Heartache and happiness for M's Betancourt
Yuniesky Betancourt will not cry. Not now. Nor will he tell his family where he's going after he holds them close, after he whispers to them, "I love you," and takes a mental ...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Yuniesky Betancourt will not cry. Not now. Nor will he tell his family where he's going after he holds them close, after he whispers to them, "I love you," and takes a mental snapshot and leaves the hotel for a boat that will whisk him away from Cuba.
Nor will he change his mind.
What's he supposed to say? That he's scared to death? That he wants to cry? That he worries for their safety once he's gone or that he fears this might be the last time they ever speak?
Not now. It's too late now. There's too much to say and so much more for them to worry about. So he's gone. Out of the hotel lobby, into the night, onto a boat, into the water and across the Gulf of Mexico.
Freedom and baseball are out there somewhere. Betancourt prays he will be alive to realize his dreams of both.
Tears of joy and sadness and fear run rivulets down Betancourt's cheeks as the boat leaves Cuba. It could be late 2003 or early 2004, the Mariners shortstop won't say exactly when.
He does say that it took five months to put together his defection. That he decided to defect after Cuba repeatedly left him off its national team, because, he says, they feared he would leave.
There's no time to cry now. Not with the policia chasing in a boat behind the one that carries Betancourt and seven other Cubans. Betancourt knows that his boat is fast, that the policia "don't really have a chance." But there's that fear again, skipping heartbeats until his chest thumps like the salsa music he's always dancing to.
The policia turn back and head toward shore. Once there, they speed to his mother's house. With grim faces, they tell Maura Betancourt her son just perished in an escape attempt.
"Just to give them fear," Betancourt says last week, sitting in an interview room in the Mariners clubhouse.
There's just as much fear on the boat. Land fades into an endless horizon of water all around them. Waves swell and the boat tips back and forth, and the young shortstop can do nothing but bow his head and pray.
The journey from Cuba lasts about four days. There's no way to tell for sure. Only water that grows clearer as the boat gets closer, and then the most glorious sight Yuniesky (pronounced Yoon-ee-esky) Betancourt ever laid his eyes on.
Land. Freedom. Baseball.
"There were times when I couldn't see anything except the waves," Betancourt says. "Times when I wondered if the sun would come up.
"Times when I didn't think I was going to make it."
Betancourt runs to a phone to call his family. They are shocked when they hear his voice.
The details of defection are murky here. Betancourt has never spoken about his flight in this much detail, and still, he says he can't talk about how he put it together, can't tell stories he's heard of those captured, can't detail what happened in Mexico or how he found an agent. Neither will his agent, Jamie Torres.
"The biggest issue for these guys is always, when they come out of Cuba, what happens to them?" said Steve Fainaru, a Washington Post reporter who co-wrote a book about Cuban defector Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. "There have been all kinds of issues surrounding that — corruption by governments, corruption by agents. It's a bizarre world."
If Cubans come directly to the United States, Major League Baseball places them in its draft. If they establish residency in a foreign country, they become free agents.
Joe Kehoskie, a New York-based agent who represents a dozen lower-profile Cubans, calls the process a "nightmare."
He estimates that there are 30 Cuban players scattered "around this hemisphere trying to get a contract for the last 18 months."
Kehoskie says he expected Betancourt to be his client back in 2000. He says he was contacted by a family relative before Betancourt and the Cuban junior national team were going to play in a tournament in Edmonton. The tournament finished, and Betancourt didn't defect, and nobody knows why.
Kehoskie maintains he holds no ill will toward Betancourt. Only toward the system, which he says is 10 times worse than it was just a few years back.
Case in point: Kehoskie flew to Miami recently to check on some Cuban players. In the hotel lobby, there were two smugglers asking for $150,000 to represent them.
"I'm fascinated by the potential of the Cuban baseball scene, but hate the cesspool it's become," Kehoskie says. "You used to go to a tournament, and it was a fairly consistent thing, a few of them would walk away.
