Deceptive Practices : Prieto Played His Way Out of Cuba and Into the Major Leagues

THE WASHINGTON POST

Ariel Prieto decided to become a nobody. That was his secret. All his adult life, Prieto had been a hero, a baseball star in a country--Cuba--where baseball is, as he described it, "all that there is to love." His talent made him famous, gave him privileges most Cubans could not comprehend. It also made it impossible for him to leave.

To flee Cuba and realize his dream of playing professional baseball in the United States, Prieto had to defect or be approved for a visa. He was not allowed to travel out of the country, so defection was not an option. And he would never get a visa as long as he was a gem on Fidel Castro's beloved national baseball team.

So he gave up his talent, at least for a while.

In the winter of 1994, Prieto threw bad pitches and watched, impassively, as hitters turned them into home runs. He let his earned run average balloon above 6.00. He pretended his shoulder was sore, or his collarbone was cracked, or his arm hurt. Instead of pitching an all-star game, he fell off a bicycle and faked another injury.

Prieto did anything--everything--to make Cuba forget he once had a golden arm.

His plan apparently worked. Thirteen months after he applied for a visa, Prieto and his wife, Yanet, were informed their application had been approved. On April 7, the couple arrived in Naples, Fla., where Yanet was reunited with her father, who came to the United States in the Mariel boat lift in 1980. Two months later, Ariel made a splash at baseball's amateur draft, where the Oakland A's took him with the fifth pick overall. One month and one day later, he made his major league debut.

"I wanted to be free," Prieto said, through an interpreter, at the Oakland Coliseum. "Over there, nobody is free. I had liberties that most people could never even dream about, because I was a baseball player, but I still wasn't free.

"The country, it is just going backward. I can't imagine there is any country as bad. . . . I don't want to get into that. But I knew it was wrong."

To this day, Prieto does not know if the Cuban government recognized his name on the visa application and no longer cared, or if his name failed to set off alarm bells.

Prieto is certain he never would have been allowed to leave Cuba if he had remained a star.

"Then, it would have been completely different," Prieto said, through an interpreter. "They wouldn't have let me go. There would have been no chance."

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Once, Cuba provided a wealth of talented ballplayers to major league baseball. That was before Castro's revolution. Now, there are only a few Cuban-born players in the majors.

Just over two weeks ago, Osvaldo Fernandez, a Cuban pitcher, defected while the national team was in Tennessee for an international tournament. Rey Ordonez, a gifted shortstop in the Mets' system, did the same while in Buffalo with the national team in July 1993. He left behind a wife and a month-old child. He has not seen them since.

In August 1994, Euclides Rojas, closer for the Cuban national team, boarded a homemade boat with his wife, Marta, and young son, Euclides Jr., and made a harrowing journey across the Atlantic. The Rojas family was held at Guantanamo naval base for six months before Euclides Jr.'s illness earned them a hardship release. Euclides Rojas was taken in the 30th round of the amateur draft by the Florida Marlins in June.

These men--and others--followed in the footsteps of Rene Arocha, the Cuban pitching star who made a daring defection in 1991, and now plays for St. Louis. Prieto clearly remembers that day, when their plane home from an international tournament in Tennessee made a stopover in Miami.

With help from Cuban-Americans, Arocha got himself off the plane. He immediately requested asylum.

"We found out the next day," Prieto said. "They put us in thousands of meetings. They started telling us how Rene was a traitor and started telling us all the dirty lies about the United States.

"They were trying to scare us, but I just wished I had done it with him."

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In Cuba, members of the national team must play two games: baseball and politics. Prieto was excellent at one, but often refused to play the other.

Prieto had made enough waves to be banned from the Cuba's 1992 Olympic team. By the end of 1993 he was off the national team and classified a flight risk.

Without an opportunity to defect, Prieto and his wife applied for a visa in March 1994. Yanet's father, Alfredo Fernandez, had become a U.S. citizen, and served as sponsor on the application, made in Yanet's maiden name. Prieto's name was always on the second line, in smaller print. He did not think that would be enough.

"It's Fidel's underlings who get involved," he said. "It's like this competition--they want to say 'Look what I did. I stopped this guy or that guy from going.' "

So he decided to drop out of the national spotlight.

Prieto, Cuban record-holder for strikeouts in one game (20 against Nicaragua in 1990), tanked his final season in the Cuban winter league. He had been 11-0 in international play, now he lost to domestic teams. He had a rash of injuries.

His grandfather, perhaps his biggest fan, was heartbroken. Prieto was unable to explain; for safety's sake, only his wife and his mother knew.

A few weeks after arriving in the United States, Prieto joined Palm Springs. After months of pretending he could not pitch, Prieto went four starts before allowing an earned run.

His performance in Palm Springs--4-0 with an 0.96 ERA, 94 m.p.h. fastball--opened many eyes. Teams were skeptical of Prieto's claim he is 25 years old (most baseball people put him closer to 28). But they were tantalized.

"What we had was hearsay, or anecdotal, at the best," said A's General Manager Sandy Alderson. "Even our scouting personnel had questions about . . . who exactly he was."

After signing, with a million-plus bonus, Prieto has made a slow A's start: 2-5 and 4.96 ERA. But he has had several strong outings.

And when Prieto started for Oakland on July 7, his grandfather listened on Radio Marti, an offshoot of Radio Free Europe. He now understands.

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