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This Cuban Defector Changed Baseball

This Cuban Defector Changed Baseball

Posted by PanamericanWorld on March 18, 2016

The poster, the only prominent piece of memorabilia, hangs in the back of the shed next to the dusty old suitcase, a row of unused candles and a pile of VHS tapes, a few bearing the label “Cuba Baseball.”

Whenever Rene Arocha goes for the lawn mower, he can see it, his younger self, No. 43 of the St. Louis Cardinals circa 1993, caught in the familiar hunched-over, leg-up pose of a pitcher hurtling something toward the plate.

It is a tucked-away reminder of his fleeting fame, a fame that he has sought to tuck away himself after a career that began with a flash of hope but ultimately fizzled in disappointments and unfulfilled expectations.

“I am hidden here,” he said with a laugh, at the nondescript peach bungalow-style house here where he lives, with a beat-up 1990s sedan on the lawn, a motorboat in the side yard, squawking parrots on the back patio and a pregnant cat making the rounds.

Yet, with one simple but rebellious move, he changed baseball.

Major League Baseball and Cuba are discussing ways for Cuban players to sign with teams without having to defect, taking advantage of a thaw between the countries that will culminate in President Obama’s two-day trip there, set to begin Sunday. A new arrangement would formalize the decades-long flow of Cuban players showing up on American shores and major league rosters — including star players like Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman and Orlando Hernandez, known as “El Duque.”

Before all of them, and hundreds of others, there was Rene Arocha.

He never got a big-money contract or played memorably enough to be a household name, even among ardent fans. At best, he may be a curious footnote.

But on July 10, 1991, he committed a simple but utterly rebellious act that opened the way for the modern surge of Cuban players: He walked away from the Cuban national team during a layover in Miami and sought asylum in the United States.

Until then, no active player on the national team, the best of the best in the country, had defected.

“He was the one who started the current wave of players defecting and deciding to come to the U.S. and staying here,” said Peter C. Bjarkman, a longtime scholar of Cuban baseball, whose book “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors” is scheduled for publication in May. “He really was the pioneer.”

Now, the kind of defections that Arocha opened the way to may be on the way out.

After Fidel Castro took power in 1959, he abolished professional baseball and established the National Series, a 16-team amateur league run by a government department.

“This is the triumph of free baseball over slave baseball,” Castro declared, showing his distaste for the buying and selling of players in the United States leagues.

Before Arocha defected, a few players managed to make it to the United States, but none had been active players on the high-profile national team.

One player, Barbaro Garbey, who had been imprisoned on a game-fixing charge and left Cuba on the Mariel boatlift, a mass migration in 1980 of more than 120,000 Cuban refugees to the United States, did make it to the major leagues. But Garbey was not an active player when he left Cuba, Bjarkman said, and his departure did not cause nearly the stir that Arocha’s did.

Arocha, by contrast, was a star pitcher on Cuba’s national team when he left, a right-hander with a 92-mile-an-hour fastball. At 25, however, he was already an overworked one. Cuba tended not to use relievers, so pitchers often worked entire games, sometimes several a week.

A poster tucked away in the back of Arocha’s shed modestly commemorated his three seasons pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals. Credit Ryan Stone for The New York Times

“I got injured when I was 17 but I still played,” Arocha recalled. “We used terrible baseballs, too. None of the equipment was good then.”

Even as Major League Baseball has applied to the Treasury Department to institute a new system to draft Cuban players to teams directly — a pathway that the league anticipates would pre-empt the smuggling and the often chaotic and dangerous journeys of Cuban players to the United States — players continue to arrive.

Last month, two brothers, Yulieski Gourriel, 31, and Lourdes Gourriel Jr., 22, left the Cuban national team while in the Dominican Republic, one of the most high-profile defections in recent years.

Their father, Lourdes Gourriel Sr., was one of Cuba’s most celebrated players. Arocha played with him on the Cuba teams that won the 1986 Amateur World Series and the 1988 Baseball World Cup against the United States.

“I still remember Lourdes’s home run that tied the score before we went on to win,” Arocha said. “I gave up the runs that put the United States ahead, but then he tied it. Pow!”

There is pride in that voice.

“Of course,” he said. “I am very proud. I am Cuban, pure Cuban. I am just not a baseball player. It is no longer part of my life.”

He paused for a moment.

“It is a little like when you were with a woman, and now you are no longer with her.”

A Strange Freedom

If Jose Canseco, the Oakland Athletics’ All-Star, had not decided to make a candy bar, Arocha might not have ended up in the majors.

