AS RANDY AROZARENA leans against the padded fence at the top of the Tampa Bay Rays' dugout, he tells me a story. It's about growing up in Cuba, loving soccer, but choosing baseball instead.
He sometimes looks distracted as he talks. His eyes make contact for a short time before wandering. To the empty blue seats around Tropicana Field a couple hours before Tampa Bay plays Pittsburgh. To the left field where he shines as one of baseball's most transfixing stars. To the seats behind it -- sections 141 and 143 -- which become Randy Land during Friday home games. During those games, fans wear Arozarena T-shirts and wave oversized cutouts of his head. If he hits a home run, everyone in those sections gets a free drink.
His eyes return to me as he continues his story.
"It's a sport I still love," he says of soccer, in Spanish, smiling now. He was a forward who scored lots of goals. Cristiano Ronaldo is his favorite player, and he remains a Real Madrid fan. He ultimately switched to baseball because it paid.
"Baseball was the only opportunity to make money and help my parents," he says. "That was the dream."
He looks away again. It's not for a lack of confidence. Anyone who's watched him play can see he's got that in abundance. It's something else.
"Baseball paid $4," Arozarena continues.
"$4 a game or a week?" I ask.
"$4 a month," he says. "Soccer paid nothing. That's why I transitioned to baseball, thinking about the future when I'd become a man."
He loves soccer, he tells me, because that's what his father played.
"What about baseball?" I ask.
Arozarena thinks for a second or two, then even longer. He looks down at the carpet. It's the color of terra cotta that is supposed to replicate the clay around the field.
He's silent. I've lost him, I think. Finally, he looks up.
The smile he's flashed between answers is gone. He's ready now to tell me about where he's been and the things he's gone through just to get here.
RANDY IS RIDING on a small boat in the middle of the Yucatán Channel, a strait that connects, or divides, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. These 120 miles are the shortest distance between Cuba and Mexico, where he's headed. Since 3 a.m. -- hours before sunrise to evade police -- it's been him and eight others on this boat, powered by a single motor, and their anxiety is growing. The waves rise a dozen feet high, making the boat feel fragile and that much smaller. The boat's tip has split. If they get caught, they'll be arrested, but that's not the worst possible fate. There are sharks in these waters. Everyone knows of those who have taken this same journey, entered these waters, and didn't come out.
Randy, 20, tries to ignore it all. Ignore that the only material things he owns now are the clothes he wears. Ignore the second guesses because they're no good anymore; he knew all the risks, and now he's here. At least he's on an actual boat. It may be small and broken, but others had left on rafts made from cloth, plastic, styrofoam and wood, all held together by tar and rope.
He closes his eyes, hoping to drift off to sleep. He opens them again; no sleep will come. So, Randy thinks about baseball and his family, his dream and his plan. He thinks of getting to Isla Mujeres, an island about eight miles off the coast of Cancún, Mexico. From there, he'll go anywhere his baseball talents take him. He has an uncle, Alberto, in the country. He'll stay with him as he trains and focuses on his path: MLB rules say Cuban players are eligible to sign as international free agents only if they establish residency in another country, so Randy will do that in Mexico. If things go to his plan, perhaps he'll find his way to the majors.
He thinks about his mother, Sandra. He thinks of his two younger brothers, Raiko and Ronny, and the friends he's left behind. And of course, he thinks about his father, Jesús.
It was just a few months ago that Jesús was on a baseball field, hours before Randy's game with Vegueros de Pinar del Río in the Cuban league. As Jesús waited, he ate a bowl of rice. He didn't know the rice had small pieces of shellfish cooked into it, and it triggered an allergic reaction. While waiting to watch his oldest son play, Jesús died. A random, tragic thing that changed everything.
The man who'd named his son Randy because he liked the way it rolled off the tongue was gone. A hole the size of a man got ripped from the tight-knit Arozarena family. His mother was alone. His brothers were 17 and 12 years old. The $36 a month he worked his way up to making from baseball wasn't enough. He worried if he had a bad couple of weeks, he'd be benched. If that happened, his dream would suffocate without ever having a chance to breathe.
