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A Winning Team

Baseball player Edilberto Oropesa, who defected from Cuba three years ago, was finally reunited with his wife and child in Costa Rica. After battling the Cuban government they're taking on the U.S.

July 16, 1996

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Someday Edilberto Oropesa will explain to his son why he wasn't there the day he was born. He'll explain why he missed his son's first smile, his first words and his first tentative steps.

Someday.

For now, he'll just enjoy listening to Eddie Jr. say the word "Papi."

After a torturous 2 1/2-year wait, Edilberto Oropesa, 24, held his irrepressible son for the first time Thursday when, amid a crush of photographers and bemused bystanders, he was reunited with his family outside the Juan Santamaria international airport here.

The emotion moved even bystanders to tears. No one, however, cried more than Rita Oropesa.

And for good reason: Ever since her husband defected from Cuba on a humid July evening in 1993, she'd dreamed of this day. And when it actually happened, it was better than she had imagined.

"I'm the happiest woman in the world," she said between sobs, her cheeks streaked with tears that showed no sign of stopping. "I've fought for this for three years and today I did it. But I still can't believe it's happened."

You want family values? Joined by love, then separated by politics, Edilberto and Rita Oropesa fought a long, lonely and--everyone said--unwinnable battle against a heartless bureaucracy simply for the right to be together again.

And guess what? They won.

*

Oropesa--currently the winningest pitcher for the Dodgers' San Bernardino farm club--was a left-handed pitcher on the Cuban team in the World University Games in Niagara Falls, N.Y., when he surprised everyone by scaling a 12-foot chain-link fence and sprinting across a parking lot screaming, "asylum, asylum," the only word of English he'd bothered to learn.

Although Edilberto had planned his escape before he left Cuba, he decided not to tell his wife. She would try to talk him out of it, he knew, and besides, she was two months pregnant and Edilberto didn't want her worrying about him now. But on a more practical level, he kept his secret because if the Cuban government could prove his wife knew of his plan to defect, she would probably be jailed.

Rita heard about her husband's defection in news reports, reports that branded her husband a traitor to his country and family. The Oropesas knew better, however, and Edilberto says their encouragement helped him through the lonely times.

"[Rita] has always supported me, she's always told me I did the right thing," he says. "That was very important to me. It helped me a lot."

And he needed all the help he could get. While times were tough in Cuba, at least Rita had family and friends to lean on. Edilberto was alone in a strange country.

"I knew it would be hard, but I wanted to make a sacrifice for my family," he says. "I wanted to make a sacrifice now so that things would be better in the future."

The present, after all, was no great shakes. True, Edilberto was one of Cuban baseball's rising stars: By 21, he had already pitched for the powerful Occidentales in the island's elite four-team Serie Selectiva and won a spot on a Cuban national team. But that didn't put food on the table. He earned nothing for playing baseball and his regular factory job paid little more, the equivalent of $1 a month.

"Not a day," he repeats for an unbelieving visitor, "but a dollar a month."

"When he was away at training camp, he ate OK," says his mother, Magalis. "But when he was at home, he got nothing extra."

Memories of those days kept Edilberto going in the lonely weeks after his son's birth. The delivery was a difficult one, he learned, and Rita spent several days in the hospital surrounded by family and friends, but not her husband.

"The only one missing was the most important one: the father," she says wistfully.

Soon the photos began arriving and, over time, Edilberto began to see himself reflected in the pictures. His son had the same angular face, the same nose, even the same close-cropped haircut.

For 2 1/2 years, he hugged those photos, kissed them and cried over them. But until last Thursday, that was as close as Edilberto ever got to little Eddie.

*

The courtship of Eddie's father began in grade school. In Central Espana, a tiny town in the sugar cane-growing province of Matanzas--directly across the Straits of Florida from Key West--there are no strangers. And from the time Rita took notice of her younger, athletic neighbor, she knew he was something special. By the time they reached high school they were dating, and--to the surprise of no one--when she turned 18, they married.

That was seven years ago. Since then, they've spent almost half their time apart. First there were the baseball games and the training camps that took Edilberto all over Cuba. Then there were the trips abroad with the national team and, finally, the defection.

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