HAVANA, Cuba -- In four decades of communism-style baseball on this island nation, perhaps no pitcher ever has been so gifted as Rolando Viera, a crafty left-hander who pitched for six seasons for the most prominent team, Havana Industriales, at the highest level of Cuban baseball, the National Series.
It's not because of an efficient motion akin to two-time Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves. It's not because of a forkball that falls off the table as surely as a baby's bowl at dinnertime. While respected, Viera's stuff is no more formidable than many of the other pitchers' in this baseball-rich country.
Viera, instead, was set apart from peers by what came in the mail one day: A legal invitation to move to the United States.
Viera had won the U.S. immigration lottery, a special program that allows 20,000 Cubans a year to enter the United States by flying directly to their new country with authorized paperwork.
No rafts. No midnight rendezvouses with speedboat smugglers. No hopping over the fence at some international tournament.
"The ticket to freedom," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Congresswoman and Cuban immigrant whose district includes Little Havana and many constituents who have used the program.
But cashing that winning lottery ticket was another thing. Once Cuban officials learned last November that he had won the U.S. lottery, Viera said he was banned from his Industriales team and stripped of his income. At the height of his career, he was suddenly made a pariah in Cuban society, someone that even his teammates began to avoid.
Without a salary, he could not afford to pay the $550 in exit fees the Cuban government charges lottery winners -- a king's ransom in a country where even many of the best-paid workers make no more than $100 a month. Viera was stuck, with neither his dream job in Cuba nor any clear route to a life in the United States.
"I talked to (baseball officials) and told them 'I don't have to leave here,' " Viera said through an interpreter. "I told them I was going to rip up the papers and everything. And they told me, 'No, we aren't going to let you play."
Over the past six months, ESPN.com and ESPN's "Outside the Lines" have been provided an inside look at one of the most unusual baseball defections in the 10 years since Rene Arocha became the first Cuban player in the Fidel Castro era to seek a career in the major leagues. From January when a frustrated Viera plotted his departure, to May when he hired a U.S. agent after arriving in Miami, to June when the Boston Red Sox drafted the southpaw on a guess and a prayer, ESPN followed his twisting journey.
Sea of redtape strands many Cubans
|Rolando Viera left Cuba with a U.S. entry permit and the ability to pitch but little else. Like many Cuban players before him, Viera hopes to play in the major leagues.|
At its broadest, Viera's story is about chilly relations between countries that remain sworn enemies four decades after Castro seized power of the Caribbean island nation. Last August, as Viera was struggling to get the results from a mandatory medical exam required to leave the country, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright lodged a formal protest with Cuba for routinely delaying or denying lottery winners the necessary exit documents.
"Castro likes to make sure that people know that if you've got talent, you should stay in Cuba," Ros-Lehtinen said. The U.S. State Department claims a list of 250 Cubans who have qualified for visas but can't get out of the country due to the reluctance of the government to let them go.
Viera's story also is about fighting baseball's form of socialism, the amateur draft. Major League Baseball forces Cubans, unlike other foreign players, into its annual draft -- a tool designed to distribute young talent evenly among the rich and poor of baseball teams. But more often it has caused Cuban defectors to seek legal residence or citizenship in third countries to ensure their free agency. Viera didn't want to leave the United States to play immigration hopscotch so he sued baseball to be declared a free agent.
The legal matter is proceeding and could change the way baseball treats all Cuban defectors, a group that's made a visible impact on recent baseball history. Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez has been stellar in the post-season for the three-time defending champion New York Yankees, and before him, half-brother Livan Hernandez led the Florida Marlins to the World Series title in 1997.
At its most basic, Viera's story is about the staggering personal price paid by all Cuban baseball defectors -- regardless of the method of defection.
Viera didn't cast himself into the ocean on a fishing boat as El Duque, his former Industriales teammate, did in 1997. He didn't leave the Cuban national team in the lurch, as Rolando Arrojo did in 1996 when he met up with agent Joe Cubas in Atlanta in the days before the Olympics. He didn't avoid Cuban authorities by jumping on a 70-foot speedboat -- owned by a Florida Internet entrepreneur -- that took him to Central America, as a group of Cuban players did when they defected in 1998.