In the days and weeks after his father died, Randy talked with his mother. He told her he felt a responsibility to take care of her and the family. And since Randy told his mother everything, he also told her he had to leave. She understood and gave Randy her blessing. They kissed and hugged, not knowing when, or if, they'd do it again. He would also tell his uncle Alberto about his plans, but no one else, not even his brothers -- he couldn't risk word spreading.
And so it was that, on the early, early morning of June 25, 2015, he got on a small boat with eight strangers. Atop that boat now, his eyes open, the waves of the Yucatán Channel crashing all around him, Randy asks his father to protect him. From what lies beneath and what lies ahead. And for the countless hours that follow, eternal hours, he does feel protected, though his fear never fades, not until the boat arrives at Isla Mujeres around noon.
Years later, whenever Randy would speak of those nine hours at sea, he'd tell people he survived by the grace of God. "The sea is very dangerous," he'd say. And whenever he'd talk about who organized everything, he'd call them la gente de los Estados Unidos -- the people from the United States. That's as specific as he'd get.
That part of his odyssey, he'd simply call his escape.
"I READ THEY'RE making a movie about your life. Is that still happening?" I ask Arozarena.
"No, that fell through," he says.
As we talk in early May, Tropicana Field's PA announcer is testing the speakers, practicing the lineup announcement for the evening's game. The concessions stands are empty except for those who work there. I can smell the butter from the popcorn being made, the oil frying seafood. Near the section 101 entrance, I can smell coffee, not far from where there's a photo collage of Arozarena stealing home against the Red Sox in Game 1 of the 2021 ALDS. Near the gate 2 entrance, I can smell donuts not far from the almost life-sized photo of Arozarena, flipping his bat as he stares into the same dugout where we're now talking.
"I changed agents and the plans for a movie fell through," Arozarena continues.
"You still want that movie made?"
"Yes," he says, "that's going to happen. If someone doesn't make that movie, I'll make it myself. But it's going to happen."
Because sometimes dumb questions lead to smart answers, I ask about his number.
"Is there a reason you wear number 56?"
Maybe there's a superstition behind it, I wonder. Like the time he played with Mayos de Navojoa and, as a joke, wore a teammate's cowboy boots to batting practice. Later that day, when he hit a home run, he was convinced they were good luck. From that day on, whenever he needed something more, Arozarena wore cowboy boots before a game.
"That's just the number they gave me," Arozarena answers.
He tells me the number on the back of his jersey doesn't even matter. More important than that, he says, is his last name.
RANDY IS WALKING across the international bridge in the Otay neighborhood of Tijuana; it's the bridge that connects, or divides, Baja California from the United States. Ramon Garcia, a Mexican scout with the St. Louis Cardinals, whom everyone calls Monchon, walks next to him.
The first time they met was about a year before, during the summer of 2015, not long after Randy got to Mexico. Randy was living in Merida, on the northwest part of the Yucatán Peninsula, almost on the opposite side from Isla Mujeres. A local baseball academy invited Monchon to a workout and Randy was there. Compared to other players, Randy was small and skinny; Monchon thought Randy didn't look that much different from a boy.
Randy always had a small build. As a 13-year-old, when he was left off a Cuban baseball team, coaches told him it was because of his size. That slight stayed with him, even as he made the Cuban youth national teams, playing in tournaments in Mexico and Taiwan in front of MLB scouts; even when he played in Cuba's main professional league, Serie Nacional de Beisbol; even now, here in Mexico, in front of Monchon. He was smaller, he knew, but he was better.
Monchon could see that immediately. Randy didn't have much power yet, but he was an athlete, so fast, so versatile, he could play just about any position. And though he didn't have much power, he had loose hands and wrists that allowed him to make split-second adjustments to pitches. Monchon could see something else immediately too: Randy's edge. He was fearless and aggressive in the field, to the point where some other scouts thought he was borderline reckless. Monchon thought it wasn't anything that couldn't be fixed with good coaching.
His confidence in Randy only grew in the following months. After the workout in Merida, Randy played in the Mexican Pacific Winter League in Navojoa, Sonora, about a 40-hour drive from Isla Mujeres. He led the league in home runs. He then played in the Mexican Northern League on the developmental team for Toros de Tijuana, near the U.S. border. He led that league in average and stolen bases.
