GRANDPA PUT DAD on a plane in Cuba when Dad was a teenager, never knowing if they'd see each other again. Dad got here without money, English or a job, but he met Mom and they struggled to make an immigrant American life together. They didn't have much in common beyond the language, the survival and the path. Mom too had been sent away as a teenager by her scared family and came to this country as Dad did, with no promise of a family reunion.
In Cuba, Mom was chased through the streets by police with chains for wanting to go to church. She was bullied by prison guards when she'd visit her political-prisoner brother, the walls fresh with firing-squad blood. So Grandma sent her away at 15. If you are a loving parent, imagine what your life would have to be for your solution to be sending your children fleeing to an unknown land with no assurances you will ever see them again.
The 90 miles of sea between Cuba and the coast of Florida are filled with those kinds of stories. Sometimes the desperation literally drowns. Sometimes it grows into something else, something like what my brother and I have become -- a painter and a writer, armed with all the freedom in the world. My parents made all the sacrifices so my brother and I would never have to make any. But impossibly, tragically, the Cuba my parents fled is the same Cuba the country's athletes live in today, more than half a century later.
The choice for the Cuban athlete seems easy on the surface, right? Just come to America. Defect. Money and freedom and opportunity and hope and possibility versus a poor island stuck in communist shackles. The choice would be easy if all the athletes could bring their families and friends with them. But that's not the choice. The choice ends up being money and freedom and opportunity and hope and possibility versus your family and friends. Would you give up everyone you loved most, the way my parents and grandparents did, for the mere possibility promised by the unknown?
Before you answer, consider this: Miami Marlins rookie sensation Jose Fernandez knew what he wanted. It is why he tried to defect so many times. He ended up in a Cuban prison for two months after one failed attempt. I asked him last year which was worse -- that time in a Cuban prison as a teenager or his first few months spent in America with freedom? It seems like an absurd question. But America was worse, he said, by far. At least in prison he understood the language and had commonalities with prisoners. Here, he would run into the woods and cry, missing his grandmother and thinking the other kids were mocking him. And Fernandez, mind you, was here with his father.
Pitcher Jose Contreras can tell you about the cost. In 2002 he left behind a wife, two daughters and eight older siblings to cash in with the Yankees -- the American dream, wearing the most American uniform in sports. He was so lonely and hungry for a link, any link, to home that he'd pay the tab for random Cuban strangers to go to dinner with him. His father died in Cuba before they could be reunited, so you know how Contreras attended the funeral and wake? By cellphone. With candles lit in his luxury apartment and a photo of his father on the table. He had captured his baseball dream, but those 32 Yankees millions didn't soothe him any while he was listening to those wails on the other end of the phone.
Cuba's best athletes don't stay there because of love of country. They stay there because of a more personal love. If the government were to collapse, if the rules were to change, those athletes would end up lapping onto our shores like so many waves, families in tow. The late Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson once famously said in rejecting offers to defect and fight Muhammad Ali, "What is a million dollars compared to the love of 8 million Cubans?" This is one of the propaganda machine's greatest quotes, but it is also the largest kind of lie, the one that has to be told when the truth is not allowed. First of all, Stevenson didn't have any understanding of what those dollars meant. Former Oakland A's pitcher Ariel Prieto kept his $1.2 million signing bonus in his jeans pocket for weeks because he didn't understand the concept of American banks. Second, Stevenson was under oppression's fist, and going against the government can result in harm to one's family, which is how my mother's brother came to be in prison.
My mother and father have soured on the Marlins over the years, what with all the housecleanings and the damn manager even professing to love Fidel Castro, but Dad had an unusual request for his birthday last season. He wanted to go to a game for the first time in a long time, in that neighborhood where abuelo and abuela used to live once they finally got here in old age. Why? Because Fernandez, the defector, was pitching his final game en route to National League rookie of the year, a symbol for the immigrant's fight. Dad walks a little crooked this late in life, and Mom labors with her knees, but damn if a sting didn't come to my eyes with gratitude as I watched them head to their seats, coming to root for all that is possible with a freedom their homeland does not know.