AN IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE
Leaving the island is a life-changing decision for Cuban players. Those who chase the fame and fortune of the major leagues must embark on a treacherous voyage, or submit to human trafficking, to get their shot at baseball glory. For some players the risk is too great, and the loss of family too unimaginable.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
It's the top of the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium and Carlos Santana is feeling the heat from a rookie pitcher. The Cleveland Indians slugger has already seen four high-90s fastballs from New York's Luis Severino. Mercifully, only two of them were strikes.
The next one Severino throws, Santana connects. The pitcher glances over his left shoulder as the ball heads skyward. Alexei Bell, a 32-year-old right-fielder from Cuba, begins tracking the ball, seeing where it crests. He knows from experience it's going to die before reaching the wall.
Bell guesses right. Severino tips his hat in appreciation of a fine catch, and Yankee fans roar their approval.
Bell sits back down in his seat. It wasn't him that caught the ball. On this day, Bell came to the park the same way 47,030 other people did – with a ticket. It's a bittersweet moment: Bell's entire life, he has dreamed of walking into world-famous Yankee Stadium. But not like this.
As a superstar in Cuba who once hit 31 home runs in 90 games, and dominated at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bell fielded numerous offers to play Major League Baseball. Some of them involved the Yankees.
But the price was always too high. Leaving Cuba meant leaving for good, and being labelled a traitor at home. With stats like his, he would have been a millionaire for sure, but it also meant never seeing his family again, or at least not for a long time, and Bell couldn't do it. For all the Cuban baseball players who made it off the island and went on to fame and fortune in the big leagues, Bell's story is of a man who stayed behind, waiting.
But after playing his entire career in Santiago de Cuba, he spent this season patrolling right field for the Quebec Capitales – part of a unique arrangement the independent league team struck with the Cuban government to bring players to Canada. It is evidence of the historic changes sweeping Cuba this year, as the island opens itself to the world, and the United States opens itself to diplomatic talks with the Castro regime.
Bell hopes it means change for Cuba's baseball players, too. And he holds out flickering hope that the Quebec arrangement – which Cuba's top baseball officials say is a road map for a future MLB deal – means he might soon get a chance to play big-time U.S. baseball.
But he also knows his best years are behind him and time is running out. For Bell, it's not a matter of whether change will come in Cuba, but whether it will come fast enough.
"He has the talent to play this baseball, that's undeniable," says childhood friend Hector Olivera, another Cuban national team stalwart. "The thing is, he's now 32 years old. But he could play [in MLB]. And he could do well."
Olivera made a different choice, equally wrenching. He was among those players who boarded a boat, made the perilous crossing of the Caribbean to pursue big-league dreams more directly – the counterpoint to Bell. Only in Cuba are baseball decisions freighted with dangers, both political and personal.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
A top prospect emerges
The 2008 Summer Olympics were Bell's introduction to the world.
Pitchers in the Cuban National Series had known for a while how formidable he was at the plate and on the base paths, but away from the island, Bell – like many top Cuban players – was an unknown quantity. To outsiders, he was just another talented hitter coming out of Cuba's prolific state-run baseball juggernaut.
Growing up in Santiago de Cuba, Bell was raised by loyalists in the country's revolutionary hotbed. It was in Santiago that Cubans first rebelled against the Spanish in the late 1800s. And in the 1950s, it was where Fidel Castro sparked his socialist revolt against dictator Fulgencio Batista. Bell's parents chose a Russian-sounding name for their son – a common practice during the Cold War, given Cuba's alliance with the Soviet Union.
At 5-foot-7 and 187 pounds, Bell is built like a cannonball, with explosive speed. Olivera remembers how hard Bell trained. The two grew up together in Santiago and Bell, who is 18 months older, was like a brother.
"He was a responsible kid," Olivera says. "Dedicated to his sport and to his work. We got along pretty good."
But even Olivera couldn't have expected what Bell was about to do at the Beijing Olympics. Cuba opened the tournament against a powerful Japanese team that was leading with their ace, the highly touted Yu Darvish.
Even today in MLB, where Darvish throws for the Texas Rangers, scouts find his arsenal of pitches difficult to pick apart. In Beijing, the hurler's reputation had the Cubans on edge, and coaches sat the players down to study a Darvish highlight film. After only a few minutes, Bell had seen enough.
"It was all strike, strike, strike," he says. "So I stopped looking."
With Cuba trailing 1-0 in the second inning, Bell stepped to the plate for the first time as a member of the Cuban national team and punctured the Darvish mystique. Pushing the highlight reel out of his mind, Bell clobbered a triple into deep centre field. Moments later he scored to tie the game. Proving it was no fluke, he doubled off Darvish in the fifth, driving in another run, and the Cubans went on to win 4-2.
