Roots run deep
Yasmani Grandal and Yonder Alonso have a lot more in common than just baseball
PEORIA, Ariz. -- On certain days, when the stars align, two sets of families will meet by chance at a local grocery store in Miami or perhaps at a college baseball game.
And when they meet, they speak about a certain bond that very few families can share.
Years ago these encounters between the two families may have taken place in Cuba at a corner store and they may have involved topics that were quite different: the struggle of everyday life and the difficulty of finding food for their families. Or perhaps they would have spoken about baseball, because certainly that's a fact of life in Cuba as well.
But in Miami, those concerns have vanished. The conversations have been transformed, and tend to focus on the up-and-coming careers of the sons in each family, Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal of the San Diego Padres.
Thousands of miles away, the two sons, whose fates seem intertwined, are in Arizona with dreams of spending the next decade on a major league field together. It's the embodiment of the Cuban-American dream, and their success was only possible because of the sacrifices made by two sets of families that occasionally, and coincidentally, meet.
During the offseason, Grandal spent a lot of time looking up trade rumors involving Alonso, his then-teammate with the Cincinnati Reds. Call it a hunch, Grandal believed their fates were connected.
"I just knew that wherever Yonder went, I was going, too," Grandal says.
It's not hard to see why, as the connections between the two players are striking: Both were born and grew up in Havana. Both were baseball brats as children on the island. Both left Cuba at a young age under remarkable circumstances and moved to Miami. Both attended the University of Miami and were then drafted in the first round by the Reds just two years apart.
"It just seems like we're a package deal wherever we go," Grandal says.
And that was the case on Dec. 17, when he and Alonso (along with Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger) were traded to the San Diego Padres for 24-year-old ace Mat Latos. Fate had struck again. It seemed inescapable. The two were inseparable.
Alonso, barring an injury or an unforeseen development, will be the Padres' first baseman this season. While Alonso, who Keith Law ranked as the 69th-best prospect in baseball, is not your typical home run-hitting corner infielder, scouts tout his ability to hit the ball to all fields, and Padres officials believe the 24-year-old has the prototypical swing to play in the offensive graveyard that is Petco Park.
Grandal, whose defensive abilities trail his offensive skills, will surely begin the season in the minors, but could make his major league debut this season. Incumbent catcher Nick Hundley appears entrenched at the position in 2012, but the Padres did not acquire the high-profile Grandal (No. 65 on Law's list) to be a backup. The 23-year-old finished the 2011 season at Double-A and posted a .901 OPS across two levels. He will play in the majors, and it will be soon.
As part of internal conversations during trade discussions, members of the Padres front office not only spoke highly of the pair's baseball abilities, but they also marveled at their respective work ethics.
These were not your typical former college baseball players from middle class families. They learned the value of hard work and sacrifice during a life spent on the humble streets of Havana and in the Cuban community of Miami. Alonso and Grandal's families did not know each other in Cuba, nor did they know each other during those early years in Miami, but they shared remarkably similar experiences.
It was an immigrant life, a hard life, one Alonso and Grandal won't soon forget.
"Yonder always saw the reality of life," his father Luis said. "You couldn't hide from it."
As the Alonso clan boarded the plane in Havana in 1996, a 9-year-old Yonder was struck at his parents' sadness; his mother, Damarys, and father, Luis, were crying. Seeing them cry made Yonder cry. The family was leaving everything behind.
"It was pretty intense, I was scared," Alonso says.
The world was changing quickly for Yonder. Born to a father who had spent the majority of his life in Cuba's baseball leagues, he had imagined a similar fate for himself.
Luis Alonso began playing baseball at age 12 at a local boarding school in Havana. The catcher quickly established himself as one of the better players in the region. Though he would not make the national team, he was eventually selected to play with Havana's Industriales of Serie Nacional at the age of 18. A throwing arm injury derailed his career, so he acquired his coaching license and was hired by the Industriales to work with the team's catchers and to throw batting practice.
Yonder had grown up with a bat in his hands and was playing organized ball at the age of 5. During the summer he spent the majority of his life following his father around at the ballpark.
It was a humble life, but a good one. Yonder loved the game and hardly understood the difficulties of life on the island. But his father knew. Whenever he traveled to play baseball out of the country, Luis Alonso would grab whatever supplies he could -- soap, toilet paper, shampoo -- and bring them back home for his family.
By his mid-20s, Luis knew he did not want to stay in Cuba. Luckily, Damarys' father had American citizenship. It was a possible way out, though it would not be easy. Luis applied for the proper paperwork, and almost three years later he received word that his application was approved.
As is the case for many immigrants, the reality of the first couple of years in the United States fell well short of the family's dreams. The Alonsos lived in a one-room efficiency apartment that essentially served as one giant bedroom, living room and kitchen. Yonder and younger sister Yainee were the first to learn English, and Yonder's acclimation was aided further by baseball.
