A Winning Team

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.

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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.

But unlike many other defectors, Edilberto has remained faithful. Despite noble rhetoric about their love of family and freedom, it's a fact that many high-profile Cuban defectors--including former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Rene Arocha and current New York Met shortstop Rey Ordonez--have divorced their Cuban wives and remarried here.

"If there is someone responsible for the fact that these families are separated, it's not [the players]," Edilberto insists. "It's Fidel Castro."

And if there's anyone aware of how hard Castro has worked to keep those families separated, it's Edilberto Oropesa. Since he signed with the Dodgers a year after defecting, Edilberto has thought of little else but reuniting his family, only to be frustrated time and time again.

Those distractions have undoubtedly hurt his baseball career. While Ordonez, who defected off the same Cuban team two days after Edilberto, rose quickly through the Mets' farm system and will probably be named the National League's Rookie of the Year this season, Edilberto remains stuck in Class A--the bottom rung of the minor-league ladder.

"He's spent just about every penny he's earned on getting his family out," says Gus Dominguez of Canoga Park, Edilberto's agent and a Cuban emigre himself. "But it doesn't matter what the laws are, it doesn't matter what anyone else says. Basically you're at [the Cuban government's] mercy and whatever they want to say or do is going to be it."

A year ago, a government official sent word that exit visas had been approved. But when Edilberto's father showed up to claim them, he says, he was instead jailed, then beaten for even asking to leave. And when he returned to Central Espana, he learned the welding job he had at the sugar cane factory, where he'd worked for 37 years, had been given to someone else.

"They wanted to make sure I didn't forget Fidel," says the father. "That was their revenge for my son's defection."

Rita, 26, was also branded a traitor to the revolution and fired from her job as a nurse, leaving the family largely dependent on the money Edilberto sent home.

*

When Edilberto got the news in California, he fainted. That would have been a predictable reaction for most people, but Edilberto has never seemed like most people. Quiet, serious and generally unflappable, he acts several years older than he really is.

But apparently his big heart isn't quite as strong as his athletic body because last Tuesday Edilberto fainted again--only this time he was pitching before nearly 6,000 people in Rancho Cucamonga. Two days earlier, he had learned his wife, father and son had secured their visas for good; three years and one day after he defected, a reunion would take place in the only country the Cuban government would let his family go to--Costa Rica. The emotion eventually proved too much for Edilberto, who spent part of the night at Mount San Antonio Community Hospital in Upland.

Unfortunately, that won't be the last night he spends alone. After fighting Havana for three years, the Oropesas are now confronting a bureaucracy no less formidable: the United States government.

Less than an hour into their reunion, the Oropesas stood, frustrated again, among their scattered luggage outside the U.S. embassy in the Costa Rican capital. Its fortress-like walls were closed to them because Edilberto is a legal resident, but not a citizen, of the United States.

By phone, they learned that the family's petition to immigrate to the U.S. could take years to process. "They could have stayed in Havana and applied," an unsympathetic consular official said.

For now, Rita will remain in Costa Rica with her child and father-in-law. Edilberto, meanwhile, will return to Southern California later this week to take his normal turn in his team's pitching rotation. After all, his team, the San Bernardino Stampede, is in a pennant race and Edilberto, with a 9-4 record and 3.64 earned-run average, ranks among the best pitchers in the California League, earning about $1,200 a month.

And if, over the next two months, the U.S. government proves as intractable as the Cuban one, Edilberto will be back in Costa Rica in September, when the baseball season ends, for another teary reunion.

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