For Monchon, evaluating Randy as a player was simple: He was a star. But other scouts had noticed that his personality was tough to gauge; he was shy, almost timid. And so Monchon's job was to break through the wall Randy put up, to make sure the Cardinals understood who he was. And so for about a month, he was with him every day. At first, when Monchon would ask Randy about where he came from, how he got to Mexico, and where he wanted to go, the answers came slow. Eventually Randy told Monchon his story, about the escape. He was impressed with Randy's humility and how he'd often talk with worry about his family in Cuba.
On Monchon's recommendation, the Cardinals signed Randy to a $1.25 million contract. The organization then told him to report to the team in Jupiter, Florida, as soon as possible, which is what brings Monchon and Randy to the international bridge in Tijuana.
As they walk, Monchon talks, Randy listens. It will be Randy's first time in the United States, and Monchon wants him to be ready for what awaits him; it won't be like Mexico.
"You've got to adjust to the rhythm of life there," Monchon tells him in Spanish.
"The food is different," Monchon continues. He tells him he will find Cuban or Mexican or any other type of food he could imagine, but it won't taste like home. Randy nods his head.
When they get close to the border checkpoint, Monchon tells Randy he'll be taken to a separate room and, because he is Cuban, authorities will ask him where he comes from, what he does for a living, how he got there, and anything else they want to know. Monchon tells Randy to answer honestly, show them his work visa, and tell them he is on his way to Florida to get medical exams for the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
"I can't be there with you," Monchon tells him, "But no matter what, and however long it takes, I'll be waiting for you outside." Randy says he understands.
For hours, eternal hours, Monchon waits. He sits. He walks to stretch his legs. He watches people walk and drive across the border. "Something must be wrong," Monchon thinks. Overcome by worry, he asks border agents what's taking so long. There was a shift change, they tell him, but waiting so long is normal. After three hours, Randy comes out. Monchon exhales and smiles.
As they walk again, now on the U.S. side of the bridge, Monchon tells Randy there will be moments when it will all feel overwhelming. That, living in what may as well be a different world, the adjustment will be difficult, but it isn't anything others before him hadn't done. If his dream is to take care of his family, and baseball is the plan, then this struggle is part of that.
"You have to work hard so you can reach the majors," Monchon says.
As they both walk to hail a taxi for the San Diego International Airport, Randy listens. From the airport, Randy will fly away and Monchon will stay.
"You have to work hard," Monchon tells him again before walking off. "So that everything you've been through, and the things you will go through, will only remain as a memory."
"I LIKE TO look at myself," Arozarena tells me as we stand a few steps outside the Rays' dugout.
"You like to look at yourself?" I ask, just to make sure I haven't misheard.
"Yes," he says. "That's the one thing I do when I'm not playing. I like to watch my highlight videos."
"Do you have a favorite highlight?" I ask.
There are, of course, many to choose from. Dozens of clutch at-bats from the 2020 postseason, when he set the MLB record for most hits, total bases and home runs. Hundreds of moments from the following season, when he was named the AL Rookie of the Year. Or more recently, there was the 2023 World Baseball Classic while playing for Mexico, when he hit a three-run double against Canada then stood on second base with his arms crossed, a pose that's become famous even though it just occurred to him in the moment. Or later in the semifinals against Japan, when he stole a home run. The ball was hit so high in the air, Benji Gil, Mexico's manager, said he and everyone in the dugout were sure it was gone. Arozarena jumped to bring it back, and then, as the stadium exploded, he stood still, so that everyone could behold the cause of that explosion.
After a beat, Arozarena finally answers, looking me in the eyes when he does.
"It's me," he says, "I like every highlight I make."
We both laugh.
"You always been this confident?"
"Yes," he says. "Of course."
