Raptors pitchers play far from native Cuba

Jul 3 2011 - 10:21pm

Images

Raydel Sanchez throws a pitch for the Ogden Raptors during a game against the Casper Ghosts in Ogden recently. Sanchez and  teammate Yimy Rodriguez are pitching for the Raptors this summer after both have left Cuba for a better life and dream of finding freedom in the United States.
Standard-Examiner file photo
ANTHONY SOUFFLE/Standard-Examiner 
Ogden Raptors’ Raydel Sanchez delivers a pitch during the home opener game between the Raptors and the Idaho Falls Chukars recently at Lindquist Field in Ogden.
Sanchez
Rodriguez
Raydel Sanchez throws a pitch for the Ogden Raptors during a game against the Casper Ghosts in Ogden recently. Sanchez and  teammate Yimy Rodriguez are pitching for the Raptors this summer after both have left Cuba for a better life and dream of finding freedom in the United States.
Standard-Examiner file photo
ANTHONY SOUFFLE/Standard-Examiner 
Ogden Raptors’ Raydel Sanchez delivers a pitch during the home opener game between the Raptors and the Idaho Falls Chukars recently at Lindquist Field in Ogden.
Sanchez
Rodriguez

OGDEN -- For two Ogden Raptors pitchers from Cuba, beisbol is a ticket to the American dream.

For Raydel Sanchez, it was also the ticket to his dream of America.

While pitching for Team Cuba in an international tournament in Edmonton, Canada, in 2008, Sanchez walked away from the team to a waiting car and defected from his birth country, eventually making his way to his brother in Miami.

Yimy Rodriguez and his family came to the United States seven years ago, when they were included among 20,000 Cubans allowed to immigrate to the U.S. each year because of a 1995 agreement between the countries.

"We basically won the lottery," Rodriguez said.

Though the Raptors teammates have found freedom and a new way of life in the United States of America, the cost has been high. Family and friends were left behind in the island nation of Cuba, 90 miles from Florida but a world apart.

Sanchez's defection in Edmonton came two days after a pair of teammates had fled.

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was not pleased, calling Edmonton "a dumping ground" or "trash bin," according to online reports.

Away from Castro's Cuba, Sanchez laughed it off.

U.S. policy permits Cuban refugees who arrive in the United States, like Sanchez, to stay and qualify for residency and citizenship.

He hadn't planned beforehand to walk away from Team Cuba while in Canada.

"It was unexpected," Sanchez told the Standard-Examiner in Spanish, "but it was something I'd thought about."

Leaving his parents in Cuba was the toughest part.

"My parents never knew. It was very hard for them, and for me, too. I suffered," he said. "It was something I never talked about with them. It was all with my brother."

He made the decision in Edmonton after talking by phone with his brother in Miami, who had come to the United States earlier by boat.

"It still hurts my parents," Sanchez said, though they communicate frequently. "Their only two sons are here. If God is willing, with time, we will be together, but it was hard for them and for me."

His brother made the arrangements with the people who picked him up and helped him to the United States.

The 6-foot, 225-pound right-handed pitcher attended a junior college, Miami Dade College, then played in a baseball league in Colombia before getting a tryout with the Dodgers in Los Angeles. They gave him a second look at another tryout in Arizona, then signed him as a free agent in 2010.

On June 27, in his second start with the Raptors, Sanchez had 11 strikeouts in six shutout innings. At one point, he struck out seven in a row, one shy of the Pioneer League record.

His life has totally changed from what it was in Cuba.

"It was a very hard decision, because I had to leave my family behind, but like all Cuban baseball players, I wanted to realize the dream of playing professional baseball in the United States. It was very difficult, but I did what I wanted most. I signed as a professional, and now I'm with the Dodgers."

Coming to the U.S. is something the majority of his countrymen dream of, he said, because of the possibilities.

"Here, you can have practically whatever you want," Sanchez said. "In Cuba, it's not like that because of the communism. Here, it's a better way of life here."

Rodriguez is from Isla De La Juventud, a smaller island off Cuba's main island. He stays in contact by phone and email, and because he emigrated with the permission of the Cuban government, is able to visit occasionally. His last trip was a year and a half ago, and he remains close with relatives still in Cuba, including his biological father, his grandparents and cousins.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander realized professional baseball could become a reality in his last two years playing for Peru State College, an NAIA school in Nebraska. He was drafted by the Dodgers in the 27th round in 2010 and played in the Arizona League before being assigned to Ogden, a Rookie league affiliate of the Dodgers.

In his Raptors debut on June 20, Rodriguez struck out three over two scoreless innings in Idaho Falls.

He has adapted to the United States, Rodriguez says, though there are some things he still doesn't understand about the culture.

"I fit in really well with all the Americans, the people and the guys, but when I came here, it was a culture shock. I felt like I was in a different world -- different planet, almost.

"It was very difficult, leaving your family, your friends, your culture, your way of life."

Though he speaks English well now, learning the language was a challenge.

"It sucks when you try to say something and you can't express yourself," Rodriguez said. "You almost want to cry. You feel like you have a lump in your throat and you can't get it out."

Despite the adjustments, Rodriguez is grateful for his new country. He values every opportunity and doesn't take anything for granted, not even something as small as a pair of shoes.

"Even though I don't have a lot of things," Rodriguez said, "there is still that dream that you can change it."

Cubans in the United States have a phrase, he said: "In Cuba, you can't dream."

In their homeland, liberties that Americans take for granted are denied, like freedom of speech and political dissent, or the freedom to start and own a business -- but Sanchez and Rodriguez are no longer in Cuba.

Playing baseball in the United States, they have major league dreams -- American dreams.

From Around the Web

  +