Luis and Damarys worked several jobs, and the family was able to upgrade to a two-bedroom apartment. Once Yonder was old enough, he also worked with the family cleaning offices, a job he kept through college. He'd wake up in the early morning to work out, then he would then go to class, and then study hall, then baseball practice and then go to the offices to clean.
It was quite the humbling experience for Yonder to spend his Friday nights playing as one of the most celebrated college players in the country and then having to scrub floors a few days later.
"While people spent their Sundays at the beach, we were cleaning," Luis says. "We showed the kids the value of money."
Luis and Damarys' sacrifices paid off when Yonder was drafted by the Reds in 2008. (He's not the only success in the family. Yainee is close to finishing up medical school at Miami.) To thank his parents, Yonder, who received a $4.55 million contract from the Reds upon signing, bought them a house.
"Sometimes, to appreciate things, people have to go through some struggles," Alonso says. "You learn to appreciate the things people do for you."
When Maria Gomez applied for the Cuban Migration program in 1998, she held no illusions. It was quite literally a shot in the dark, a Hail Mary, or whatever other cliché you want to attach to it. Simply put, her chances weren't good.
The program provides exemptions for a few Cubans -- an opportunity to legally migrate to the United States. Anyone applying was asking for a miracle. But as it turns out, miracles can happen.
"It was like winning Powerball," Gomez says.
Like most Cubans, she had tired of the everyday struggle of life. She worked several odd jobs, but her favorite was always being a math teacher, though that alone did not afford her enough to get by. Her husband Elieser would sell bread every morning to businesses and homes, but that also barely kept the family afloat.
Moving to the United States gave Gomez hope that she would be able to provide a good life for her son Yasmani. Gomez had separated from Yasmani's biological father when the boy was young and the bond between mother and son was intense. Until she remarried, it was just mother and son.
The only troublesome aspect of a move to the United States was that young Yasmani had surprisingly, and out of nowhere, established a pretty good baseball career for himself.
It had all began when the boy was about 4 years old. Though nobody in the family played baseball, and interest in the sport was minimal, at least by Cuban standards, Gomez's father, who in his youth played softball occasionally, decided to put baseball on TV. Little Yasmani sat enthralled. When somebody tried to change the channel, he cried like a banshee.
"Mama, please let me watch the game," he asked.
Gomez relented and a passion was born. Yasmani was addicted to the game. After he got home from school at noon he would go to his team's practice and wouldn't return until 7 p.m. After a short rest, and a bit of dinner, he would go back outside and would play until 10 p.m. Such dedication earned him a spot on the Cuban junior national team as a second baseman by age 9.
Gomez knew it would hurt her son to leave his fledgling baseball career behind, but the decision was not difficult. Life in the United States afforded her son the best future. After a year of sorting out the paperwork, Gomez was allowed to leave her home country in 1999.
Though Gomez had spent more than a year studying English in Cuba in preparation for her trip, she soon found acclimating would be difficult. Though she was an educated woman with a teaching degree in Cuba, she was forced to take a series of odd jobs in the United States.
"You had to take whatever job you could and accept it," Gomez said. "And you were thankful for it because not everyone could find a job."
Her job list included gift wrapper at a department store, nail shop attendant and factory worker at a clothing plant. Her husband worked in construction at first and eventually ended up at a bullet manufacturer.
At the very least, Maria's son seemed to be adjusting well. Yasmani, who was rail thin in Cuba, gained 20 pounds less than six months after the family had arrived. Though he had begun playing little league in Miami, he had outgrown playing in the infield. He was moved to catcher, a move that would turn out fortuitous for the family.
Grandal quickly made friends via baseball and became a star for Miami Springs High School, and was good enough to receive an offer from the University of Miami. The family was tested when Grandal was drafted out of high school in the 27th round of the 2007 draft by the Boston Red Sox. Gomez prayed and hoped her son would reject Boston's offer because she was intent on having her son go to college. She knew that professional baseball might make things easier on her family financially, but she strongly believed in the value of education. It was one of the reasons she had applied to move to the U.S. Eventually, Grandal spurned the Red Sox and went to Miami.
The decision could not have worked out better. In 2010, he was drafted 12th overall by the Reds and received a $3.2 million signing bonus. Like Alonso, Grandal's first major purchase was a house for his family.
"It was a relief when I got drafted, and especially as high as I did," Grandal says. "I knew I was going to be able to do whatever I could to help them out. They had done so much. They experienced so many things. Sometimes it seemed like we would take two steps forward and then five steps back. Once I got drafted, it was good for them."
There is destined to be another encounter soon between the families, though this one might not take place in Miami. The likely destination is San Diego, at a stadium called Petco.
Sitting in the family section of the stands, while enjoying a hot dog, or a fish taco -- it's San Diego, after all -- the families may remark upon the astounding coincidence that has brought them together at that particular spot, in that particular moment.
Or perhaps they may choose to reminisce about life in Cuba, the difficulties that now seem so far away, and a life that appears lived in ages ago. With time, even the hard times don't seem to hard anymore.
Just maybe, they will simply talk about how the Padres' first baseman and the Padres' catcher have just led the team to a win.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.