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Cuban players are on the rise in MLB, and they dream of playing for country one day

L.A. Dodgers teammates and Cuban compatriots Alex Guerrero (7) and Yasiel Puig (66) sit together during a game delay. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With the Tampa Bay Rays playing against Cuba in a spring training game on Tuesday in Havana, various Cuban players in the West Coast's Cactus League shared thoughts on their hopes and aspirations in the major leagues, from excelling at the highest level to adjusting to daily life.

Like L.A. Dodgers pitcher Yaisel Sierra, who hopes to find a new life both on and off the field in a league he says the vast majority of his countrymen dream of one day reaching.

"Since I was very young I always wondered what the major leagues would be like," Sierra said. "It's like a dream to be here and to mix with these great stars I used to hear about."

Sierra, 24, is one of the new breed of Cuban baseball players who have been consistently advancing to the majors in recent years in the hope of making their millions. But they also want to prove that they are good enough ballplayers to compete with anyone.

"The difficult part was leaving my family behind. I have a 6-year-old son in Cuba. That's the hardest thing," Sierra said.

Sierra is one of four Cuban-born players at Dodgers spring camp, alongside catcher Yasmani Grandal, Alex Guerrero and star Yasiel Puig.

"For us, baseball is a culture, a way of life," Sierra said. "We have proven at various levels and tournaments that we can play against the best.

"And the guys who have come here before have also proven this.”

Last season, a record 27 Cuban baseball players played in Major League Baseball.

Historian Peter Bjarkman, an expert on Cuban baseball who will soon publish his book "Cuban Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story," says that at least 25 Cuban players have signed major league contracts worth more than $1 million in the past six years.

"The first thing is we gradually need to acclimatize to the team, to the baseball, to life over here," Sierra said. "In my case, I need to work on my control to ensure that I reach the level of excellence required by the major leagues."

Sierra's L.A. teammate Guerrero said Cuban baseball players have all the tools to compete at almost any position.

"It's an honor for me to play with these compatriots and those who come to Major League Baseball, especially for a team as famous as the Dodgers," Guerrero said.

"Seguro van a venir más. Para mí es un orgullo y una satisfacción demostrar que el béisbol de Cuba tiene alto nivel, por encima de todos los obstáculos que tenemos ... demostrar que hay buenos peloteros. Sólo hay que ayudarnos entre nosotros, " Guerrero said in his native tongue.

Translated: "More players are sure to come over. It gives me great pride and satisfaction to show the high standard of Cuban baseball, in spite of all the obstacles we face ... to show that there are good ballplayers. We just need to help each other."

Guerrero said there is a good relationship among the Cubans playing in the big leagues thanks to the fact that they share the same culture, the same language and similar customs from the same homeland.

New Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Guerrero will work almost exclusively at third base this spring, but Roberts knows Guerrero is also capable of playing shortstop, second base and even in the outfield.

"It has been very difficult to adapt to baseball here," Guerrero conceded. "The game here is very different from in Cuba. On top of that, the language and culture are a struggle and, of course, the standard is higher. This is the best baseball in the world."

Pitching is among the main differences Guerrero has found in MLB compared to Cuba. He said there are more major league pitchers who are able to pitch fast breaking balls.

He also mentioned that the standard of defense and athleticism among many MLB players, including those of Latin American origin, is higher than the average he experienced in the Cuban Serie Nacional, for example.

"The main advice I would give the young players coming over is to train, to give their all, to ignore the obstacles," the 29-year-old Cuban said. "This is difficult, but if you set your mind to it, you'll get there."

According to Miami-based OnCuba magazine, 150 Serie Nacional players left Cuba in 2015, though many of them still have no contract with Major League Baseball organizations.

Guillermo Heredia, a native of Matanzas, Cuba, just signed a contract with the Seattle Mariners in the first week of March.

Unlike Puig, Sierra and Guerrero, who have virtually guaranteed their places on the Dodgers' roster to start the season, Heredia will have to compete at his highest level in spring practices and Cactus League games to earn a spot on the Mariners' Opening Day team.

"This isn't as easy as you might believe in Cuba," Heredia said. "You hear about Yasiel [Puig], Aroldis [Chapman], Jose Contreras and all the other guys who have been successful and you think it will happen for you overnight."

"I have to work hard here because there are so many stars on this team." he added. “But I think I can make it. If they decide I should start in the minors, so be it. I'll carry on working to achieve my dream of playing in the major leagues."

Heredia pointed to Cuban players' speed on the basepaths and defensive skills as some of their top baseball credentials.

He also said he felt that being surrounded by fellow Latinos on the Seattle squad and in particular another Cuban, Leonys Martin, will help him in his aim to conquer the major leagues with the Mariners.

"This won't be easy," said Martin, who joined the ranks of American professional baseball with the Texas Rangers in 2010 and spent almost his entire first two years with minor league affiliates. "There is a lot of talent at this level. You have to be professional 24 hours a day and improve your game at all times or you'll never establish yourself here."

"I've learned a lot here," Martin added. "I had to learn to be professional in the system that's in place here, and that's something that anyone coming over will have to learn. I want to be a great inspiration for all of them."

Relatively few Cuban players arrived before 2000, but among those who did were some big names like Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Rolando Arrojo, Danys Baez, Jose Hernandez and Ariel Prieto. And before that, it was Jose Canseco, Tony Oliva, Tony Perez and Rafael Palmeiro, among others.

Martin said that despite the fame and fortune that many Cuban ballplayers have found in the United States, they still have a huge task ahead of them that many dream to accomplish.

"For all of us in baseball, our great objective is to one day represent our country in the World Baseball Classic," he said. "Because, although we come to play here, representing your country is another huge thing."

Puig agreed with Martin on the topic of the pride players feel representing Cuba.

"Here we are playing for Cuba every hour of every day," the Dodgers star said. "It would be amazing to play a World Baseball Classic as Cubans in the majors. In the meantime, we need to keep on 'pushing forward and showing that Cubans can play baseball with the best of them."

Click here to read the original Spanish-language version of this story.