Cuban Ballplayers Often Risk Their Lives for a Shot at the Big Leagues

For decades, Cuban baseball players have taken dangerous and drastic measures, all in hopes of living out their dreams of suiting up in a big league uniform.

One only wonders if Steve Bellán, the first Cuban to put on the spikes on the diamond back in 1871, would have stayed home if he faced what today’s Cuban baseball players have to endure.

While their counterparts from Latin American nations have honed their skills in the American ball fields without having to secretly flee their governments, the choices afforded to Cubans are few: stay home and give up your dreams, secretly arrange to escape without your teammates knowing while with the team is in another country, or test the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean waters were many have perished.

A story in reported that the Cuban government would be open to the idea of letting its players sign contracts in the United States without facing the prospects of defection; a source who revealed details of the report told the site that the players would have to fork over 40 percent of their salaries to the government.

To date, however, the path to the Big Leagues for most ballplayers remains the same.

Arizona's Juan Miranda and Toronto's Yunel Escobar braved the sea to make their lifelong dreams come true, spending days under the hot sun and chilly nights at sea with in a raft  loaded down with strangers drawn from all walks of  Cuban life.

Miranda went 0 for 6 in his previous escape attempts. During one of those failed attempts, Miranda was caught and spent seven days in jail. But he finally hit a home run in his seventh attempt.

"I left Cuba for the Dominican Republic. It's an experience that I won't recommend to anybody else," said Miranda of his 2004 raft voyage, along with 15 to 20 other people, which lasted five days.

After settling his residency status in the Dominican Republic the following year, he inked a four-year, $2.7 million deal with the New York Yankees in December 2006.

"You don't know what could happen," explained Miranda, now a first baseman with the Arizona Diamondbacks, of his journey. "Thank God everything came out right."

Like Miranda, Escobar fled Cuba on a raft, but landed in Miami instead of the Dominican Republic, thus becoming draft eligible and forgoing the multi-million dollar bonus that Cuban defectors are eligible for when arriving fleeing to non-American territories.

Although the opportunity to defect might have presented itself to Escobar during Cuban national team tours of Mexico, Canada, Venezuela and Colombia, Escobar never entertained the idea of defecting. But, during the 1999 Pan-American games in Caracas, Venezuela, his best friend on the team, Brayan Peña, deserted the team and later signed with the Atlanta Braves.

From then on, tensions grew between Escobar and Cuban authorities, who suspected that he had known of Peña's plans to defect.

Faced with  reduced playing time on the Caribbean island's powerhouse team, Escobar began to focus on what his future in the communist nation held in store.

In October 2004, the Blue Jays shortstop, amongst a group of two dozen, braved the Atlantic Ocean on a raft, surviving two days before reaching American soil.

"I had a hard time because it was something that was a huge risk," said Escobar, who like Peña, was picked by the Braves in the second round of the 2005 MLB draft. "To be honest, it's something that I wouldn't wish upon anybody else." he added. "Its just too risky."

By contrast, Philadelphia Phillies relievers José Contreras and Danys Báez would have completely ruled out leaving Cuba on a raft had it been the only option available to them.

Contreras was lucky enough to gain his freedom during the Américas Series amateur tournament, which was held in Saltillo, Mexico, in October 2002.

Contreras had faced batters from the majors, like the time three years prior he struck out 10 in an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles in Havana. A heralded hurler in the Cuban league, Contreras had a lifetime record of 117-50 with as 2.82 ERA but knew it was already time to face stiffer competition.

He established residency in Nicaragua not too long after defecting in Mexico. Contreras then got a late Christmas present, signing a four-year deal  with the New York Yankees on December 26, 2002.

"Thank God I didn't have to come here through the sea. I tip my hat to those guys that have come here in a boat," Contreras said. "If I really had to do it, I wouldn't have done so because I'm really scared of the sea."

While Contreras withheld the particulars of his escape – except that he fled in a car – his Phillies bullpen mate Báez recounted his escape in full detail.

Báez and Contreras were with the Cuban national team in the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada. A young prospect at the time, Báez decided it was time to leave hours before the gold medal game, which, incidentally, the Cubans won.

Báez recalled running and eluding security agents and fleeing in a car that took him to a hotel. There, he spent 10 days as the search for him came up empty.

Although he signed a four-year pact for $14.5 million with the Cleveland Indians – this after several teams scouted him in Costa Rica after the defection – Báez said there was no way he would have risked his life by fleeing Cuba on a boat.

"I never considered that option. The truth is that it is quite a risk," said Báez, who since leaving the Indians in 2003 has spent time with the Tampa Bay Rays, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta and Baltimore.

"A lot of things can happen out there," he continued. "And the truth is that you want to play here and come to the United States, but you also have to be a bit intelligent when the hour comes to making that type of decision."

Perhaps down the road, the odyssey that Cuban stars have to go through will change and be on the same level playing field as their future teammates from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Adry Torres, who has covered MLB, NFL, NBA and NCAA basketball games and related events, is a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter: @adrytorresnyc.

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