Cuba now closely guards the travels of its players, driving many defecting players to risk harrowing journeys in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. But Arocha’s defection was remarkably simple.

The team was on a layover in Miami after playing a series of exhibition games against the United States. The players were staying at the hotel in the middle of the airport, Arocha said, and he just walked out.

He did have a plan. In fact, he said, he had been plotting for a long time to make a break from the team, considering and then dropping the idea on at least two earlier occasions when the team was traveling.

Miami, however, made a lot of sense because he had relatives there.

When his father and aunt came to visit at the airport hotel, he told them he was not going back to Cuba and would stay with them.

“They didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “I told them I was staying. They could not believe it.”

He slipped out of the hotel and through an exit door in the crowded terminal, apparently not closely watched by Cuban officials, who had not dealt with a defection before.

The next day, according to news accounts at the time, the Cuban team waited on the plane for Arocha. And waited, and waited, until after a few hours it was clear he was not going to show up.

Arocha’s shed contained more inconspicuous evidence of a former life in baseball: a pile of VHS recordings. Credit Ryan Stone for The New York Times

Back in Cuba, he was denounced as a traitor in official media.

In Cuba, he had left a wife and young daughter but doubted they would suffer reprisals. (His daughter eventually joined him.)

“It was not about them,” he said. “It was about me.”

He had been playing baseball since he was 13, starting in his hometown, Regla, near Havana.

He had worked his way up through the equivalent of the minor leagues to the Metropolitanos and the Industriales, two of the country’s best teams. In total, he is credited with 100 wins and a .600 winning percentage, Bjarkman said, and was talked up as the probable starter for Cuba’s Olympic baseball team at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Over the years, a torn Achilles’ tendon set him back and his throwing arm went cold and hot, but he made it to the national team.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba entered what is known as the Special Period, an era of food shortages and want among the worst the country endured.

Baseball players were not spared.

“Sometimes on the road we slept right in the stands, outside with the mosquitoes,” he said. “Just like everybody else, we had to search for food and figure out how to get by.”

“I didn’t have eggs in the refrigerator, either.”

There were other slights.

The authoritarian ways of the country trickled down to athletics. Players, Arocha said, were tightly controlled. Decisions on who would start which games were never explained and the players were forced to attend mandatory meetings to hear political speeches.

“Nothing was ever explained, they just made decisions and nobody would know why,” he said.

Off the field, people were punished for seemingly minor violations. He recalled the time an uncle was jailed for simply possessing American dollars.

It was all getting to him, he said.

“I wanted freedom,” he said. “Yes, I was playing baseball and wondered if I could play in the big leagues, but mainly I wanted to be free.”

Not even his wife at the time knew his plan, he said. She went to the Havana airport to meet him; they eventually split up, and he has since remarried in the United States.

“It was hard at first,” he said. “I missed Cuba, but I knew I could not go back.”

The sudden freedom to speak his mind bewildered him at first.

At a cafe in Little Havana in Miami, he was stunned to hear fellow Cubans loudly criticizing the president.

“Bush this, Bush that,” he recalled, chuckling at the memory. “I was looking around and thinking, ‘How could they be talking like this about the president?’ Nobody was hushing their voice. That’s how you can tell a newly arrived Cuban. They still talk in whispers.”

The exile community embraced him, though Arocha was wary of political activism.

“I know nothing about politics,” he told The New York Times a few weeks after arriving. As that article noted, Arocha had left shortly before Havana was to play host to the Pan-American Games, perhaps adding to Fidel Castro’s ire.

Gus Dominguez, a Cuban-American working at an advertising firm in Los Angeles, happened to be visiting a Miami radio station to help promote Canseco’s candy bar while word spread of Arocha’s defection.

A sports reporter helped him make the connection.

“I knew Canseco’s agents so I agreed to bring Rene to Los Angeles to meet them and see what could happen,” Dominguez said.

A week later, the meeting had still not panned out. Baseball had no system in place to draft Cuban players, so everybody was operating with caution and suspicion.

“Finally Rene tells me, ‘Why don’t you be my agent? You are the only one helping me,’” Dominguez said. “He said, ‘I will learn how to play baseball here and you learn how to be an agent.’”

It took several months, but the league decided to hold a special lottery for Arocha. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him.

“I wanted him to play, to at least give it a shot,” Dominguez said.

“His talent was above average, but he wasn’t great,” he added. “What made him above average is you could tell winning was always on his mind.”

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