Adeiny Hechavarria starred in Cuba as a teen before defecting in 2009 by sailing to Mexico with 11 others. He signed a four-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays in April 2010, and the slick-fielding shortstop made his major league debut for the Jays in 2012.
After that season, he was traded to the Miami Marlins in a 12-player deal, earning his first Opening Day start for Miami in 2013 and playing as the Marlins' everyday shortstop for more than four seasons before being dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays in June.
ESPN's Marly Rivera caught up with Hechavarria to talk about his response to the growing number of Cubans in the major leagues, the difficulty with playing in the United States while there's political turbulence at home, and whether the Marlins can start to draw more fans in Miami.
Why did the team wear T-shirts with the Venezuelan flag during batting practice?
I got to the clubhouse and saw that there was one of these shirts in every locker. I know everything that is happening in Venezuela. And yes, I am wearing it to support my Venezuelan friends, both here and on other teams. We understand what they're going through. I understand it more than anyone; as Cubans, we know what it is like to go through that. I think it's also so they can see that we support them.
Is it hard to focus on baseball when that kind of turmoil is happening back home? What advice would you give Venezuelan players on how to deal with it?
It is really difficult, very difficult. ... It's very difficult when you are going through something very personal, like it happened to me with my dad in Cuba. It was no game. He was taken prisoner many times for trying to leave Cuba; it's a very stressful thing. I was 20 when that happened; my mind was not as strong as it is now.
But the one thing I can say to them is that you have to stay strong mentally and have a lot of patience. I think that's what they can do. What I can tell them is to have a lot of patience because it's so hard. I went through that, it's so hard, just so difficult to explain. I understand perfectly the pain they're going through because I went through that.
What does it mean for Cuba to see this increase in Cuban baseball players in the major leagues, as we have seen especially with the White Sox and the Mariners?
There's a TV channel in Cuba where they don't really broadcast games, but sometimes they show quick info and they talk about some of the Cuban players [here]. When I call Cuba, they're always talking to me about it. It makes me so happy because now in Cuba they are seeing what Cuban players are doing here. That is a very positive thing. Every year, another Cuban comes to the major leagues. That's really good.
With Yonder Alonso, Seattle now has four Cuban players on the 25-man roster. How is it for so many of you to be together now, especially since many of you have known each other since you were kids?
It's something amazing and at the same time exciting. I played in the Pan American Youth Games with [José] Iglesias, with [Dayán] Viciedo, and they also came here to the major leagues. It's exciting to see each other and have a chance to say, "You remember when we were in Cuba when we did this and that? And now look -- we're here!"
We talk about those things sometimes. It's great. I'm really glad Seattle did that -- there are a lot of Cubans there and I think it's very good.
After all that you and your family went through to get here, when you look back do you think it was all worth it?
Yes, of course it was worth it. My dad was caught 13, 14 times [by the police] trying to get out of Cuba. It was very stressful. Good thing I was playing Double-A when that happened. But I could not play well. It was incredibly hard; really stressful. Now I can say that it was worth it. My dad is here with me. We are happy. He has already gone back to Cuba and was able to come back. So think so, yes it was worth it.
Have you seen the restrictions to return to Cuba relax a little?
Well, yes. I think that they are relaxing things a little because in the past no one could go back in. Now you can do it after waiting eight years. I think things are getting better.
Do you find it strange now when you go to an airport in the United States and see flights headed to Havana?
To be honest, it's a bit strange, because you never saw that before. It's a little something positive. It makes me happy because when you see that, you think like, "Wow, you could never do that before." Look now, it's true that things are changing. It's a good thing.
Have you adapted completely to living and playing baseball in the United States?
I can honestly say, yes. I understand English well. I talk a lot [in English]. I'm shy to do it on camera because I get nervous, but I have adapted a lot, a lot. It's not something that worries me, thinking about not being used to being here. But you can say that I have adjusted well [to living in the U.S.] and mostly happy to be here making my dream come true.
You were traded to Tampa Bay, but with the poor season the Marlins have had, do you think Jose Fernandez's absence was a factor?
Yes, of course it affected us. The reality was that was very painful for us. Jose Fernandez was a guy who was always smiling, playing around with you. We were very close. And yes, the team did suffer a lot with that. After what happened [Fernandez's death in a boating accident], at least what was left of the season back last year, it was never the same and it was a very hard to focus on the game. It was really a very difficult thing.
I got traded from Miami, and I'm happy because I'm still in Florida. It wasn't like they sent me really far away. There are also a lot of Cubans here in Tampa and I'm happy with the trade. It didn't make me feel bad because as everybody knows, that's how things are; there's a trade today, a trade tomorrow. Maybe later on I'll be playing for another team. But I'm happy to be here in Tampa having the opportunity to play every day. And I thank the Marlins also; they gave me the same opportunity to play there every day.
Why do you think fans are not very supportive of the Marlins and there's such poor attendance in Miami?
I really don't know why. It's a difficult thing to figure out. I think maybe, because a lot of Cubans live there, there should be more Cubans in the team. It can be a reason. But I really don't know much about it or how to explain it. I do think it's in part because there aren't more Cuban players there. I think if there were more Cubans in the team, in a city where there are so many Cubans, fans would go more. I think that could be a factor.