COACHES and sportswriters crowd behind the backstop, intent on a tall rookie on the mound. He unleashes a fast ball that leaves San Francisco Giants slugger Matt Williams shaking a stinging hand.
Rookies and batting practice don't usually draw this much attention in spring training, but this was the first look at Osvaldo Fernandez - the star pitcher of Cuba's national baseball team until his defection last summer. He is considered the best of a crop of Cuban baseball players who have defied the Cuban government, leaving families and fame behind for the chance to play major league baseball.
"I came because of the need and the desire to play for a major league team," explains Fernandez, who once was received as a hero by Fidel Castro Ruz, a renowned baseball fanatic.
Fernandez's easy manner and warm laugh belie the tough road he has traveled. His face tightens when talk turns from baseball to his wife and 17-month old daughter, left behind in Cuba. He clearly misses his three brothers, two sisters, parents, and grandparents.
The dream of playing in the fabled major leagues came first, he says. But what drove him to risk defection was the "need" to care for his extended family. Harsh economic conditions in Cuba sharpened his determination.
Now Fernandez has gone from earning about $5 a month playing baseball in Cuba to signing a $3.9 million dollar contract with the Giants, who won a furious bidding war with other major league teams. The Giants hope that Fernandez will be the Hideo Nomo of 1996. The fat contract, granted to a player who has never pitched at any level of organized US baseball, drew plenty of criticism.
But like Nomo, the Japanese pitcher who was last year's sensation, Fernandez arrives as a seasoned "rookie." A star of in his home town of Holquin, the right-hander was selected to Cuba's national squad in 1991. He posted a 22-0 record in international competition, including leading his team to victory in the '92 Olympics.
Baseball has long been hugely popular in Cuba. Back in the '40s and '50s many Cubans came to play in the big leagues here. But Castro's rise to power in 1959 brought an isolation from the US that persists to this day.
Baseball became part of the Cuban-American cold war. The Cuban government blocked all players from going to the North American pros, while it vigorously promoted sports as a symbol of the success of its revolution. Cuba's Communist leadership relished their domination of amateur baseball competitions, particularly when they beat American teams.
But Cuban ballplayers still quietly dreamed of playing in the majors. Cuban state security agents accompanied the team on all its travels, but the real deterrent to defection was having to leave behind families. "It's the toughest obstacle for them to cross when they make that decision," says Joe Cubas, a Cuban-American agent who represents Fernandez and three other Cuban defectors and has been meeting secretly with Cuban players since 1991.
The first crack in the wall surrounding Cuban baseball came in 1991 when pitcher Rene Arocha defected, ending up with the St. Louis Cardinals ball club. Fernandez, who ironically replaced Arocha on the national team, says it was Arocha's success that inspired his own plan to escape.
It was the opportunity to travel abroad that came with joining the national team that truly changed Fernandez's thinking. Like most Cubans, he grew up loyal to the revolution, he says. But that changed "after I was able to leave the country and compare what's out there with what's in Cuba."
Fernandez and baseball agent Cubas met secretly during a trip to Puerto Rico in 1993. The Cuban pitcher asked many questions, but he was not ready yet to act. The final straw came when his close friend and fellow pitcher Ariel Prieto slipped out of Cuba and was drafted by the Oakland Athletics.
But even as he thought about it, Fernandez could only talk indirectly about his plans to his wife. "When things were lacking in the house, I'd joke about leaving," he recalls. "I felt she understood."
Cubas and Fernandez met twice last spring in Argentina and Japan to plan the defection. They carried it out last July in Millington, Tenn. where the Cuban team went for a series of games against the American amateur team.
If Fernandez succeeds here, other Cuban immigrants in cleats may follow him. Cubas estimates there are at least five to six players on the national squad who can play immediately in the majors. Fernandez talks of 20 or 30 who can make it. "It might be a gold mine, it might be a diamond mine all wrapped into one," says Giants personnel director Brian Fabian.