September 12 , 2007

Defection no guarantee of success for Cuban baseball players in U.S.

By Chris Talbott, September 12, 2007.

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 Western Hemisphere.

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 parents.

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 agent.

"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 national team.

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

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 success.

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 with that."

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 two weeks.

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 majors.

"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 prison.

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 minor leaguers.

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 up."

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 it."

AP Sports Writer Gregg Bell in Seattle and freelancer Amy Jinker-Lloyd in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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