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No more home games

Cuban players can pay a high price, leaving loved ones behind for a shot at majors that might never come.

March 21, 2010|Kevin Baxter

GOODYEAR, ARIZ. — Leaving home wasn't as simple as Aroldis Chapman had hoped.

"It was very difficult," the pitcher confessed last month, half a year after walking away from Cuba's national team and defecting in the Netherlands. "I had to leave my friends, my family. Everything."

Including a baby daughter he has never met.

"But when I made the decision," he continued in Spanish, "like they say, you have to be brave."

He didn't come alone. The last two years have seen the largest exodus of Cuban baseball talent since Fidel Castro took power half a century ago, with more than 40 players defecting.

Chapman, a precocious left-hander whose fastball has been clocked at 102 mph, was considered the best prospect in the bunch. Only 22, he was signed in January by the Cincinnati Reds for six years and $30.25 million, the second-richest contract ever awarded to a Cuban defector.

And he isn't the only new millionaire. Shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria signed a four-year, $10-million deal with Toronto; shortstop Jose Iglesias got $8.25 million over four years from Boston; pitcher Noel Arguelles reached a five-year, $6.9-million deal with Kansas City; and infielder Leslie Anderson received $3.75 million over four years from Tampa Bay.

Expect the list to grow too, with top players such as pitching star Yunesky Maya, first baseman Jose Julio Ruiz and hard-throwing right-hander Reinier Roibal likely to sign within the next few weeks.

The biggest group, though, is scattered from Miami to Mexico and around the Dominican Republic -- about three dozen ballplayers who defected in pursuit of a major league deal that might never come.

"It's an incredible number out there. And their migration has a lot to do with their countrymen and teammates leaving and having success," said Bart Hernandez, a Cuban-born agent who represents several of the defectors. They say, " 'Hey, I'm just as talented as he is. He's in the big leagues. So I'm going to go.' "

The fact that, of the most recent signees, only Chapman and Anderson ever played for Cuba's elite national team only fuels the false hopes of others. And even Chapman was never a star on the island, posting a losing record in two of his four seasons in the Cuban league and a 5.68 earned-run average in two games in the last World Baseball Classic.

Of course, Chapman does have that triple-digit s fastball from the left side, plus he has yet to grow into his lanky 6-foot-5 frame. And he is young, which also explains why upstarts such as Hechevarria and Iglesias were awarded bigger deals than Anderson, who will be 28 by opening day.

"The older player pretty much is what he is," said Angels General Manager Tony Reagins, whose team scouted Chapman heavily. "Younger players, if you can cultivate them and develop them and you see from a projection standpoint these guys could be better than what they are currently, then it makes them a little bit more attractive."

Signing them, however, can be an exercise in patience.

Before a player is allowed to talk to a big league organization, his status must be approved by both the U.S. Treasury Department and MLB's commissioner's office, a process that can take a year or more.

While they wait, some players struggle to stay in top physical shape and lose their game-ready edge. Many have played no more than a handful of games since they left Cuba, where big league teams are banned from scouting. That further complicates the negotiating process since both scouts and agents often know little more about a player than his batting average and birth date -- and even those sometimes can't be trusted.

"It's difficult because you really don't get to see them as much, get to know them," Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty said. "In the Dominican, most times you can bring guys into your academy and work them out for a while, get to know them more on an everyday basis, their personality and so forth. So far with the Cubans, you have very limited exposure to them."

Jockeying among agents -- who often are paying a prospect's room and board -- is another issue. In the defector market, allegiances shift with the wind.

Ruiz, for example, had a spectacular falling out with his representative that eventually found its way into the Spanish-language media, with one newspaper printing the charges and countercharges between the first baseman and his former agent, Jorge Luis Toca, a defector himself who once played for the New York Mets. Even Chapman, whose wait was shortened dramatically because he defected in Europe with passport in hand, changed agents, leaving a trail of legal briefs in his wake.

"This is a mess right now," said one American League scout, whose team forbids him from speaking on the record. "It's crazy."

It would probably be worse were the very best players in Cuba on the market, but they're not. Members of the island's elite national team, who in the past received perks ranging from travel to cars, apartments and even government jobs, tend to stay put.

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