September 28, 2016

TO STAND (profanity alert):

From Cuba With Heat : Marlins rookie pitcher Jose Fernandez on his journey from Cuban defector to MLB All-Star (JORDAN RITTER CONN, JULY 16, 2013, Grantland)

If you wanted to find a good bat near Fernandez's childhood home in Santa Clara, Cuba, you were better off moving away from the trees and into the fields. Louisville Sluggers were predictably scarce on the island, so as a 5-year-old in search of a proper bat, he had to take inventory of the sticks near his family farm. Breaking a branch off a tree wouldn't work. A fresh branch, Fernandez explains, would probably be damp. Damp branches break.

He looked for sticks that had been on the ground for a while, those that had been hardened in the Caribbean sun. Once he had a proper bat, Fernandez took a spare bag from his home and wandered around in search of rocks. The best rocks, of course, were those closest in size to a baseball, but Fernandez couldn't be too picky. Whatever he found, he kept, at least long enough for him to toss into the air and smack with his newfound stick, hopefully far enough to pass the treeline that he designated as the boundary for a home run. Then he'd round the bases -- first might have been a tree, second a stone, third a patch of dirt, all depending on the day -- and he'd return to his sack of rocks and do it all over again. He played alone, hours at a time. He let himself dream. Someday, if he worked hard, he might make it to the Cuban League.

He had no reason to fantasize about the major leagues. For one, Fernandez knew nothing about MLB. "I heard that the best baseball was there," he says, "but it's not like I knew who the players were or who the teams were or anything." Second, he had no reason to think he'd ever leave Cuba. Though he shared a bedroom with his grandmother, by Cuban standards he was upper middle class. "Middle class in Cuba isn't the same as middle class here," says Fernandez's stepsister, Yadenis Jimenez. But Fernandez never went hungry. He never thought of himself as poor.

"We had no reason to want to leave Cuba," says Ramon Jimenez, Fernandez's stepfather. "For a lot of people, it made sense. But for us, we were OK."

In fact, Fernandez would probably still be in Cuba if not for a professional setback suffered by Jimenez. He was denied the opportunity to leave the country for a medical mission in Venezuela because the government deemed him a risk to defect. "Until then," he says, "we had no reason to ever want to leave Cuba, to ever even think about it. But that was a reminder. When you're there, it's like you're in prison. I had to leave." So he would defect first, Jimenez planned, and then he would save enough money to have his children join him.

Everyone in Cuba, Jimenez says, knows someone who knows someone who traffics defectors. If you want to escape, then you make a few calls, maybe hold a few meetings, pay somewhere between $500 and $10,000 (Fernandez says his defection cost about a grand), and the next thing you know, you're on your way to a boat. But that's the easy part. Most would-be defectors get caught, and generally, those are the lucky ones. Many Cubans refer to the stretch of water between Havana and Miami as the Caribbean's largest cemetery. If the current doesn't get you, then there's always the threat of a leaky boat, a soldier's bullet, or, in some cases, an aggressive shark.

Jimenez took his chances. Thirteen times, he failed. Usually, their boat never made it into the water. His group would approach the beach and wait for their ride, but as soon as the boat arrived, one member of the group -- an undercover agent -- would make a call. Police would arrive. If Jimenez and the others were lucky, they would go home. If not, they'd end up in jail.

Eventually, however, Jimenez noticed a pattern. The undercover agent would typically wait until the defectors made their final call -- the one coordinating the exact time of pickup -- and then initiate the bust. That way, when the boat arrived, police could arrest all parties involved. If a group could keep their pickup time a secret, he thought, then they could escape before the police arrived. Jimenez changed his approach. Instead of waiting on dry land, he and his group spent hours sitting in the water. The undercover agent, if one was present, had no choice but to follow. Only now the defectors left a coconspirator back on the beach with a cell phone, which he used to coordinate the pickup. Their arrangements could no longer be overheard. No one knew when the boat would arrive -- not Jimenez, not his fellow defectors, and not anyone from law enforcement who might have infiltrated the group. They stood in the sea, heads just above the water. They waited. When the boat arrived, they hopped aboard. If an agent were around, he'd have no chance to call for help. By the time he returned to dry land to get his phone, the defectors would be gone.

Once Jimenez made it to Florida, he settled in Tampa. First, he worked at the airport, washing cars. But soon enough he found a job in the medical field, and he saved enough money to begin sending for his family members. Jose was a teenager by then, just a few years away from being enlisted in Cuba's compulsory military service. He was also a pitcher with a decent fastball, and the more he talked to Jimenez, the more he fantasized about life in the United States. By age 14, he and his mother decided to defect.

Three times, they set off for Miami. Three times, they failed. Fernandez spent a few months in a Cuban prison, an attempted defector surrounded by murderers, a 14-year-old boy locked up with grown men. He doesn't ever want to think about the food again -- "I have no idea how I would even describe it in English," he says, "but believe me, you don't want to know." He tries not to remember all those bodies cramped into so little space. And he doesn't let his mind dwell on the inmate killings. "To them, their lives were already over," Fernandez says. "What did it matter to them if they killed you? That's just one more murder."

After Fernandez was released from prison, at age 15 he and his mother planned another attempt. This time, instead of leaving from the north to Miami -- for decades the expressway for Cuban defectors -- they would travel south to the province of Sancti Spiritus and depart from a beach near the city of Trinidad. Instead of heading to the United States, they would arrive in Cancun. The alternate route was longer but more lightly policed. The seas were rougher, but there would be no threat of seeing lights from the Coast Guard. In Trinidad, Jose and his mother, Maritza, met his stepsister Yadenis and her mother, as well as eight other hopeful escapees.

Along the northerly route to Miami, there will sometimes be dozens or even hundreds of potential defectors, all lurking by the beach and waiting for boats. But here in the south, Fernandez's group was alone. It was near midnight and the rain fell cool and steady and they scrambled for cover near the water until they found a cave. They dropped down inside and huddled together, their feet battered and bloody from the sharp rocks inside the cave. Nearby was a lighthouse, manned by police they assumed were watching for defectors. "We thought, They'll never suspect us here," Fernandez says. "No one would be crazy enough to do this so close to the lookout." When the light beamed in their direction, they ducked. When it passed, they allowed themselves to stand.

Posted by at September 28, 2016 1:46 PM

  

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