Growing up a street apart in Cuba, best friends Yunel Escobar and Brayan Peña had the same dream: to wear the Atlanta uniform. How they made it is a story of courage and, they say, destiny
The two teenagers sit transfixed in front of a television in a Mexico hotel room, where they are playing in an international tournament. The Atlanta Braves -- America's Team! -- are playing. This is the first major league game that either boy has ever seen. Thirteen-year-old Brayan Peña, the older of the two by 10 months, follows the action, but he is drawn to something else. He has always been más chubby than the other boys and never had a proper-fitting uniform. He is mesmerized by the crisp home whites of the Braves, the way the red logo pops off the jerseys. "Let's grow up to be Braves," he tells his best friend. "Yeah," says Yunel Escobar, "let's be Braves."
They shared everything growing up. Gloves, bats, balls, cleats, dreams, favorite teams -- Atlanta Braves, baby! -- even the same Buena Vista neighborhood of Havana. But here is something they did not share: a small fishing boat, with sharks and six-foot waves snapping at its sides as it washed across the Florida Straits in the first week of October in 2004. Escobar, who would turn 22 in another month, and at least two dozen others were crammed into the rickety vessel. His best friend, however, had already reached freedom. Five years earlier. In the backseat of a Mercedes. Without him.
Peña had wanted to tell Escobar about the plan he had helped hatch back in the spring of 1999. That April the two boys were members of the Cuban 17-and-under national team that would play for the Junior Pan-Am championship in Caracas. Brayan was the starting catcher, Yunel the starting shortstop. After a sleepless night a bleary-eyed Brayan was waiting in the hotel restaurant on the morning of the championship game when Yunel and the rest of his teammates arrived for breakfast. When Yunel asked about the bags beneath Brayan's usually bright eyes, Brayan said only, "Nerves. For the championship, of course."
Numerous agents had descended on Caracas for the tournament, including the gentleman who, according to Brayan, had e-mailed him three days earlier. The agent had told Brayan to look for a man in a white hat and white shirt in the hotel on the morning of April 15 if he wanted to defect. And don't, the e-mail warned him, tell a soul. As if Brayan needed the reminder. He knew what happened to those whom the defectors left behind. The lie-detector tests, the jail cells, the constant surveillance. After breakfast Brayan persuaded one of the five guards assigned to watch the team to let him go to the bathroom by himself. Instead he went to an elevator, pushed the button for the lobby and kept repeating, "White shirt, white hat. White shirt, white hat." When the doors opened, Brayan stopped for a moment, confused by the sight of a man in one corner of the lobby wearing a white shirt and another on the other side wearing a white hat. Then a man wearing both waved his arms and steered Brayan into the backseat of the black Mercedes. Brayan knew that Yunel would feel betrayed. But in this case, betraying his friend, he knew, was the best way to protect him.
Still, Brayan's defection would have consequences for Yunel. Cuban authorities did not believe that two boys who spent every weekend together -- Brayan pitching the first game of a doubleheader for the Mariano team, with Yunel as his catcher, then flipping positions and gear with his friend for the nightcap and following it up with a heaping scoop of Coppelia ice cream -- would not have shared such a secret. As it turned out, Yunel lost his best friend and gained the company of security guards who seemingly shadowed him everywhere for two straight years. "I couldn't even go to the bathroom by myself," he says now. Frustrated, Yunel would turn on his guard in the street and yell, "NO. ME. VOY. No me sigas más!" (I'm. Not. Going. Stop following me!) There would be no more international tournaments for Yunel, no luxury car waiting to whisk him away to freedom. A boat, two days adrift at sea, would be his only opportunity to leave.
Destiny is the only explanation anyone in the Escobar or Peña clan offers for how two young men, best friends who grew up one street apart in Havana, could find themselves here, standing on the third base line of Nationals Park in the capital of the free world. As boys, Yunel Escobar and Brayan Peña had proudly worn and swapped John Smoltz and Tom Glavine jerseys that a family friend had smuggled into Cuba. On this March night, the first of the 2008 major league season, they wore the same crisp Braves uniforms that had so mesmerized them as boys. Escobar, a budding star, was the starting shortstop and second batter, Peña a backup catcher to two-time All-Star Brian McCann. "If you wrote our story," Peña says, "no one would believe it."
After Escobar's boat finally washed up in Miami in October 2004, he tracked down Peña's mother, Carmen Puente, who had managed to leave Cuba in 2002 and had settled in Miami. Peña was playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. When he returned to Miami in January 2005, five years of separation dissolved in one embrace. The two young men spent that first evening together at a Cuban restaurant, where after a series of "You go first! No, you go first!" they filled in the giant gaps in their lives.
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