RANDY IS STRETCHING on a baseball field in Palm Beach, Florida, surrounded by his new minor league teammates and yet feeling alone for the first time playing the game he loves. It's been a few weeks since he crossed the bridge from Mexico to the U.S., and he's struggling in el gringo, or in el gabacho, or in los united, or en el otro lado, as Randy's Mexican teammates call it. People here speak a language he doesn't understand. He's fearful of mispronouncing new words. He's confused listening to teammates tell stories and jokes during practice, not catching on to their laughter. Everything about baseball is suddenly unfamiliar -- this is why Randy feels alone, more so on the field than on the long bus rides or in the cheap hotels.
He's homesick; it hits him looking around Palm Beach, with its old millionaires and billionaires, most white, living in mansions. It is nothing like Arroyos de Mantua, the small town where he grew up. It had three streets, and the same road to get in was the same road to get out. That's where he learned to play soccer and baseball on a stretch of land where the right field of the diamond doubled as the soccer pitch. He played with no gloves or cleats, using a single ball.
Randy misses his dad. He misses his family and wonders how many more years will pass before he'll see them again. Out here in the middle of this baseball field, surrounded by perfectly manicured grass, all the equipment he'll ever need to play and the opportunities he'd risked his life to get, he misses them the most. He calls his mother every day, just to tell her he is alright and to make sure she is too, but that only makes it hurt even more.
Those first couple of months are the toughest, but he grinds it out -- you have to work hard -- and hits well enough that during the middle of the 2017 season, the Cardinals promote him to Double-A in Springfield, Missouri. Johnny Rodriguez is the manager there, and he sees some of himself in Randy. Rodriguez is Cuban too. He and his family left in 1965. He knows what Randy had gone through to leave, just like he knows the difficulty of living in a new country. That having money and being able to spend that money is part of the hard transition. Rodriguez sees Randy's talent, but also knows that alone won't get him to the majors. He's seen countless prospects never make it despite having all the talent. He doesn't want Randy to be one of those lost players, and so he goes out of his way to help.
In the time they are together -- about half of 2017 and the start of the 2018 season -- Rodriguez often sits Randy in his office, so many variations of the same conversation.
"You can't take a day off," Rodriguez says. "You got to go all-out."
"Stay away from trouble, run away from it," Rodriguez continues. He tells Randy to never lose his confidence and fearlessness, but never let it stray to arrogance either. "You got to make people believe they can win a championship with you."
Randy keeps nodding, sitting quietly.
"He's that way," Rodriguez says many years later, when asked about Randy.
"But don't let him fool you. He's a tiger."
I ASK AROZARENA whether, throughout any part of his journey, he ever felt doubt.
"No," he says. "I've always had confidence in myself, I've always done my best on the field and when I train. I don't think I've ever had a moment of..."
Before he finishes his sentence, he stops himself short of saying doubt. As I wait, I wonder if it's just one of those superstitions. Like Arozarena is so committed to positive thinking he refuses to even use a word like doubt. But looking at him as he answers, I realize this too is something else.
"Yes," he says, with the tone of a confession. "I did have a moment of doubt. It was when I got traded from St. Louis to Tampa Bay."
Arozarena had never been traded before. When Rays management called him before the 2020 season to tell him they'd traded for him, a few months after he had made his MLB debut for the Cardinals, he didn't know what that meant for his future. All he understood was that he no longer played with St. Louis.
"When I got removed from the team, I had doubt," Arozarena says the word again.
His eye contact doesn't break. He doesn't let go. It's almost too much.
RANDY IS SMILING and singing in the backyard of his home in Merida, Mexico. It's been years since he felt this way, this mix of joy, relief, thankfulness, and appreciation. Two years and almost three months, to be exact. Now, on this Thursday afternoon in early September 2017, he and his mother and brothers are finally reunited. Unlike Randy, who could've been arrested, his family left Cuba legally; he was a Mexican resident, so they were eligible for visas. Unlike Randy, who risked his life on a small boat, his family left home on a plane.
In the coming years, his brother Raiko will pursue his own soccer-playing dreams that'll take him back to Cuba -- playing goalie on the national team -- across Mexico and then to the United States. Ronny will also play baseball, trying to find his own path. He'll stay in Mexico with his mother. Together, they'll wait as Randy works to bring them to the United States, where they can join his wife, his daughters and Raiko.
