(This is part two of a three-part series on the history of Cuban baseball defectors.)
TODAY: Escaping The Island
CUBA – The almost five decades old United States boycott against Cuba has forced ambitious baseball players from the tiny island nation to make an agonizing decision. To become eligible to play in the Major Leagues, Cuban players must escape from their homeland, leaving family and friends behind.
The practice of “defecting” for the majority of Cuban ballplayers is a result of their love for the the sport. However, while many are seeking multi-million dollar contracts, some leave their native soil just to continue a love affair with the game.
BOATS AND RAFTS
Current Los Angeles Angels first baseman Kendry Morales, who arrived in Miami in the summer of 2004 on a boat, did not grow up dreaming of the riches of the Major Leagues. But after Cuban officials wrongfully suspected the Industriales slugger of planning to defect in 2003, he was sent home from a tournament in Panama and banned from the game.
Determined to play baseball again, Morales admits he failed 12 times to escape, usually due to the rough seas. He was also caught twice resulting in a mandatory 72 hours in jail each time.
“I never thought of playing (in the major leagues), but once I had that problem there, I tried to get here,” says Morales, who batted .306 with 34 home runs and 108 RBIs this past season. “It wasn’t even in my mind before. I had my life pretty much made in Cuba.”
Although dangerous, numerous Cuban players headlined by Orlando Hernandez and current Atlanta Braves infielder Yunel Escobar, have chosen the same route as Morales to pursue their dreams.
Nicknamed “El Duque” – Hernandez defected in a boat in December of 1997 and posted 29 wins the following two years with the New York Yankees. Escobar left Cuba by boat in 2004 and batted .270 for the Braves in 2009.
SMUGGLING AND DECEPTION
In the summer of 1999, former Habana standout Juan Carlos Diaz escaped the island in a bizarre and controversial way. With the assistance of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Diaz left Cuba by having a Dominican women pose as his wife.
When Aroldis Chapman walked out of a Rotterdam hotel and hopped into a waiting car last summer at an international tournament in the Netherlands, the hard-throwing lefty chose the most common path for Cuban baseball defectors.
Since 1993, eight Cuban Junior National Team players have defected at an international competition. Yet, despite their youth and inexperience, most have parlayed their defections into a professional baseball career.
Alberto Castillo and Michael Tejera both left the junior national squad in 1993. Castillo defected in Canada after the Junior Baseball Championships and went on to play with the Baltimore Orioles. Tejera defected at the Miami International Airport and played in both the Marlins (1999-2004) and Rangers (2004-05) organizations.
A trio of players left the Cuban youth team at the 2008 IBAF World Junior AAA in Edmonton, Canada. While pitcher Raydel Sánchez enrolled at Miami Dade College, infielder Jose Iglesias and pitcher Noel Arguelles both signed multi-million contracts with the Red Sox and Royals, respectively.
However, top stars from the Cuban National Team have also struck paydirt in the Major Leagues.
Former Villa Clara ace Rolando Arrojo defected prior to the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. He signed a $7 million contract with the then-called Tampa Bay Devil Rays and was named to the 1998 American League All-Star team.
Three years later another Cuban hurler, Danys Baez, defected at the 1999 Pan Am Games. The much-travelled pitcher has suited up for the Indians, Devil Rays, Braves, Dodgers and Orioles.
But Until Chapman, no Cuban pitcher made as big of a splash as Jose Contreras. The Pinar del Rio right-hander abandoned the Big Red Machine on Oct. 1 at the 2002 Americas Cup in Mexico. He inked a lucrative four-year, $32 million deal with the New York Yankees after 10 sterling seasons in the Cuban League.
Tomorrow: Successes And Failures
Photo courtesy of havanajournal.com
Marvin Moore is a former European coach and Managing Editor at BaseballdeWorld.