All Alexei Bell wanted was a crack at the big leagues without having to defect from Cuba like so many of his teammates before him. Now he's finally getting it.
The 32-year-old right fielder, a star on the Cuban national team over the past decade who made history playing in Quebec City last season, has been granted permission by the Castro government to pursue a contract in Major League Baseball, putting him on the forefront of a coming shift in Cuban baseball.
For the past 20 years, the only way a player from the island country could find his way to MLB was to escape, often making a perilous voyage by sea, in the hands of human smugglers. But last week, Bell boarded a plane legally, with a passport given to him by Cuban authorities who are allowing Bell and his family to leave Cuba on their own. The Castro government has begun talks with MLB on an agreement that would open the door to Cuban players, and Bell is among the first of a new generation of players being given the freedom to leave.
"I'm extremely excited to be able to realize my dream that I had as a child, and I'm hopeful that I'm going to have the opportunity to play the best baseball in the world," Bell said by phone from Mexicali, a Mexican city along California's border.
Bell is preparing to showcase his skills for MLB scouts later this month. Whether he can land an MLB deal remains to be seen.
Bell was the subject of a Globe and Mail article in December that told the story of four Cubans hand-picked by the government last year to play professionally for the Quebec Capitales, a team in the independent Can-Am league. The players – Bell, centre fielder Yuniesky Gurriel, shortstop Yordan Manduley and pitcher Ismel Jimenez – were granted permission to play in Canada and the United States without having to defect. That deal is seen by Cuban authorities as a potential precursor to an arrangement with MLB.
Bell's freedom comes not a moment too soon for the aging star. He won the batting crown at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, hitting a remarkable .500 against future MLB pitchers such as Yu Darvish. He is the first player to hit more than 30 home runs in a 90-game Cuban season, and is the only player to record two grand slams in a single inning. But injuries and age have slowed his game in recent years, diminishing his power.
The question is whether Cuba's historic changes have come soon enough for Bell. He dreamed of playing in the major leagues, but always on his own terms, without defecting. Though he received MLB offers after the Beijing Olympics, including overtures from the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, abandoning Cuba meant not seeing his wife and nine-year-old son – a price he was unwilling to pay.
MLB agent Charisse Espinosa-Dash is representing Bell in his bid for a contract. Like most Cuban defectors before him, Bell is seeking residency in another country outside the United States so that he can enter MLB as a free agent, without going through the draft. Players who enter from countries such as Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic are able to seek what the market will pay them, rather than entry-level deals.
In the twilight of his career, Bell is unlikely to fetch the massive salaries awarded to younger Cuban defectors such as Yasiel Puig, who was given $42-million (U.S.) by the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, Espinosa-Dash figures Bell is good enough to warrant a contract.
"He's an intriguing guy. He's a guy who can be fit into a roster right now and help anyone," Espinosa-Dash said. "He's a big name. He's a hero for a lot of the [Cuban players] … They all look up to him."
Scouts from two MLB teams have ventured to Mexicali to watch Bell train, the agent said, declining to mention names. Later this month, Espinosa-Dash plans to hold a showcase for all MLB clubs, where Bell will take batting practice, perform fielding and throwing drills and speak with scouts.
"Teams have already requested to see him practise, to look first-hand at what type of shape he's in," Espinosa-Dash said. "It's nothing like an actual showcase, but they just want to see him loosen up his arm, take his batting practice, see him run."
At 5-foot-7 and 187 pounds, Bell's game has always been about power and speed. He battled injuries while playing for Quebec last year, which limited his impact at the plate, but he hit .317 in 224 at-bats. Capitales manager Pat Scalabrini said Bell's best tool remains his speed. "He moves really well. He is definitely an explosive guy," Scalabrini said Thursday. "So he will be interesting for some teams, but the gamble will be that he's a bit older now."
If Bell lands a deal, it would make him one of the first players to sign legally with an MLB team since Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and banned professional baseball on the island. Bell told Cuban authorities he would never defect, but wanted permission to leave to pursue a professional career. Disputes with baseball officials over his dwindling role on the national team contributed to him securing the release.
"He always said that he was going to stay true to the country, and he did," Scalabrini said. "So good on him. And good on [Cuba] for letting it happen."
The odds may be against Bell, but his former teammate on the Cuban national team, Hector Olivera, who now plays for the Atlanta Braves, thinks Bell can still play in the big leagues despite his age. Olivera left Cuba by boat at the age of 30 and debuted in MLB this season. "He has the talent to play this baseball, that's undeniable," Olivera said of Bell. "The thing is, he's now 32 years old, but he could play [in MLB]. And he could do well."