Brave Hearts

Growing up a street apart in Cuba, best friends Yunel Escobar and Brayan Peña had the same dream: to wear the Atlanta uniform. How they made it is a story of courage and, they say, destiny
April 27, 2008

THE TWO teenagerssit transfixed in front of a television in a Mexico hotel room, where they areplaying in an international tournament. The Atlanta Braves—America's Team!—areplaying. This is the first major league game that either boy has ever seen.Thirteen-year-old Brayan Pe√±a, the older of the two by 10 months, follows theaction, but he is drawn to something else. He has always been màs chubby thanthe other boys and never had a proper-fitting uniform. He is mesmerized by thecrisp home whites of the Braves, the way the red logo pops off the jerseys."Let's grow up to be Braves," he tells his best friend. "Yeah,"says Yunel Escobar, "let's be Braves."

THEY SHAREDeverything growing up. Gloves, bats, balls, cleats, dreams, favoriteteams—Atlanta Braves, baby!—even the same Buena Vista neighborhood of Havana.But here is something they did not share: a small fishing boat, with sharks andsix-foot waves snapping at its sides as it washed across the Florida Straits inthe first week of October in 2004. Escobar, who would turn 22 in another month,and at least two dozen others were crammed into the rickety vessel. His bestfriend, however, had already reached freedom. Five years earlier. In thebackseat of a Mercedes. Without him.

Peña had wantedto tell Escobar about the plan he had helped hatch back in the spring of 1999.That April the two boys were members of the Cuban 17-and-under national teamthat would play for the Junior Pan-Am championship in Caracas. Brayan was thestarting catcher, Yunel the starting shortstop. After a sleepless night ableary-eyed Brayan was waiting in the hotel restaurant on the morning of thechampionship game when Yunel and the rest of his teammates arrived forbreakfast. When Yunel asked about the bags beneath Brayan's usually brighteyes, Brayan said only, "Nerves. For the championship, of course."

Numerous agentshad descended on Caracas for the tournament, including the gentleman who,according to Brayan, had e-mailed him three days earlier. The agent had toldBrayan to look for a man in a white hat and white shirt in the hotel on themorning of April 15 if he wanted to defect. And don't, the e-mail warned him,tell a soul. As if Brayan needed the reminder. He knew what happened to thosewhom the defectors left behind. The lie-detector tests, the jail cells, theconstant surveillance. After breakfast Brayan persuaded one of the five guardsassigned to watch the team to let him go to the bathroom by himself. Instead hewent to an elevator, pushed the button for the lobby and kept repeating,"White shirt, white hat. White shirt, white hat." When the doorsopened, Brayan stopped for a moment, confused by the sight of a man in onecorner of the lobby wearing a white shirt and another on the other side wearinga white hat. Then a man wearing both waved his arms and steered Brayan into thebackseat of the black Mercedes. Brayan knew that Yunel would feel betrayed. Butin this case, betraying his friend, he knew, was the best way to protecthim.

Still, Brayan'sdefection would have consequences for Yunel. Cuban authorities did not believethat two boys who spent every weekend together—Brayan pitching the first gameof a doubleheader for the Mariano team, with Yunel as his catcher, thenflipping positions and gear with his friend for the nightcap and following itup with a heaping scoop of Coppelia ice cream—would not have shared such asecret. As it turned out, Yunel lost his best friend and gained the company ofsecurity guards who seemingly shadowed him everywhere for two straight years."I couldn't even go to the bathroom by myself," he says now.Frustrated, Yunel would turn on his guard in the street and yell, "NO. ME.VOY. No me sigas màs!" (I'm. Not. Going. Stop following me!) There would beno more international tournaments for Yunel, no luxury car waiting to whisk himaway to freedom. A boat, two days adrift at sea, would be his only opportunityto leave.

DESTINY IS theonly explanation anyone in the Escobar or Peña clan offers for how two youngmen, best friends who grew up one street apart in Havana, could find themselveshere, standing on the third base line of Nationals Park in the capital of thefree world. As boys, Yunel Escobar and Brayan Peña had proudly worn and swappedJohn Smoltz and Tom Glavine jerseys that a family friend had smuggled intoCuba. On this March night, the first of the 2008 major league season, they worethe same crisp Braves uniforms that had so mesmerized them as boys. Escobar, abudding star, was the starting shortstop and second batter, Peña a backupcatcher to two-time All-Star Brian McCann. "If you wrote our story,"Peña says, "no one would believe it."

After Escobar'sboat finally washed up in Miami in October 2004, he tracked down Peña's mother,Carmen Puente, who had managed to leave Cuba in 2002 and had settled in Miami.Peña was playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. When he returned toMiami in January 2005, five years of separation dissolved in one embrace. Thetwo young men spent that first evening together at a Cuban restaurant, whereafter a series of "You go first! No, you go first!" they filled in thegiant gaps in their lives.

Escobar startedby updating Pe√±a about Pe√±a's extended family still in Cuba. Then he spoke ofhis two days at sea, where he barely spoke, not even to his five teammates fromthe Havana club Industriales, Cuba's version of the Yankees, for fear ofagitating other fellow passengers who were beset by dehydration, hunger andsickness. "Someone might just throw you off the boat if they didn't likeyou," Escobar said. He told Pe√±a about the numerous suspensions frombaseball that finally persuaded him to leave. He told how once, out offrustration, he'd thrown a ball at a fan, which led to one suspension. How he'dbeen suspended on another occasion for not wearing the right pair of blackpants. How he'd been benched by coaches who questioned his loyalty to FidelCastro. And, most important to Escobar, how proud he had been when he read in anewspaper that his màs chubby friend had fulfilled his childhood dream—theirchildhood dream—and signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves.

