Escaping from Cuba to the big leagues

The tang of salsa fills the locker room of the Florida Marlins, as the players lounge about the visitors' clubhouse before facing the Colorado Rockies in Denver. In one corner, a couple of Latin American players are debating the score of a card game. "Diez y seis [16]," one of them insists. "No, no. Es veinte seis [26]," the other hollers.

On a couch by the TV, third baseman Mike Lowell, a Cuban-American, is watching the sports highlights, kibitzing in English with some Anglo players. But when Cuban pitcher Michael Tejera comes by to crack a joke, Lowell shoots back a quick rejoinder in Spanish.

Like most teams, the Marlins have a trove of foreign-born players. This year, more than 26 percent of players in the major leagues were born outside the United States. In the last three years the number has been increasing about 1 percentage point per year.

But the Miami-based Marlins have a special Latin flair. In addition to Lowell, who grew up Miami, the team has three native-born Cuban pitchers who fled their country to play here. They talked about their stories last month, just after former President Jimmy Carter had given a speech on human rights in Havana earlier in the day.

Tejera and his Marlins' teammate Hansel Izquierdo grew up as childhood friends in Havana. In 1994, they were members of the Cuban national junior team, traveling to play in a tournament in Connecticut by way of the Miami International Airport.

Mike Phillips, a veteran baseball writer for the Miami Herald, has known Tejera and Izquierdo since they came to the United States, and this is how he tells their story: Izquierdo knew he had an uncle in Miami. Although the two had never met, he sent word that he wanted assistance. The teenager had decided to defect. His uncle said he'd be wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap.

Izquierdo told his friend Tejera about his plan, encouraging him to come along. But Tejera had not completely decided. The moment came as Izquierdo and his uncle recognized one another at the Miami airport. "I'd like to take my nephew down the hall to buy him a few things," the uncle told a Cuban security guard. The guard nodded OK.

"Oh, and is it all right if I take his friend, Michael?"

That fast, the three strode down the airport concourse to the first police officer they could find. "Asylum!" cried the uncle, and the young ball players were suddenly in a new land.

Still, Tejera wasn't sure he'd made the right decision. "Michael cried himself to sleep that night," Phillips says.

He remembers meeting Izquierdo and Tejera soon after their defection. "They were pencil thin – nothing like the athletes you see today," he says. "They'd been eating meat maybe once a week."

In the locker room, the two friends warily decline to comment on President Carter's speech in Cuba, in fact refusing to talk at all about politics. But both are voluble on one point. When asked if they'd known other young players in Cuba who had the potential to play in the major leagues, they're adamant. "Oh, yeah," Izquierdo exclaims. "A whole bunch of guys."

Tejera adds, "In Cuba, if they open – so the Cuban guys can play professional baseball – it'll be like the Dominican." (Currently, the Dominican Republic is home to almost 10 percent of the players on major league rosters.)

So, what's the difference between you and the others, Izquierdo is asked. "Why are you here, and they're still in Cuba?"

"The difference is that I made a decision in 1994," he snaps. It's not a matter of ability, he says. "That's the only difference. I made a decision in '94."

Vladimir Nuñez, the Marlins' strapping closer, had just recorded his eighth save of the season (he has 14 now), as Florida defeated the Rockies 6-2. But he was eager to talk about subjects other than baseball, such as Carter's talk.

"If it's about letting people live a little bit more comfortable, it's going to be fine, you know?" he says. Nuñez is a hearty, engaging man who volunteers in a bilingual literacy program. Like his teammates, he made a radical choice to exchange one life for another.

"It [took] me four years to make that decision, and finally I made it in '95," he recalls. "I was [in a tournament] in Venezuela for a week, and the second day I made that decision. It cost me about two hours thinking about it, to go through all my life. In Cuba, I wasn't making enough money to survive."

In Havana, there may be another side to these stories of valor. Mike Sandrock, a sports reporter for the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera, has made several trips there, researching a book on Cuban athletes.

Cuban baseball fans have mixed feelings about the defectors, Sandrock says. "On the one hand, they have a lot of pride that they're competing against the best players in the world." Yet, there's also resentment. "As they see it, these players sold out the revolution and fell prey to capitalist greed. There's a strong feeling they should have stayed and supported their country."

But that's not how Tejera sees it now. He's no longer hesitant about his split-second decision to follow Izquierdo's uncle.

"I came to this country to look for freedom," he says. "I made the best decision so far in my life."

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