The challenge for Cuban defectors

Playing baseball is just a small part of the adjustment for these ballplayers

Updated: June 1, 2012, 2:16 PM ET
By Hiram Martinez | ESPN Deportes

Chapman/MoralesUS PresswireLife in the United States has not always been easy for Aroldis Chapman and Kendrys Morales.

It is a plan that is simple yet at the same time complicated: Defect from Cuba. Whether it is traveling with the Cuban national baseball team or a risky trip via raft, then seeking political asylum in a country outside the United States and hoping to get a good offer from one of the 30 MLB ball clubs with the guarantee of millions of dollars.

The complicated part for the new generation of Cuban baseball players is abandoning their families and friends in Cuba, adapting to a new culture and a new economic system, learning English and, well, everything else that comes with life in the United States.

"It's a huge change," said Yoenis Cespedes, who signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the Oakland Athletics in March. "It was tough to leave my family, my 2-year-old son, and come here. But at the end of the day, I am a Cuban, and we can adapt to anything. I am a person who, when he gets out onto the playing field, I block everything else out, all my problems. This is my dream, and my family, my friends, they all support me."

Cespedes already realized part of his dream by earning a job as the A's starting center fielder and showing fans his incredible physical gifts.

The second part of the dream has just started, and Kendrys Morales and Aroldis Chapman can attest to that. Both traveled the route of Cespedes a few years back and both are still in different stages of adaptation. The trio heads a new wave of Cuban players in MLB, who come from a very different reality of Cuba, even though they maintain the standards of quality of their predecessors: Adolfo Luque, Martin Dihigo, Luis Tiant, Tony Perez, Tony Oliva and other greats.

"There is a big group that is going to grow in the next few years," said Bert Campaneris, who played on the Oakland A's team that won three World Series titles from 1972 to 1974. "The number of Cuban players is going to triple, because there is an endless supply of talent. But for now [as long as the United States' trade embargo against Cuba still exists], the young players have to take the risks they are taking."

Pro baseball has been banned in Cuba since Fidel Castro took over in 1959, but his national amateur team has been a world power ever since, winning three Olympic gold medals, 12 Pan American Games gold medals, and even finishing second at the World Baseball Classic in 2006.

But the grueling economic crisis the island faces and the chance to test talent outside Cuba tempts the country's top players to try to escape and test their luck in the major leagues, an alternative that was never considered in the 1970s or '80s. (The famous Cuban players of the 1970s, such as Luis Tiant and Tony Perez signed with major league clubs before the embargo was enacted in 1962.) In that era, the most talented knew there were still ways to earn money. But Cuba's first economic crisis in 1991 dashed those hopes. Rene Arocha was the first to take the risk.

Culture shock

Arocha, who spent 10 years on Cuba's national team and played on three world championship teams, defected in 1991 during a series of U.S.-Cuba national team games in Tennessee and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Cespedes, Morales and Chapman, like Arocha, felt they didn't play upon a big enough stage in Cuba.

"I was with the national team since 2003, but the treatment I received was not the same as with other players," Cespedes said. "The poor attention paid to me was what made up my mind. I put up with enough, this year I couldn't stand it anymore and I decided to leave. My family supported me. If I had known, I would have left earlier. I was born to play baseball and in Cuba they crushed my dream."

Not only do the Cubans have to learn a new language, like the majority of the Latin American players in MLB, but they also face a new economic system that allows them to buy anything their money can buy. At the same time, they are forced to face situations they never encountered in Cuba: buying a car, securing a mortgage on a home, paying taxes, looking for sound investments to protect their newfound millions, defining which friends are with them for their money or have other interests. All of this happens suddenly for them.

"That is the most difficult part of the change," said Ariel Prieto, a former pitcher who left Cuba legally in 1995 and played six seasons in the major leagues. "This is a very organized game of baseball, that depends on rules, fundamentals, attitudes and discipline, and it presents you with the guarantee that if you are aggressive on the field, you will succeed. The game doesn't ask you for anything else, that's it, and it gives you everything, all you have to do is be the best on the field.