As the Olympics wore on, Bell got better, going four for four against China, cranking a three-run home run against the U.S., and then homering again in the gold-medal game, which the Cubans lost by a single run to Korea. At tournament's end, Bell ran away with the batting crown, hitting a staggering .500 over nine games.
"He had a phenomenal Olympics," Olivera says. "He batted, he ran, he fielded. He really deserved it for all his hard work and dedication."
Almost immediately, the offers started pouring in from MLB teams. Agents and scouts reached out at international tournaments in Taiwan, Holland and Puerto Rico. They would pass him notes after games, trying to arrange meetings at restaurants and coffee shops, hoping to go undetected by Cuban officials.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Bell would be a rich man playing in America, they told him. One scout was from the Philadelphia Phillies; another represented his beloved Yanquis.
"In all the countries where we participated, they always appeared," Bell says. "Sometimes they don't tell you their names, but they ask you if you are interested in playing in the major leagues – if you want to defect."
But Bell couldn't. It wasn't in his character. He couldn't fathom leaving his wife and son, whose names he has tattooed on his left shoulder. So he ignored the offers, even the one from the Yankees, though it tore him up inside. He had a pretty good idea what he was turning down: money, cars and a life of luxury – never having to worry about putting food on the table. But he kept playing, hoping that he'd one day be allowed to leave Cuba legally and sign as a professional.
Staying put wasn't easy. Cuban baseball officials weren't blind. The national team suspected he was drawing heightened attention from scouts and placed Bell under surveillance. He knows this because other players came to him privately to warn him it was happening. This was common around the national team. Cuban baseball lore is littered with tales of players who landed in jail or were suspended from competition for talking to the wrong people about leaving.
But Bell shrugged it off. How could he leave? After all, he was from Santiago de Cuba. The city made him. "Being a revolutionary, I owe a lot to the Cuban revolution, as a person, and with the training that I have had," he says.
It's the kind of thing Cuban players say all the time, often to deflect suspicion. Bell let his actions speak: Every day he headed to the ballpark early to work on his swing.
For a while, life was good. In addition to a house and a small Korean car, Cuban baseball authorities gave Bell a bonus for his accomplishments abroad. He doesn't specify how much it's worth, only that it is paid in convertible pesos, the currency that tourists are required to use in Cuba, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar. It is worth roughly 25 times the regular Cuban peso.
But his fate would take a turn on opening day of the 2008-09 Cuban season. During Bell's first at-bat with Santiago, pitcher Yunesky Maya struck him in the head with a nasty pitch, leaving Bell severely injured, probably concussed.
"It was a ball to the face," Olivera says. "He's a pretty strong guy, though, and he was playing baseball again not even three weeks later."
Maya defected later that year and pitched briefly for the Washington Nationals before being released. Bell hasn't talked much about the injury, but it began a steep slide in his numbers from which he hasn't recovered. Aside from a standout performance early the next season – when he became the first player in the Cuban league's history to hit two grand slams in a single inning – Bell's game has suffered.
He represented Cuba at the 2013 World Baseball Classic, but couldn't put up the sort of jaw-dropping stats he recorded in Beijing. Before long, Bell noticed he had to fight harder to keep his spot on the national team. There were too many good players; eventually he would be replaced.
"I think he returned too quickly," Olivera says of the injury. "That kind of hit should, you know…" He doesn't finish the sentence. "He was one of the best athletes we have in Santiago."
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
'It's not like they tell you'
Olivera vowed he wouldn't let the same thing happen to him.
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, the infielder was often told he had the tools to be an MLB player. At the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Olivera hit .313, impressing scouts with his quick swing and ability to make contact.
But in 2011, in the midst of his most productive season – a .341 batting average, with 17 home runs over 60 games – doctors discovered a blood clot in Olivera's arm. They ordered him to stop playing and prescribed a months-long regimen of blood thinners. The condition caused him to miss the final two months of the season, and the entire next season. As far as anyone in Cuban baseball was concerned, Hector Olivera fell off the map.
When he finally emerged more than a year later, Olivera could see he was in trouble. Managers had forgotten him and moved on.
"When I returned to the team, I was batting .330 in the first half of the season. And when you bat .330, you make the All-Star game, but they didn't take me," Olivera says. It was a small but symbolic slight. "I was the 10th best batter in Cuba at that point. They no longer wanted me. That means they're slowly getting rid of you."
He was 29 years old and didn't want to wait around to find out what happened next. "So I made the decision then," he says.
Getting off the island isn't easy, but if you're a baseball player with the chance of a lucrative contract in your future, there are ways. Ask any Cuban player in America how he got there and most will artfully dodge the question, or clam up entirely.
There's a good reason: It's a dangerous trade. The networks of organized smugglers who escort Cubans to other countries by boat – demanding large sums of cash upfront, a cut of their future earnings, and sometimes holding them captive until the money is paid – tell the players never to talk. Doing so would put future defections at risk, and speaking too freely could bring problems upon your loved ones back in Cuba.
