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What Price Freedom? The four latest Cuban players to defect risked their lives at sea and abandoned their families to anguish back home

March 30, 1998
March 30, 1998

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March 30, 1998

What Price Freedom? The four latest Cuban players to defect risked their lives at sea and abandoned their families to anguish back home

For 12 days the rumors flew. The men were dead. They were lost at
sea. They had been picked up by a freighter. They had washed
ashore in the Dominican Republic. All the rumors were wrong.
When it was reported last week that another group of Cuban
defectors--nine men, including four baseball players and a
coach--had stepped onto a makeshift raft and taken to the sea, a
chain of hair-trigger alarms was set off across the Caribbean.
"The whole city is going crazy," said one resident of Santa
Clara, in central Cuba, the home of four of the rafters. The
Bahamian and Dominican coast guards were mobilized. Helicopters
combed shorelines. Everybody was looking.

This is an article from the March 30, 1998 issue

"The search was so intense," said Guillermo De Paula, a captain
in the Dominican department of civil aviation, after spending
last Friday afternoon patrolling his country's northwest coast.
"We weren't looking for normal people. We were looking for
millionaires."

The search ended last Saturday, the day after the nine men were
plucked from their raft by the crew of a fishing boat near the
Bahamas. Whether the abilities of first baseman Jorge Luis Toca,
catcher Angel Lopez, second baseman Jorge Diaz, shortstop Maikel
Jova and pitching coach Orlando Chinea translate into riches
remains to be seen. What's clearer is that the long-simmering
dispute between the Castro regime and Cuban players and coaches
has reached its most dangerous point. According to the state
newspaper, Granma, Chinea, Diaz, Lopez and Toca were banned from
Cuban sports last year for offenses such as talking about
playing professionally in the U.S., speaking on the phone with
"traitors to Cuban baseball" and criticizing the country's
sports policies. Suspensions are the state's current answer to a
long stream of defections. Most of the escapes by Cuban athletes
in the past, however, were made while their teams were competing
in other countries and were relatively easy strolls out of
hotels or sprints to waiting cars.

Now the conflict has escalated: Expelled from their teams and
unable to flee during trips abroad, defecting athletes must make
a desperate escape by sea. What could be more embarrassing for
the regime than to have its world-renowned baseball players, the
jewel of Cuba's vaunted sports system, risking their lives to
get away--or, worse, dying and becoming martyrs? Unpredictable
currents and swirling winds can make the Bahama Channel a death
trap. The mortality rate among Cuban rafters is estimated to be
at least 40%. Orlando (el Duque) Hernandez, a banned player who
spent four days at sea last December with his wife and six other
refugees and recently signed a four-year, $6.6 million contract
to pitch for the New York Yankees, doesn't have fond memories of
the trip. "My message to the Cuban athlete is, Try to learn
about freedom," Hernandez said last week, "but don't take the
risks I did."

But the fact that Toca and his comrades--all members of the
Villa Clara provincial team in the Cuban league--took those
risks and succeeded easily will encourage others to follow suit.
Despite numerous reports that their raft set out to sea on March
10, the players and the coach hid in Cuba for 10 days, until
last Friday, then spent less than 24 hours on the water before
being rescued and dropped off on a Bahamian cay called Ragged
Island. Their gamble paid off instantly. By Sunday afternoon,
after being taken to a Nassau detention center, the ballplayers,
coach and four others on their raft were brought money, food,
clothing and immigration advice by Miami-based sports agent Joe
Cubas, who has made a career out of maneuvering Cuban
ballplayers out of their country, over visa restrictions and
into major league uniforms faster than most people get through
customs. The other 100-plus Cuban refugees being held in the
center--some for more than a year--greeted Cubas with a chant of
"We are equals!" and vowed to go on a hunger strike to protest
the preferential treatment of athletes.

Thus ended one of the most tempestuous weeks in the odd annals
of Cuban sports defection. It began on March 17 when Hernandez
arrived in Miami to begin his new life as a pro ballplayer and
spoke to the press. Alternately weeping and laughing--and
avoiding a question about the similarities between George
Steinbrenner and Fidel Castro (Hernandez: "Who is
Steinbrenner?")--he insulted Castro and said everything the
fervently anticommunist Cuban exile community could hope for.
There was applause. Then a reporter stood and informed Hernandez
and the world that a new group, led by Toca, was thought to be
lost at sea. Hernandez started to answer, but at that moment his
half-brother Livan, the Florida Marlins pitcher and '97 World
Series MVP, sailed into the room. The two hadn't seen each other
since Livan defected in '95. They hugged, and Livan kissed his
brother's shaved head.

Just as one Cuban family was beginning to heal, others began to
ache. Jova, barely 17, the youngest of the rafters and a member
of Cuba's junior national team, had given his family no
indication that he was thinking of leaving. He was never
political, even though his father, Pedro--who had played 13
years on the national team and then managed the Villa Clara
squad--was banned from the game last year for, according to
Granma, "speaking on the telephone with Rolando Arrojo," the
defector who now pitches for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Maikel
Jova "was not in disfavor with the system," said his stepmother,
Geidi Aguilera. "His whole life was baseball."

The morning of March 10, Maikel put on his uniform, grabbed his
spikes and his glove, and skipped downstairs into the narrow
streets of Santa Clara. He never came back. His father was
stunned. In the 12 days following Maikel's departure, Pedro
mumbled to himself, "Why did he have to run? Why did he do this
to me?" Pedro walked the streets endlessly. His blood pressure
rose, and his wife feared he would die of a heart attack. As
rumor after rumor about Maikel failed to pan out, as each day
brought more people asking how Pedro was doing, he refused to
speak. The phone kept ringing: reporters from abroad calling
with new leads. Last Friday came news that the rafters were in
the Dominican Republic. By the next day that story was dead.

"He's not talking to anyone; he's not even talking to me,"
Pedro's wife said on Sunday, even though news that Maikel had
been found in the Bahamas had filtered back to Santa Clara. "The
only person he will talk to is his boy."

Nearby, in the village of Remedios, in a cramped yellow house on
a rutted street across from a ball field, Francisca Gomez,
Toca's mother, knew just how Pedro Jova felt. Hour after hour
she took calls from people saying her boy was safe or in a
hospital or lost. "I'm dying of the pain," she said. "Nobody
knows what's really happening." She smoked cigarette after
cigarette, dropping ashes on a floor covered with tiny ash
heaps. She cried at the mention of her son's name. She is 56,
and now she'll be raising his 1 1/2-year-old son, also named
Jorge Luis. The boy looks, she said, just like his dad did at
that age.

When Toca, 27 (not 23, as reported), was banned last year, it
all but broke him, Gomez said. A member of the national team for
several years, he is the most accomplished player in the group
of rafters, a .300 hitter with power and above-average defense.
Barred from playing at all facilities in Cuba, Toca would go
running in the countryside and work out by himself. He never
wanted to play in the U.S., Gomez said. He wanted only to play
for Cuba. He loved playing with his son, too. "The only reason
he left is that they took baseball away from him," said his
godmother, Mireya Galanena.

Gomez dropped her head into her hand, and it looked as heavy as
stone. "I feel at any moment someone is going to knock at the
door and say, 'He is here, he wants to talk to you,'" she said.

That isn't going to happen. Her son is alive. But he's gone.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY VICTOR BALDIZON Home alone Toca may find wealth in the major leagues, but his mother and son don't know when, if ever, they will see him again. [Francisca Gomez and Jorge Luis Toca Jr.]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY VICTOR BALDIZON LOCAL HERO Toca starred on the team from his home province of Villa Clara. [Jorge Luis Toca throwing baseball]