"Off the field, that is another story. There is an adaptation process, a new way of living, you leave your family behind, but it is their dream, they have a lot of desire and that will help them be successful."

Prieto, who is now a coach in the A's organization and serves as Cespedes' interpreter, took a different route than the rest of the players of his generation. Because he emigrated directly to the United States he was subject to the amateur draft, and the A's took him with the fifth overall pick in 1995. He signed at the end of June and made his debut that July.

However, he faced the same challenges adapting to the new lifestyle as did the others.

"Arriving here in the United States is a shock for everyone," Prieto said. "All of a sudden you are in the big leagues. I came in the middle of the season and Yoenis came at the start of spring training, but I know what he is going through in terms of adaptation and I know it is not easy. On the other hand, in Cuba there is no Class A, Double-A or Triple-A. The 17-year-old kids are playing with veterans and they play a more creative baseball. As a result, you arrive here with lots of experience."

Morales, who successfully left Cuba after several tries and signed with the Los Angeles Angels as a free agent in 2004, said he thinks the adjustment to professional baseball is much easier than those off the field. The opulent lifestyle of the major league players, who have folks to carry their luggage, the five-star hotels and the money for everything, can be a double-edged sword.

"There are several obstacles," said Morales, who would not reveal details about how he left Cuba. "First, the language, and then the way of living. Everything is a little more splendid, no? Capitalism is very different, too. And you have to make a lot of adjustments. So when you arrive and you see the airplane travel, the luxuries they put in the clubhouse, how the players can manifest themselves here, that is a big adjustment for me. I have to be mentally strong so it doesn't affect me.

Chapman, who signed a six-year, $30 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds a few months after he left the Cuban national team during a tournament in The Netherlands, says baseball is the easy part.

"On the field, I am not doing anything different from what I did in Cuba. The same goes for the training," he said. "The toughest part is adjusting to the United States and everything that implies. The key is to adjust as quickly as possible so it doesn't affect you on the field."

Chapman made his first attempt to leave Cuba in 2008. He was not successful and was subsequently suspended from the team for Cuba's national tournament and then from the team that went to the Olympics in Beijing. He reappeared on the team for the World Baseball Classic, and finally accomplished his goal during a series of games in Rotterdam in the summer of 2009.

"After that I went to Spain and ended up in Andorra, because it was easier to fill out the paperwork and all the procedures," he said.

In Cuba, Chapman left behind his parents and a newborn daughter.

The sleeping giant

A whole host of Cuban pitchers have followed Rene Arocha's path, including Prieto, Osvaldo Fernandez, Rolando Arrojo and brothers Livan and Orland "El Duque" Hernandez. Shortstop Rey Ordonez broke the chain of pitcher desertions when he left in 1993.

"Really, it was us pitchers who went crazy," Prieto said.

In 1970, there were 30 Cubans active in the major leagues, among them Campaneris, Lius Tiant, Miguel Cuellar, Tony Oliva and Tony Perez. In 1986, Perez's last season, there were just two left. And in 1991, before the first wave of pitcher desertions, there were just four major leaguers who had been born in Cuba: Nelson Santovenia, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro and Tony Fossas.

The international success of the Cuban amateur team, including its two victories in exhibition games versus the Orioles in 1999, served as evidence for fans that Cuba had great hidden talent that tempted scouts from all the major league clubs. But the talent of Cuban greats such as Orestes Kindelan, Omar Linares, Antonio Munoz, Antonio Pacheco, Omar Ajete and German and Victor Mesa remained unquantifiable in big league terms.

The new generation, however, wanted to erase any of those doubts. Last year there were 18 cubans on big league rosters. More than 30 are expected to play up at some point this season. And while many assumed Cespedes would need to spend some time at Triple-A before joining the A's, he has proven he belongs.

"There is a lot of talent and a lot of desire," said Prieto. "I am not a politician, I believe in unity through baseball. There are a lot of players in Cuba who know that they can play at this level. It is a matter of getting the opportunity."