"It doesn't shock me that they don't want to talk about it ... Now, it's entirely a smuggler's business. There are guys in Miami in speedboats in the business of zipping down to Cuba and picking these guys up."
Typically, Kehoskie says, Cubans are smuggled into the United States and taken quietly to the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Central America in order to seek residency for free agency. Betancourt claims he went straight to Mexico, although a New York Post article in March 2004 spotted him at the Yankees' spring-training complex in Florida.
The first thing everybody notices is his defense, the way Betancourt controls ground balls the way a puppet's master controls its strings, the slick and comfortable and easy nature that evokes comparisons to Omar Vizquel, Rey Ordonez and Cesar Izturis — defensive wizards all.
"I've seen a lot of players over the years with great baseball tools and good instincts," said Carlos Garcia, the Mariners' first-base coach. "But this kid is something special. He does things nobody else can do."
Adds Dave Brundage, manager of the Mariners' Class AA club in San Antonio: "I played with Vizquel in 1988. Yuni isn't far behind. They play the game at an easier level. There's no fear."
At least 10 teams marvel at this in tryouts Betancourt conducts across the country in 2004.
The Mariners win the sweepstakes — against teams such as the Yankees, Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox — because Betancourt, now 23, believes they are his fastest track to the major leagues.
He signs with Seattle in January 2005, after the U.S. government granted his final clearance, and makes it to the bigs in his first season.
What they don't see, Betancourt hides well, all the pain and heartache and longing he's pushed somewhere deep inside.
"To be around YB, you'd think he's led the most charmed life," Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi writes in an e-mail. "Without having walked a mile in his shoes, I'm afraid that, no matter what I say, I may shortchange the hardship he's gone through to get to this point. His perseverance is remarkable."
Betancourt masks his pain well, hiding behind a smile in the clubhouse and a glove that's growing golden on the diamond. Torres saw this when he introduced Betancourt to his family, including a daughter recently diagnosed with MS. Betancourt calls regularly to check on how she's doing. If Torres didn't know his story, he'd never be able to guess what Betancourt has gone through.
But Betancourt needs his own family. He needs his mama, Maura, and his grandmother, Maria, two women he says "are everything to me." He longs for their rice and beans and fried plantains, for the large gatherings at the family's middle-class home, for their touch.
He gets their voices nearly daily, separated by thousands of miles.
"The hardest part is being away from them," Betancourt says. "On the phone, they seem so close, but I can't see them. That hurts. It hurts my heart."
Betancourt found something of a second family in the team in San Antonio. Three weeks before the All-Star break, he was called up. So during the break, he returned to San Antonio, for familiarity and for comfort.
What buoys Betancourt is the money he can send home, cash culled from a four-year, $3.65-million contract. In that respect, he's changed his family's life.
His own life is changing, too. He's taking daily English classes with an individual instructor and improving so much that his Mariners interpreter, Gillian Hagamen, says "he has to be, in some respects, in awe of how far he's come."
Some days Hagamen feels like Betancourt's personal assistant. There are checks to write, social-security card issues, even a recent trip to the Immigration Services office. There's no burden there, though, only appreciation.
"He's singing a lot more now, coming out of his shell," Hagamen said. "He walks around with his iPod. He loves music. He does a lot of dancing. He's a really good kid who's just happy to be here. At the same time, he wishes often he was home."
When the games end and the gloves are packed away, Betancourt watches the rest of the Mariners return home to their families. He returns to an empty house and two familiar voices.
In that respect, life hasn't changed. Mom tells him to be respectful. Grandma tells him to watch what he's eating. Mom tells him to be careful when he drives. Grandma tells him to never give up on his dreams.
So that's what Yuniesky Betancourt does in his empty house. He dreams.
"What I'd really love is to be able to go back to Cuba, but under a different system," Betancourt says. "Like the Dominican, except a free country. Then I could live there, live the life I've always known, and be with my friends from my neighborhood, be with my family and just be happy in my own country. But that won't happen until the system changes."
He bows his head again, like on the boat, wondering if this prayer will be answered like the last one.
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or email@example.com
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