Viera, in the form of his winning lottery letter, effectively asked the Castro government: May I please leave? But even in defecting through the front door, he had to leave behind a life -- including a new bride, a 1-year-old son and the only culture he has ever known.
"I love my country, my people," Viera said. "I love them."
There's no guarantee that baseball stardom awaits in his new country, either. Of the more than 50 Cubans who have defected in the past decade, barely half of them are still in professional baseball.
"Maybe five or six have had extended careers in the major leagues," said Joe Kehoskie, an agent who represents Viera. "I think a lot of it has to do with the off-field stuff, just the culture shock of coming to the U.S. Livan Hernandez was probably a good example of that. He came over here and the separation from his family weighed heavily on him. He gained a massive amount of weight and almost pitched himself out of baseball."
When opportunity knocks
WITNESS TO A DEFECTION
To understand to the issues of Cuban baseball defectors, ESPN.com approached agent Joe Kehoskie in January about his effort to orchestrate the impending departure of pitcher Rolando Viera.
ESPN cameras followed the story as it unfolded, filming in New York, Florida, Boston and Cuba, and interviewing Viera after he arrived in the United States in late April.
Watch the exclusive, behind-the-scenes report by ESPN.com senior writer Tom Farrey on "Outside the Lines," Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. It re-airs on Sunday at 3:30 a.m. ET (12:30 a.m. Pacific) and Tuesday, July 24 at 1 p.m. ET.
This story also is available in Spanish at ESPNdeportes.com.
At first, Viera never wanted to leave Cuba. It was his first wife, now divorced from him, who applied several years ago for the lottery. Eager for a better life, Lorraine Gutierrez sent the letter -- in Rolando's name and without his knowledge. She listed herself as his wife, even though at the time they had not yet married.
"He got mad at me because he knew that it was going to harm his (career) and everything, but I didn't care," Gutierrez said with a haunting laugh.
Viera was prepared to bring his current wife to the United States, as lottery winners are permitted to do. He brought his marriage certificate to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, but at the last minute got terrified that swapping out the name of his first wife and replacing it with his second wife, Lili Sanchez, could create more paperwork and give Cuban authorities another chance to prevent his departure.
"When I saw they were saying no to a lot of people, I got scared they'd say no to me," he said.
A picture of Lili now sits in the foyer of the Miami townhouse where he has been staying with an uncle, a cousin he hadn't seen in 15 years, the cousin's wife, and their son. Viera shares a room with the uncle and plays constantly with the cousin's son, Angel, whose presence is a welcome, but constant reminder of a son, Rolando, he may not see for a long time.
The final crossroads
Meanwhile, he waits to find out what his future in baseball holds. He hopes Boston, which took him in the seventh-round, makes him enough of an offer that he can send money home to his family members. But without the leverage of free agency, he is stuck.
"What can I do?" said Viera, who has had two impressive workouts for the Red Sox. "I have my mother, my father, my son, my sister, a lot of family to think about. If the offer's too low, I won't sign. I'll try again next year."
Viera lost the first round of his lawsuit against baseball, a request in June for a temporary restraining order preventing baseball from placing him in the draft. The judge, James D. Whittemore of the U.S. District Court in Tampa, did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit -- that can be determined later in a full hearing. But in issuing his order, Whittemore departed from his legal writing for a moment, and in a brief but telling sequence, adopted the position of the everyday sports fan.
If drafted, Whittemore wrote, Viera has "several options, not the least of which is playing professional baseball in the majors, an enviable opportunity for hundreds if not thousands of aspiring baseball players around the world."
Viera has a playful nature, but he can be pardoned if all this doesn't always seem like fun and games.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
|Viera now lives in Miami with relatives, including his cousin's son. The arrangment is a constant reminder of the son Viera left behind in Cuba.||