PAN AMERICAN GAMES : Making a Pitch for Freedom : Baseball: Arocha left family to defect while Cuban team was in Miami. Now he fights the major leagues’ red tape.
His laughter comes often but not easily, usually growing from a nervous tale of what it is really like to live in Cuba, even for the privileged few.
Only weeks ago, national baseball team player Rene Arocha was a celebrity there, and he still made only about $340 a month, nearly $100 less than some military officers, who are truly the privileged few in Cuba.
Arocha didn’t have a phone, a car or a television. Nor did it matter that the waters surrounding Arocha’s home produce an abundance of seafood delicacies. He had never tasted lobster, seen a crab or even been allowed to linger in after-dinner conversation at a restaurant. There was no special table waiting for Arocha.
The 25-year-old Arocha was a physical fitness instructor, but his job was to pitch baseballs, which he did on the national team for 10 years. His employer, the government, paid his salary and provided his uniform. He was given one jersey to last the entire year.
But the lack of material things was insignificant to Arocha. Even if he had made more money, he says, there isn’t anything to buy in Cuba. What Arocha wanted was freedom. And what he held precious was his freedom to dream that one day he would be able to do his job in America. He has held that dream his entire life.
So it was not without thought three weeks ago that Arocha defected while in Miami, becoming the first Cuban baseball player to do so since Fidel Castro took over Cuba 31 years ago.
The Cuban national team stopped in Miami on its way back to Cuba after a series against the United States. Arocha, who won the final game of that series in Millington, Tenn., said he could no longer wait for the political situation to change in Cuba.
“I came in search of freedom, not just in the capitalist sense of making money playing baseball, but freedom of everything,” Arocha said last week in Canoga Park, speaking through an interpreter. “In Cuba, you are not free to do anything. There is nothing in Cuba. (I defected) for the freedom of human rights, to do what I want.”
Nevertheless, Arocha’s embrace of capitalism began immediately. He already has an agent and has held two tryouts for major league scouts, one in Miami and the other on Monday in Van Nuys.
He was befriended by Jose Canseco, who was born in Arocha’s hometown of Regla. Canseco, who was brought to the United States as a baby, brought Arocha to Oakland for the weekend, taking him to his games and introducing him around. While in the Bay Area, Arocha even purchased his first crab, from a sidewalk vendor on Fisherman’s Wharf.
“There is no law stopping you from ordering lobster or crab in Cuba, but you have to pay with a U.S. dollar,” Arocha said. “And if you get caught with American money, you go to prison.”
Last week, Arocha was taken to Gladstone’s Restaurant in Malibu, where he got his first taste of lobster.
“After we finished eating at Gladstone’s we were just sitting there talking, and Rene kept looking around, real uncomfortable,” said Angel Santos, who with partner Gus Dominguez represents Arocha.
“I said, ‘Rene, what’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘Aren’t they going to make us leave now?’ ”
The sad part about this story might not be whether Arocha has the skills to make it in the major leagues, but whether he will be given the chance. He wasn’t the best starting pitcher on the Cuban team, but his talent and 92-m.p.h. fastball were respected as major league quality, until he arrived in the United States.
Now, scouts are saying his fastball is only 84 m.p.h. And that’s about all they will say publicly.
Privately, scouts and general managers have told Arocha’s agents that they cannot discuss Arocha as a prospect because of a directive issued by major league baseball that forbids the signing of Cuban citizens.
In 1977, then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn wrote the directive to all major league teams. He forbade teams to hold tryout camps or negotiations for Cuban players. Also implied by the commissioner’s office, but not specifically stated, is that organizations cannot sign a Cuban player until he becomes a U.S. resident, which at the earliest would be a year and a day from the date he defected, July 10.
The commissioner’s office says the directive was originally issued in keeping with the U.S. embargo with Cuba. The directive has been upheld and has never been challenged. Arocha’s agents are prepared to challenge it, if necessary.
“When Rene defected, he became a Cuban political refugee, just like anyone else who defects, and is no longer a Cuban national,” Dominguez said. “Since he is no longer a Cuban national, he should be able to obtain a work permit and go to work just like everyone else governed under the (U.S.) Immigration Act.
“It’s just in baseball that Rene is being held back, and that is his work. Players from the Dominican and other countries can be signed. But, general managers don’t want to touch him because they don’t know what his status is.”
Dominguez says he has tried to learn Arocha’s status by phoning Commissioner Fay Vincent but that Vincent has not returned his calls.
Even with the uncertainty, Arocha says he still has no regrets.
“I felt fine from the moment I walked away from the team,” he says.
When the Cuban team’s plane stopped at Miami on July 10, Arocha was met by his father and aunt, who live there.
While the other players talked with friends and relatives in the lobby of the Miami International Airport Hotel, where the team was scheduled to stay overnight, Arocha told his aunt and father to keep walking. They drove directly to his aunt’s house.
In Cuba, a furious Castro reportedly ordered an internal investigation of Cuban’s security forces to “find out why Rene really left,” said Edel Arocha, Arocha’s uncle who was in Cuba at the time of Arocha’s defection but has since come to the United States. Edel Arocha, recently jailed for anti-Revolution demonstrations, was able to come to the United States under a political prisoner program.
“Then two days after he defected, the (Cuban) government ran a newspaper article accusing Arocha of high treason against the revolution and the National Institute of Sports,” Edel said.
Arocha has since talked twice by phone with his wife, Evelisy, who he hopes will be able to join him here. Arocha also left an 8-year-old daughter, Grettel. There is minimal fear that his family will be harmed.
“He is too high profile of a player in Cuba, and Evelisy, because of Rene, has a high profile also,” Dominguez says. “If anything happens to her, everybody will know about it, both in Cuba and here, and I don’t think Castro wants to get involved with that.”