But that's in the future. Right now, they're all together and the feeling is almost euphoric. At first sight, of course, there are tears, followed by kisses and hugs. That's followed by awe -- Randy has put on weight and muscle and is no longer the skinny kid who left Cuba. He has something he wants to show them: his 2017 white Camaro. After he got his family out of Cuba, that's the first big thing he bought for himself. They all take pictures together beside the car, and Randy wears the jersey of his minor league All-Star team.
Now, he's dancing with his family. Inside a blue wheelbarrow with specks of dried concrete, there's beer covered in ice. Three empty Corona bottles are on the floor, next to a large speaker. Poesía Urbana's "Booby Trap" blares from it, and Randy dances beside his mother. They move in unison, from side to side, to the rhythm of the music, smiling. Across from them, Randy's brothers and uncle, also smiling, dance while standing near the edge of a rectangular pool.
The water, and everything else, has never felt so perfect.
The water, and everything else, has never looked so clear.
"YOU'VE ALREADY ASKED me 300 questions, what more do you need to know?" Arozarena says.
It's the day after we spoke on the field, and Arozarena breaks into a smile as he sits in a chair in front of his locker, which overflows with a dozen cleats. When he first arrived in Tampa from St. Louis in 2020, he grew even more quiet, the silence of doubt. But that trade gave him the opportunity to play, and now he's in the middle of his fourth season here, the longest he's ever been on a team. He says he finally feels comfortable; the six-month season brings the stability of routine.
"My family and baseball -- that's what takes up most of my time," he says.
Arozarena turns his chair to look to the middle of the room, where four televisions wrap around a column. When he faces those televisions, Manuel Margot's locker is to his right. He's the closest friend Arozarena has on the team. Past Margot there's a wall of Latino players. If you stand in that part of the clubhouse, somewhere around the corner and wall where Isaac Paredes' and Harold Ramirez's lockers are, all you hear is Spanish.
"Randy, do you want a car wash?" a clubhouse attendant asks in English.
Arozarena shakes his head.
Sensing something's been lost in translation, the attendant asks again.
"Randy, do you want a car wash?"
The second time Arozarena nods his head up and down. He stands to dig his keys out of his pocket, and hands them over.
"I still don't understand," Arozarena tells me of his ongoing attempt to learn English.
"The first thing I learned were the curse words," I tell him.
"I don't even understand those words," Arozarena says.
RANDY IS SITTING on a stool, behind a table, along the center-field warning track of Seattle's T-Mobile Park. He's wearing his white Rays uniform with a blue cap. Over his right shoulder, there's a placard with his name and jersey number above the 2023 MLB All-Star Game logo.
It's media day, and cameras, microphones, voice recorders and cellphones are everywhere. Even Randy has his phone out, laying on the table, to capture this moment; he was selected by fans as a starter, finishing behind only Mike Trout in the outfielder vote.
"How does it feel to make your first All-Star team?"
"Did you think your arm-cross pose would become so popular?"
"Do you have any messages for your Cuban and Mexican fans?"
Randy answers every question like it's the first time anyone's thought to ask. If they're in Spanish, there's no delay in his response. If they're in English, they get filtered through the interpreter, Elvis Martinez. Randy is one of the most popular players here; during his 45-minute session, there's never a break in questions. Randy never fades, never looks away. When he was a boy in Cuba, he didn't know this sort of thing could exist, and he wants to enjoy every second of it. A few weeks ago, he bought a Louis Vuitton suit and shoes to wear during the celebration. He knew he wanted that suit as soon as he saw it; he took it off the mannequin and said, "This is mine because I'm going to the All-Star Game."
With the media session nearing its end, someone asks him about participating in the home run derby tonight; they tell him oddsmakers predict he won't even get out the first round.
"I've never been a favorite in anything," he says, "But I always end up amongst the best."
A few hours later, Randy doesn't end up winning. He finishes second, but over the course of three rounds, no competitor hits more home runs than him. In front of two of his daughters, he hits 82 in total. In the history of the derby, only Vlad Guerrero Jr. has ever hit more.
The oddsmakers should have seen it coming. During player introductions, when Randy walked across a stage in the infield, he was wearing his hat on backwards.
