ballplayers into
two cars and drove them past such sites as the U.S. Capitol and the
Lincoln Memorial. The ballplayers stopped at a McDonald's for
lunch, a Cuban diplomat said.
Senior U.S. government officials in Washington said they had no
reason to doubt the Cubans' account of why the six ex-ballplayers
had missed the plane.
Fernandez said he had no information about the apparent defector,
Rigoberto Betancourt, but railed against the man's actions.
"It's something that is not in our principles," he said. "You need to
defend your flag, your anthem, your dignity, your principles."
In Havana, Cuban fans reacted with disbelief at the news that
"No one stayed in the states. They all came back," said Juan Wilson,
29, among those last night at Parque Central, where men gather to
talk baseball. "That was part of the victory."
Several also insisted that Betancourt had been ailing and not even
part of the delegation to Baltimore. Cuban officials in Washington
suggested Betancourt is senile.
"People were saying he's an old player, he doesn't remember well,
he's got old-guy symptoms," said Eugenio Martinez, a diplomat.
Baltimore police pressed Betancourt for an exact explanation of his
whereabouts during his middle-of-the-night walk, but he couldn't
"He said, `I just left,' " Ormrod said. "He wandered around and
found his way to the police station. He doesn't speak one word of
Sun staff writers Ellen Gamerman and Tom Bowman, and Jean
Marbella in Havana, contributed to this article.