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Cuban former baseball players look back on 'defection' era

By - Dec 15, 2017

By Yvette Sanchez/For The Sporting Nation


America’s heartbeat in spring and summer is the sound of the crack of a wooden bat hitting a baseball.  But just 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, that sound is the sound of freedom.
           
Cuba's deteriorating exteriors is a daily reminder of a Cuba before the oppression of the Castro regime. The island is, in places, stuck in a time when baseball in America was just seeing faces of young stars like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Minnie Minoso.

It was the Golden Age of baseball, but for Cuba, it became the beginning of the end.

Fidel Castro's government did not allow its citizens to leave Cuba legally, much less their baseball stars; Cuba’s way into the major leagues was at a standstill.

It would be the 1990s before the United States would see its first Cuban player under the Castro regime play in a Major League game again. 

The first ever defector from Cuba to Major League Baseball didn't happen until 1991. Under MLB rules, scouts had not been able to go to Cuba to look at player.

The rule, since 1963 when the U.S. placed an embargo on Cuba, was that a scout would be able to scout players only if the player happened to be a part of a Cuban national team that took part in an international competition.

In 1991, Cuba made an agreement with the U.S. where it would send their powerhouse national tteam to play a U.S. team in a five-game series in Millington, Tennessee.

René Arocha, of the Industriales de La Habana, was in that international competition in Millington. On the team's flight back to Cuba, they made a one-night stopover in Miami, Florida.

Deciding to defect from his homeland was not only uncharted waters for the young player. The fear of the unknown for him and what would happen to his family back in Cuba weighed heavy on his mind.

Leaving Cuba for a better life was always his motivation, not baseball. But, leaving could also affect his family; not knowing what the government could or would do was frightening on its own.
           
Gus Dominguez would be the glimmer of hope for Arocha. A native of Cuba himself, Dominguez, like so many of his era, came to America for political asylum.

It was right place, right time for the two. Dominguez was in Miami with his advertising firm when mutual friends introduced them.

Knowing how hard it was to be in a country where you don’t know the language or the customs, Dominguez offered Arocha a place to stay with him and his family in Los Angeles.

At the time, Dominguez knew MLB star Jose Canseco's agent and figuring he could introduce the two, he offered a meeting to Arocha. Arocha jumped at the opportunity.

“When things fell through, he was frustrated. He told me, 'listen,  you’re the only one who has helped me and been there for me, will you be my agent?'" Dominguez said. "I told him, 'I know about baseball, but I know nothing about being an agent'. He said, 'It's OK, I don’t know how to be a professional baseball player either, so we’ll learn as we go.'”
           
It’s stories like this that are so common in the circle of what is Cuban baseball. An unspoken bond between players then and now.

Between Cubans of an older generation and Cubans of today, not many things have changed in Cuba over the last 58 years.

Castro has died, but the country remains under the Castro regime, kept alive by his brother Raul.
           
Arocha’s first steps were brave and a way to expose the talent that Cuba had. Those who defected couldn't go back to Cuba.

That has changed somewhat and a few have returned to visit their families in the last few years. Those who leave the country are seen as traitors to the revolution.

For Cuban natives like Ariel Prieto, another "defector " and former Oakland As pitcher who is now a coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks, going back to Cuba has never been an option.

Prieto came to this country legally, but he also met Dominguez, who then led Prieto in the right direction. Prieto was the first Cuban defector to be paid $1 million dollars.

When it comes to Cuba and Major League Baseball, Prieto knows things aren’t changing anytime soon. “ If Cuba says no, the MLB has to follow, since our home country isn’t free, we have to let them do whatever they want," he said.
 
The constant with Cuba and baseball is the extreme talent that comes out of the country. Josue Perez, who defected in 1997 and was also represented by Dominguez at one point, always sees that talent and heart.

Now a minor league roving hitting instructor for the Texas Rangers, he comes face to face with the struggles he once faced.
           
“You come from nothing, then have the opportunity to have a lot in a short period of time. The first year to year and a half is a struggle to balance, Since 1991 Cuban players have gained a lot more guidance and support," Perez said.

All these men had a common theme, they were all venturing out into the unknown. The yearning for a better life and a chance to live their dream was the goal.

These men often times leave everything they know behind, family, friends and piece of their heart in hopes of a better life. From the sobs of leaving their loved ones, to the roar of thousands cheering them on, they can’t help but feel indifferent.
           

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