"I've said I would never desert. But I've also said, 'I'm not going to lose this ball game' and still lost. People change overnight. The Soviets have Coca-Cola now. And Pizza Hut."
Valle has received his share of what he calls "decorous propositions" from various big league clubs, including one feeler from the Boston Red Sox and a $250,000 bonus offer from another team, and he admits—stunningly—that leaving has crossed his mind. "The first time you travel abroad, you see how beautiful it is—and the U.S. is very beautiful," he says. "There are also lots of Cubans there who say, 'Why don't you stay?' They paint it as a paradise, even when you know it isn't. I have to say, the temptation is great. Of course. If it weren't, no one would ever have stayed there.
"But I am tied to this life. I am Cuban. Things here are great: medicine. I don't have to pay rent. I don't pay for the telephone. I don't pay insurance on my car." He gestures to the shining red '92 Lada—a gift from Fidel—in his garage. "It may not be a Cadillac, but it's a new car."
He has it better than most. "Baseball players have a lot of freedom of expression and benefits a lot of other athletes don't," Valle says. He has a renovated house, a nice stereo system. He is putting a pool in his backyard, and a dance floor and five shaded tables, and the government is footing the $25,000 bill. A $5,000 bonus is on its way, and he will pour that, too, into the house. His wife is constantly dragging him away from willing women. "It's not an easy life," Margarita sighs, "next to one of these guys."
There's only one thing Valle can't have, not here. He grew up worshiping Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Nolan Ryan. He has read two books about Tom Seaver and one about former big league pitcher Dave Dravecky; he quotes Ted Williams like a rabbi citing the Talmud. "Lázaro Valle would be a 20-game winner in the major leagues," Arocha says. "When Cuba plays internationally, who does he pitch against? These boys from college. He abuses these kids."
Valle wants to pitch in the Atlanta Olympics, and then, he says, "My greatest wish after I retire is to pitch for a professional team. I could be a millionaire if I pitched in another country, with sports medicine and publicity and the support of people. I've always felt the warmth of the American people."
Family binds him tightest to Cuba, especially with his parents' medical problems. He has an eight-year-old daughter, Yoleisys, and Margarita. "I go to sleep every night knowing that he wouldn't leave," Margarita says. "This may sound conceited, but...he's in love with me."
La Lisa, Havana
The summer of '94 was the worst in memory. The sugar harvest was plummeting to its lowest level in decades. Tourists tossed around money as Cubans rationed their eggs, rice, patience. Families cracked. More defectors than ever headed to the seawall, armed with inner tubes and wood. Some put on flippers and stepped into the water and started swimming; others simply hijacked the nearest boat and pointed it north. By the end more than 33,000 had gone. The summer of '94 shook even the party faithful: In early August violence spread from the waterfront to Old Havana as antigovernment protesters clashed with security forces—the first riots in the capital since the revolution. A cop was seen on TV, blood running down his face.
In the midst of this desperate tangle, at 6 a.m. on July 2, Roberto Balado grew impatient at a train crossing. He jerked his steering wheel, passed an idling school bus, edged onto the track. He had never seen a train here, not in 10 years. His favorite band, Pablo and His Elite, played on the cassette deck. Eight hours later, Balado, the reigning world and Olympic super heavyweight boxing champion, was dead at 25.