Peña reciprocatedwith stories from rookie ball in the Appalachian League, where he hit .370 forDanville to win the batting title in 2001. The climb after that had beenslower: two seasons in high Class A before being promoted to Double A in '04.He told Escobar how much he had missed him, missed that ear-piercing whistlethat got a rise out of almost every opponent they'd played as juniors.

A month laterPeña was back in spring training with the Braves while Escobar remained behindin Miami to audition for major league scouts. The Braves took Escobar in thesecond round of the 2005 draft, 75th overall. "We saw him as a premiumtalent," says Roy Clark, Atlanta's scouting director. "A lot of clubsdidn't feel that they had enough background [on him]." Escobar's tenserelationship with Cuban authorities in the aftermath of Peña's defection hadlimited his exposure to major league scouts. With little more than a fewoff-season workouts to draw upon, most teams were reluctant to take a chance onEscobar. The Braves, however, had an inside source: Peña, who was called up tothe majors just days before the '05 draft. Clark peppered the young catcherwith questions about everything from Escobar's skill set to his command ofEnglish to his family background. "The best recommendation we got was fromBrayan," Clark says.

Escobar receiveda $475,000 signing bonus ($775,000 less than his best friend had been givenfive years earlier) and moved quickly through Atlanta's farm system, showinggood plate discipline and a flashy, if erratic, glove. Last June 2, two yearsafter he was drafted, he made his big league debut. He went 2 for 4 with agame-winning double against the Chicago Cubs and hasn't stopped hitting since.He batted .326 in 319 at bats last season, alternating among shortstop, thirdbase and second base. During the off-season he lived in Miami, answering 7 a.m.wake-up calls from Edgar Renteria ("¬øEstàs ready?" Renteria would ask),who put his apprentice through all-day workouts even after Renteria was tradedto the Detroit Tigers in November—a move, ironically, that was forced by therapid development of Escobar, who is seven years younger than the Colombianshortstop.

Having packed 12pounds of muscle onto his 6'2" frame, Escobar has gotten off to anotherquick start in 2008, hitting .324 with a .529 slugging percentage in theseason's first three weeks. Braves bench coach Chino Cadahia, a fellow Cubanwho is close to Escobar, says, "He plays with ..." and pauses beforeadding "ànimo," or soul. McCann compares Escobar with the Marlins'Hanley Ramirez. This is hyperbole, of course, but at the very least Escobar hasearned entrée into the National League East's club of elite shortstops, whichalso includes the Mets' Jose Reyes and last year's National League MVP, thePhillies' Jimmy Rollins.

As for Peña,well, destiny has a sense of humor, doesn't it? While Escobar's career racesforward like, say, a black Mercedes, Peña's better resembles a fishing boatadrift. Peña is blocked by McCann, who is two years younger than his backup.Despite a .314 career average in seven minor league seasons and an MVP award inthe 2007--08 Dominican winter league, Peña has never batted more than 41 timesin any of four big league seasons. "I don't have any doubt in my mind thatBrayan Peña is a major league catcher," says Cadahia, a former backstophimself. "He needs the opportunity to prove that he can play at thislevel."

"Not too manypeople have the opportunity to play with their childhood best friend," Peñasays. "Every moment I go to the field with him, it feels like we've beentogether forever. I am happy for his accomplishments."

WHAT, ESCOBAR isasked, has he liked most about his new country? "The sacrifices you makefor your family always bear fruit," he replies. That's also how he explainswhy he does not worry about Peña's future. Someday the sacrifices that Peña hasbeen making on Escobar's behalf since they were children will reward him asmuch as they have his best friend. Peña was the big brother who forced Escobarto do his homework so that his teachers in Cuba would let him play ball. Now heis the mentor who has introduced Escobar to MySpace and hi5 chats and textingon his cellphone.

The best friendstalk about opening a restaurant together someday, though neither knows how tocook. "But children," Escobar says, "they're my life. I like towork with them." Along with Juan Pablo Echevarría, a Miami trainer, Escobarhelps run a baseball academy for children ages eight through 12 when he returnsto South Florida in the winter. They have a team: the Braves, of course. Thechildren wear their pullover jerseys with pride and it is not hard to imagineone of the youngsters telling his best friend, "Let's grow up to beBraves."

DESTINY is the only explanation that anyone in theEscobar or Peña clan offers for how two best friends could find themselvesstanding here, on a third base line in the capital of the free world.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 PhotographyTWO WAYS ABOUT IT Peña (left, front; top inset) was whisked to freedom in a luxury car while Escobar spent two days at sea. PHOTOROB TRINGALI/SPORTCHROME/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOTOM DIPACE[See caption above] PHOTORON VESELY/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGESHERE'S THE CATCH Peña hit .314 in the minors but is blocked by McCann and has yet to play a full season in the big leagues. PHOTOJOHN BAZEMORE/APLATE BUT GREAT Escobar defected to the U.S. five years after Peña but rose quickly to the majors and the brink of stardom.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)