The world gets a little smaller when Rays play Cuba

by Gary Shelton on March 21, 2016 · 2 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Rays

Monday, 6 a.m.

There was Luis Tiant and his baseball bat-sized cigars, and Bert Campaneris.

There was Minnie Minoso and his ageless birth certificate, and Cookie Rojas.

There was Tony Perez, the Hall of Famer, and Tony Oliva.

Together, they snuck off the island and away from the pennies they earned back home. There was Tony Gonzales and Jose Canseco, who was good before he went nuts and turned his life over to chemicals. There was Mike Cuellar. There was Rafael Palmeiro. There was Livian Hernandez and El Duque and Yunel Escobar and Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu and Aroldis Chapman.

Some came by boat. Some were snuck out by profiteering agents. Some left their families. All left their homeland. There are scheduled defections, dark cars flashing their headlights, speedboats, clandestine meetings, unscrupulous agents, henchmen with one-word nicknames, mistrust and misgivings.

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Once, the Tampa Bay Rays had a prospect named Alex Sanchez, who told a horrifying story of being on a crowded raft, and the food gave out, and the water. There was a shark that swam alongside the raft, just in case someone fell overboard. A little later, I read a story on El Duque, who told a similar story, right down to the shark. What? Where they Fidel-training sharks, chasing down everyone who had ever worn a glove?

It didn't matter. Life was better. Baseball was better.

They were quiet (Canseco aside). It was as if they could not quite figure out the opulence. Can you imagine? You do not speak the same language as your teammates, or the television, or the newspaper. But everyone speaks freedom, don't they?

The Rays' first star was a Cuban named Rolando Arrojo, who didn't speak English. One day, he walked off the field after batting practice. A fan leaned down and asked him for an autograph. “Not now,” he said in perfect English. And thus were his first words in English. “Not now.”

Arrojo was later traded for Vinny Castilla. I don't think anyone ever asked for his autograph.

Arrojo defected in the normal way in those days. His Cuban team was in Albany, Ga., when he gave security the slip. He snuck out of the hotel at a prearranged time, and a dark car flashed its lights. Then it was a merry chase to freedom.

If there was ever a Cuban ballplayer who didn't fit the stereotype, however, it was Jose Canseco back in the days before he was fully let's-nuke-the-Martian-polar-ice-caps crazy. In those days, a lot of people suspected Canseco was a juicer, but no one knew for sure.

One night, Cnseco and I fell into a strange conversation about see-through bases that lit up when a home run hitter touched them, and face-paint, and orange baseballs that counted extra and extra runs for distance and cheerleaders and extra body armor. It was a hoot.

Ah, but the most time I ever spent around Cuban baseball was during the 2000 Olympics. The United States upset that wonderful team to win the gold medal.

There was a distance, a distrust, to the Cuban players. Who can blame them? Who knew who was out to help them and who was out to help themselves?

The Americans, that year, were managed by pot-bellied Tommy Lasorda, a man of bluster and blarney. But behind Lasorda, the Americans won 4-0 on a three-hitter for the gold medal. And then he was in full speech. He talked about flags and anthems and stars and stripes and medals and Christmas and apple pie and love and faith and, most of all, Lasorda.

"This is BIGGER than the Dodgers," Lasorda was saying. "It's BIGGER than major-league baseball. It's BIGGER than the World Series. This is for the United States of AMERICA! "NOBODY thought we could beat Cuba!" Lasorda said. "NOBODY gave us a chance! NOBODY thought we had a good team!"

This was the team of Omar Linares, the team that had won the last two gold medals. They were cold and efficient, and they figured – once again – to beat the Americans at their own game. Cuba was 4-0 in the Olympics against the U.S., and they were 25-4 overall. They were emotionless, ruthless as Bond villains. but, man, could they play.

Maybe that was why Lasorda waddled across the field, a flag draped over his left shoulder, tears streaming down his cheeks? Look, there are times Lasorda seems to be working more from a script than sincerity, times he performs rather than informs. But this is where he is at his best, with a bunch of kids and castoffs who haven't heard his lines, who aren't on the mobile phone when he turns into a speaker.

"The FIRST pitcher who faced us threw the ball 93 miles an hour," Lasorda said. "The SECOND pitcher who faced us threw the ball 97 miles an hour. The THIRD pitcher who faced us threw the ball a HUNDRED miles an hour. And THESE GUYS BEAT THEM!"

Lasorda went on and on inside that gray corridor or of the baseball stadium in Sydney. Losorda's genuineness could be questioned from time to time, but not on this day. He compared a home run by Mike Neil to that of Kirk Gibson. He compared the win by the Americans to the best of the Dodgers.

"Guys in BASEBALL told me, "Tommy, they didn't give you a good team,' " he said. "And I said, "Are they ALIVE?' I didn't know WHO the hell these guys were. It didn't matter. We were going to make HISTORY! I told people, before we were done, the whole WORLD was going to know about these guys! If you don't like these guys, you don't like CHRISTMAS! ASK me if I made them believe. I made them believe they could PLAY."

Now, they share a field. It isn't much. It's an exhibition game, and it won't be long remembered by either side. Everyone will shake hands and nod. And we'll all notice that, really, we aren't that different. They probably think Canseco was a loon, too.

But, for once, the world will get a little smaller.

After all, baseball doesn't speak a language, does it?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Howard Powders March 21, 2016 at 3:48 pm

Oh, I’ll remember alright….if the Rays LOSE!!


Cecil DeBald March 21, 2016 at 8:32 am

Well, just off-hand I’d guess Phyllis Schlafly believes baseball should only speak English…



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