In that respect, Olivera is true to the code. Jovial in conversation, he gets uncomfortable when asked for details about how and when he left. All he's willing to say is that he went by boat to Haiti in September last year, and that the trip was treacherous.
"It was hard," Olivera says. "Being in the ocean for 12 hours is something that – it's not like they tell you it is."
Going to Haiti was crucial. Because if Cubans can secure residency in a third country, they can enter Major League Baseball as free agents.
Such residency paperwork is more easily secured in Third World countries like Haiti where it can be obtained quickly through bribes. Going that route is well worth the trouble, though, since it allows players to skirt the MLB draft and sign lucrative and sometimes mind-boggling contracts, rather than being forced to sign entry-level deals as draftees.
After Olivera received his residency paperwork, he went to the Dominican Republic. There, MLB scouts flocked to watch him train, and Olivera hoped to land an offer. He was relieved to have made it there alive.
"I don't wish that upon anyone," Olivera says of the voyage by sea. "It really was pretty ugly." He declines to say anything more.
Racing against time
Back in Cuba, Bell did his best to show the baseball federation that he wasn't going anywhere after his Olympic success. If he left Cuba to play pro baseball, he wanted to do it with official consent, and he wanted to bring his family.
"Every year you have to do everything well," he says. "Nobody gave me anything."
This spring, while training in Santiago, Bell received a call from Cuban baseball officials with news. He had been selected to go abroad. It wasn't MLB, but he would be going to Canada in May, to play for a team called the Quebec Capitales.
The team played in something called the Can-Am league, which is an independent professional circuit with no ties to Major League Baseball. That was a key distinction, since the league's independence from MLB is what made the deal possible under the U.S. embargo.
Bell would make $1,600 a month, and the team would pay a 10-per-cent tax directly to the Cuban government. Bell wasn't sure what to think of it all, but he knew he had something to prove.
"I'm very proud that they chose me," he says.
He was particularly excited that Quebec's first game would be in the U.S., in a city he'd never heard of, about an hour east of Chicago. At the age of 31, he was finally going to pro play ball in America – as a Cuban.
“You leave your family behind. You leave everyone behind.”Hector Olivera, the Atlanta Braves third baseman who defected in 2014
On the night of May 21, Bell strode to the plate at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary, Ind., and sized up his first pitcher in a pro game. Zac Treece, 25, of Hot Springs, Ark., stared back.
Treece was a recent cut from Arizona Diamondbacks' spring training and heard the Gary SouthShore RailCats were looking for a pitcher. He'd spent the past few weeks sleeping on an air mattress, waiting to hear if he'd made the team.
He knew nothing about Bell when the burly hitter wearing No. 88 came to the plate on Opening Day. He certainly didn't know the circumstances that brought Bell there, nor that he was about to face the man who won the batting crown at the 2008 Olympics and was the first Cuban to hit 30 home runs and collect more than 100 RBIs in a season.
"He was a righty, I remember that," says Treece. The pitcher's specialty was his slider, but Treece's manager had told him to save it for later in the game, like a secret weapon. His instructions were to bring the heat. "I was throwing all two-seam fastballs. I can remember that like it was yesterday."
Bell smacked one of those fastballs for a first-inning double, and the pitcher thought nothing of it. "Then I went back out for the second, and that's when it blew up," Treece says.
The trouble with good hitters is if you show them the same pitch more than a few times, they figure it out. When Treece fired another fastball inside, the Cuban made him pay with a two-run homer.
Treece would exit the game a few batters later. The Capitales went on to win 11-4, and he never pitched again for Gary. Treece went the rest of this summer not knowing he'd been the first to pitch against Bell in his professional debut.
"He was swinging like it's a playoff game, and I'm pitching like I'm trying to throw an intra-squad game," Treece says, still smarting from the experience. He would go on to salvage his season with a team in Missouri. "It's just memories now, but that game was kind of motivation for me the rest of the season."
Meanwhile, Bell was trying to figure out American baseball, and its labyrinth of minor league and independent teams like the Capitales.
"He always talked about the Yankees, and how his dream when he was a little kid was to play with the Yankees," says Josue Peley, his Capitales teammate who was also his roommate on the road.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
"But he wanted to do everything in his power to do it legally. He would tell me, 'Listen, I could have left many times. I had people giving me notes, telling me to meet them at this restaurant at this time and they would have a million dollars and we'd leave.' But he didn't want to leave his family, he didn't want to do it illegally."
As he battled loneliness in Canada, Bell was heartened to learn that the Can-Am League drew some players who'd made it to AAA ball and attended spring training with MLB squads. It reassured him he still had a shot. Maybe.
