Baltimore Sun
May 5, 1999

Cuba coach defects as team leaves

                    Retired star pitcher stays behind after game vs. Orioles, Wanders
                    downtown streets

                    By Mark Matthews, Joe Mathews And Peter Hermann
                    Sun Staff

                    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
                    partied out.

                    "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
                    were sleeping.

                    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
                    Betancourt defected.

                    "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
                    provide any.

                    "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.