14ymedio, Ernesto Santana, Havana, 10 October 2018 – The pitcher Roberto Hernández Navarro broke his contract with the Cleveland Indians for a chance to join the Sancti Spíritus Roosters. In an example of truth being stranger than fiction, the seventeen-year-old boy chose to abandon his dream just as it was about to come true and returned to his small town of Batey Colorado.
At age fifteen, after playing in a game in which the Cuba’s national youth team beat its U.S. rival at the Pan American Games, Hernández Navarro decided to help his family. With his sights set on the Big Top, he legally left the country with his father, traveled to the Dominican Republic and spent a year and three months training in the provincial capital of Bonao.
“The scouts saw me, followed me, did speed tests, took videos, saw my results and signed me with the Cleveland Indians,” says the pitcher. With a $320,000 contract the plan was to develop him and get him into the Major Leagues as soon as possible. They even compared it with José Fernández.
More than thirty Cuban ball players have returned home because they were not offered a contract or because the adventure did not turn out as they had hoped. But that was not the case with Hernández Navarro, who was able to enroll in the Chiki Mejías Baseball Academy, where he received proper nutrition, lodging and daily training.
He even played a season in the Dominican Republic and earned a spot in the All-Stars. “In that game I pitched four times in one inning. That’s incredible there. In Cuba I was pitching at ninety miles. Ninety to ninety-two.” After signing his contract, the prospects were simply spectacular.
But not having anyone to talk about his achievements at the end of the day was hard. He missed his family, especially his grandmother, who had always been very supportive, and his little brother. He longed to hear the river, play dominos, go where he wanted. “There’s no place else with freedom like Cuba,” he now says in an interview.
Roberto Hernández met with the team’s management and explained his situation. Contrary to what he was expecting, they let him keep the money and only advised him to take care of his arm and to continue playing baseball in Cuba because he had a great future. His return home was very emotional.
Also contrary to what he was expecting, Cuban baseball officials have let him train in their facilities, have not chastised him for anything and will very likely allow him to join the Roosters, who have had a difficult season and would benefit from the addition of a pitcher like him.
What has been almost impossible is convincing people he is not crazy for turning his back on fame and fortune. “I cannot get into their heads and open their minds,” he says, although he understands. He admits too would think the same thing if he had not “had to face reality,” did not know himself so well and had not decided to take this difficult step backward.
But it is not easy for many to respect his decision. Some feel he is too young and will later regret it, or that he will leave baseball. They believe a high performance athlete must make sacrifices and does not have time to swim in the river, play dominoes, spend time with family or go for a walk whenever he wants.
Others say that, though he came back with a third of a million dollars, it will not last forever. They question if he will feel the same way after the sport’s bosses take their cut and family expenses take their toll. He also still does not know what the life of a high-level Cuban player is like.
To other fans the case of Hernández Navarro is just an exception that proves the rule. There are many players still willing to try their luck in the big leagues and, until current conditions change, those who are successful will not return to Cuba, where they would not even be able play for the national team.
Some people think that a boy who is unwilling to sacrifice everything for a big league career simply does not have enough ambition to be a ball player. Others believe that, if Robertico — as they call him — had been the son of a Victor Mesa or a Lourdes Gurriel rather than a humble Cuban, his destiny would have been different.
Many laugh at his claim about freedom in Cuba but still want him to be happy after reality sets in and he has a change heart. Or when his son one day criticizes him for having condemned them to life in a country with no future.
In any event, the worst aspect of this odd case is the official statements. Robertico has done well in deciding what he thinks is best, but it is disheartening to see TV journalist Reinaldo Taladrid blaming the US embargo on the current relationship between Cubans in the Major Leagues and the authorities here.
Even more disconcerting is how this “great connoisseur” of baseball defends “a human being’s sacrosanct right to personal freedom to live where he most wants.” How nice that would be…
See also: 14ymedio Faces of 2018
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