"For him it's just a matter of hoping he can play in the U.S. legally and then play in the minors – and maybe play one game in the big leagues," Peley says. "But he knows his window is closing. He knows it's getting close."
Diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Cuba could move quickly, or not. No one really knows. For Bell, a delay of a year or two could mean everything.
"I'm a realist," Bell says. "But I still feel like I'm in good enough shape to play one or two years, I don't know."
While he expresses no regrets about his choices, "I have never ruled out the possibility of playing with the greatest baseball teams in the world."
Midway through the season, we are having lunch at a restaurant in New Jersey, where Quebec is playing a three-game series. Bell is giving his impressions on the season. "It's nice," he says of being picked to come to Canada. "But it's sad at the same time because I don't have my family here."
I ask him if he ever considered what his life would be like if he took the MLB money. "This isn't what people think it is," he says. "You can have everything, but if you don't have the people you care about beside you, it's difficult."
Before Olivera left Cuba, he and Bell squared off in a home-run derby that also included Yasmany Tomas, who signed a $68.5-million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks after defecting last year.
"We put on a show for the public," Bell says. "I'm the one who won."
Bell spots a nearby plate of rice with shrimp on top, and is momentarily distracted. It reminds him of a Spanish proverb that parents in Cuba often tell their children: "The shrimp that falls asleep is carried away by the current."
It's a cautionary tale about missed opportunities. Bell then returns to talking baseball.
"I don't want all of this to happen for nothing," he says.
A rookie at 30
This spring, Hector Olivera seized his opportunity to play in the major leagues.
After he impressed scouts in the Dominican Republic, a bidding war broke out for his services. The Atlanta Braves were interested, but could not compete with the deep pockets of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who gave Olivera a six-year contract worth $62.5-million. It included a $28-million signing bonus.
Olivera spent the summer in the minors, acclimatizing himself to American pitching, and rehabbing a nagging hamstring injury. Before he could don a Dodgers jersey, though, he was shipped out in a multi-player trade to the team that originally coveted him: the Atlanta Braves.
“In all the countries where we participated, they always appeared. Sometimes they don’t tell you their names, but they ask you if you are interested in playing in the major leagues – if you want to defect.”Alexei Bell
His MLB debut finally came a few months ago, on Sept. 1 against the Miami Marlins. As a 30-year-old rookie, Olivera went hitless that game, but managed to get on base the following day. His first home run came the week after in a four-RBI performance against the Phillies. He finished the season batting .253 in 79 at-bats.
"It's going well," Olivera says. "At least I've got the opportunity."
Olivera thinks Bell can play too. But time is his enemy. Most teams would rather gamble on an athlete in his early 20s than throw money at players topping 30.
There's a saying in baseball: that players fool themselves out of necessity. Getting to the majors is an arduous climb, littered with reasons to stop – from poor salaries and long bus rides, to injuries and self-doubt. As a coping mechanism, players will convince themselves they are destined for the big leagues, just to press on.
With all the uncertainty he faces at his age, Bell needs to play this mental game. Still, Olivera doesn't question his friend's decision not to leave during the prime of his career – that's a personal choice.
"Everyone is in charge of their own actions," he says. "I don't get involved in other people's decisions."
I ask him why he thinks Bell never left.
"Maybe because, one way or another, we all get comfortable," Olivera says. "But when you get here, you see something different – a reality. You don't realize what there is here. Perhaps if you had known, you would have left earlier."
Without his family, Olivera says his transition has been hard. No amount of money can compensate for not knowing when you will see the people you care about again.
"It's difficult, yes. That's the thing, because you leave your family behind. You leave everyone behind," Olivera says. "In my case, I have a son that I still haven't been able to bring here. Thanks to God, my mom is here with my sister. I'm waiting for time to pass to see if I can bring him."
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
Back at Yankee Stadium, Bell has gone completely silent. He is gazing up at the championship banners lining the balcony, and a giant sign proclaiming, without a hint of modesty: 27-time world champions. It's what a lot of people do when they come here for the first time.
Bell stares down at the field and points out a few players he used to play against at international events when he was on the Cuban national team. Some of them, like shortstop Didi Gregorius, now wear Yankee pinstripes.
Later, when Cleveland has finally succumbed to Severino, Bell heads down to the concourse, where he takes $40 worth of crumpled U.S. bills he's been storing in his wallet and purchases a customized Yankees T-shirt with his name printed on the back.
The souvenir costs almost double the average Cuban's monthly salary. When the shirt arrives, Bell holds it up proudly, admiring his name in big white letters. It may be as close as he ever gets.
At this moment, travelling as a member of the Quebec Capitales baseball team, on the permission of the Cuban government, he is free to go anywhere he wants. Except down onto the field at Yankee Stadium.
Which is the only place he really wants to be.