He was also wearing his lucky cowboy boots.
"THIS WILL PROBABLY be the last time we talk," I tell Arozarena.
It's late July. When we first met a few months ago, Tampa Bay had the league's best record. Now they're in second place in the AL East, three games back of the Orioles. Arozarena isn't concerned about it, saying it's too long of a season to worry about the short times of struggle.
He's sitting and I'm standing, both of us inside the visitor's dugout in Minute Maid Park, because if he appears outside of it, a couple of hours before the first pitch, the Astros fans will start yelling his name. He says whenever he plays in a city with a large Mexican and Mexican American population, fans, even those who cheer for the other team, shout his name, hold up signs saying how proud they are of him, and even give him things. Here in Houston, a family held up a Mexican flag and a sign that read, "Randy, we love you paisano, Viva México." Another fan gave him a maroon-colored Mexico baseball jersey with his name on the back.
"I won't be bothering you anymore with my questions," I continue.
Arozarena smiles, conveying what he's too nice to say out loud.
"You sure about that?" Arozarena asks.
"I think so," I say.
He sits there, in silence, wearing a Rays soccer jersey with his name on the back. The jersey was part of a promotional giveaway during the June 24 home game. It was a Saturday, almost eight years to the day when Arozarena risked his life for his family, his dream, his plan.
"Throughout this whole thing, I've been surprised by how quiet you are," I tell Arozarena.
When I first entered the Tampa Bay clubhouse back in May, I expected to hear his voice echo across the room. I imagined walking in there and him being the center of attention. That he'd be impossible to ignore, in the same way you can't help but notice him when he plays. Instead, I found him sitting by himself, silent in front of his locker, wearing dark sunglasses.
"Is there a difference between Arozarena the baseball player and Randy the man?" I ask now.
"No," he answers. "It's just a different scene."
He gives a slight nod to the field in front of us.
"There, I'm playing," he continues. "And in a different scene, I'm talking about other things."
Hearing his explanation, I feel the divide growing between me and Arozarena, the baseball player, the one who has a stadium full of fans yelling his name; who seeks and attracts the camera's attention; who is at his best when all eyes are on him. To be a baseball player is to perform, and he performs well, and how could I know where that performance comes from?
But I also feel a connection to this other side. The man who smiles when he talks of home; who gives to his family and friends back in Cuba whatever he can, and returns whenever he can; who took such great joy in dancing with his mother, side to side, in unison, after two years apart. The man who looks away when he thinks about what he's gained and lost following his escape.
I know this other side. Especially when he looks away, it is so familiar to me. When I was growing up, the son of parents who'd moved from Juárez to Colorado, I saw that side in my Dad, in uncles, in too many family members to count. Around friends, among those they felt most familiar, they were the life of the party. They'd sing songs and tell jokes in Spanish that made everyone laugh. They'd tell stories that made me clench my jaw and look down to blink away the watery red. Stories of the things they sent back home so loved ones wouldn't think they'd been abandoned, or worse, forgotten.
Stories of separating from people they loved and not knowing if they'd ever see them again. Stories of relationships broken when borders and time and dreams and silence got in the way. But around the unfamiliar, out in the world that was no longer their own, these same people were timid. They'd go quiet. I could feel their doubt, their worry. Sometimes they would ask me, still just a young boy, to translate a language they didn't understand. Many of them trying to keep some connection to that past while existing in this present, worrying that if they didn't straddle those two parts of themselves, they risked getting lost in those spaces the connect and divide. Many of them trying to live in a way that drew as little attention to themselves as possible.
The way that Arozarena almost looked lost all those months ago, sitting inside his clubhouse, wearing dark sunglasses so large, they covered most of his brow; so dark, I couldn't tell if he was with me or looking away. Standing in front of him now, in the visitor's dugout of Minute Maid Park, I remember something he had told me then: When things are going well, when he has hit a home run or made a spectacular catch, that's when he thinks of his father the most.
"From when you risked your life on that small boat until now, have you accomplished more than you expected?" I ask Arozarena, my last question before I walk away.
He looks right at me.
"I've accomplished what I deserved."