no guarantee of success for Cuban baseball
players in U.S.
By Chris Talbott, September
PEARL, Miss. (AP) - Just about every Cuban
boy hopes to play baseball for the national
team in the Olympics. It is only when that
wish is taken away - as it was from Francisley
Bueno - that thoughts turn to America.
Bueno made the 2004 Olympic team, but Cuban
officials deemed him a flight risk and left
him home. "When they wouldn't let me
fly with the team I decided to come here,"
Bueno said through a translator.
Bueno, who pitches in the Atlanta Braves
organization, is one of at least 135 Cuban-born
players to enter the minor leagues since
1991 when the Soviet Union fell, leaving
Cuba among the poorest countries in the
They fled Fidel Castro's regime on overcrowded
speedboats. They walked away from their
handlers during international competition.
They came to America as children with their
Scores did not achieve their goal. Of those
who entered the minor leagues in the last
16 years, just 24 have made it to the majors.
Some, like Yuniesky Betancourt of the Seattle
Mariners and Orlando Hernandez of the New
York Mets were nearly instant millionaires.
But most - like Jesus Valdivia, who was
cut after 33 days by the Devil Rays - lasted
no more than a year or two in the minors.
It is difficult to track Cuban players
because they can enter the country and the
baseball system two ways. Players who land
in the U.S. can apply for papers and enter
the minor leagues through the draft.
They also can go to such countries as Mexico
and the Dominican Republic and obtain paperwork
there. Those who enter the U.S. from those
other countries can avoid the draft and
are free to sign with any team as a free
"Some have made it and had success
while others have not, and the help that
you get is a big reason for that,"
said Betancourt, who signed a four-year,
US$13.75-million contract extension in April.
"Sometimes you don't find good people,
things don't turn out the way you thought
they would and they keep giving you the
runaround until it's too late and you don't
get the opportunity."
Baseball is wrapped into the fabric of
Cuba's identity, held captive by ideology
yet worshipped like religion. Tens of thousands
watch players of the nation's 16 teams compete
not just for wins, but for a spot on the
Beginning with Esteban (Steve) Bellan,
who played for the Troy Haymakers and the
New York Mutuals from 1871-73, at least
153 Cuban-born players have been major leaguers,
according to www.baseball-reference.com.
There was a steady procession of Cubans
to the majors in the 1950s. Then Castro
shut it down, following the communist principle
of amateurism over professionalism.
But when the Soviet Union fell, poverty
spurred player flight. Various sources,
including minor league records kept by PA
Sports Ticker, show a stream of players
coming to America after 1991. How many took
the great gamble and sneaked into the U.S.
only to fail to make it into the minor leagues
can't be known.
Few minor league records exist beyond the
1980s. And those records that were kept,
don't always have complete information about
a player's background.
Robert Gonzalez Echevarria, a Yale literature
professor and Cuban baseball historian,
said whether players make it in baseball
doesn't really matter.
"They're coming for freedom,"
he said. "Whatever they go through
here is better than whatever they had in
Cuba. Even if they had had mild success
or even major success in Cuba.
"It's not just an issue of making
millions here like El Duque or (Jose) Contreras.
It's a matter of having a life, of possibilities,
whatever those may be even out of baseball."
The mythos around Cuban baseball led many
to believe this new flow of players would
have a significant impact on the majors.
Beyond a few - Rey Ordonez was a glove whiz
at shortstop for the Mets and Livan Hernandez
was the MVP in the Marlins' 1997 World Series
victory - the players haven't realized that
But increased scouting of international
events leads major league administrators
to believe many of the best Cuban players
remain on the island.
"It's fair to assume that if more
of that talent became available it would
have a greater impact than we now get with
the small trickle of Cuban players find
their way into our system," Braves
general manager John Schuerholz said.
The Braves have had recent success signing
Cuban players. Two - infielder Yunel Escobar
and reserve catcher Brayan Pena - are on
the roster. Escobar was taken in the second
round of the draft last year after defecting.
He was hitting .325 in 78 games through
Sept. 9 as a middle infielder.
"(Escobar) has displayed phenomenal
talent and has fast-tracked through our
system after having been drafted last year,"
Schuerholz said. "We're very pleased
Escobar said the decision to defect was
an easy one.
"Everything was here," he said.
"Nothing was back there. I didn't feel
like I had to leave anything behind."
Bueno boarded a speedboat in Cuba and landed
on Big Pine Key, Fla., in 2004. He said
he may never see his family again, but he
sends money home and talks to them every
In Cuba, there is little distinction between
a baseball player and his neighbours. Bueno
said he would play for the Havana Industriales
in front of 50,000 fans, then walk home.
Over time it became easy to look to the
example of players like the Hernandez half-brothers
or Eli Marrero, who's had 15 years in the
"All of them are superheroes for (Cubans)
to look up to," Bueno said. "You
have to have guts to come here and go through
all you have to go through. To come from
Cuba here is not easy."
Court records show baseball agent Gus Dominguez
paid $225,000 to bring Bueno and Osbek Castillo
to the U.S. Other than to say he was scared
when he left Cuba, Bueno declined comment
about Dominguez and his trip to America.
The agent became the first convicted of
smuggling players into the country and was
sentenced in July to five years in federal
Bueno and Castillo, both 26, hope to follow
the eight Cuban-born players currently in
the majors. If they make it, they will have
overcome far steeper odds than their fellow
A.J. Hinch, the Diamondbacks' director
of player development, said Cuban players
face more difficulties than the average
minor league hopeful. Along with the language
barrier and family separation, players usually
have few resources beyond those offered
by their teams. They also tend to start
their minor league careers much later than
the average player.
While Bueno was recently promoted to triple-A
Richmond, Castillo has been struggling.
The right hander is 1-3 with a 5.89 ERA
in six starts and 22 relief appearances
for Arizona's double-A team in Mobile, Ala.
"Many of them have not been in their
prime and have not been here early enough
to kind of develop through the minor leagues,"
Hinch said. "Therefore they're kind
of rushed through the system to try and
figure out exactly where their talents stack
After struggling in 2006, Bueno, has shown
promise this year. He was 4-6 with a 3.67
ERA in 19 starts and more than 112 innings
for the Braves' double A-team in Pearl.
And the left-hander is 1-0 with a 2.79 ERA
in three starts since being promoted to
Richmond on Aug. 22.
Cuban officials often complain their players
are unethically enticed to defect. But Schuerholz
said he doesn't hesitate when he finds a
Cuban who fits his team's needs.
"I'm not a politician," Schuerholz
said. "I'm a baseball general manager.
We look for baseball talent wherever we
can find it. And wherever it is, we go after
AP Sports Writer Gregg Bell in Seattle
and freelancer Amy Jinker-Lloyd in Atlanta
contributed to this report.