It has never been easy to separate the successes of the Cuban sports machine from the failures of its government, but a pair of great leaps last Saturday made doing so all but impossible. Even as Cuban long jumper Ivan Pedroso celebrated his unexpected breaking of one of track and field's most revered records, in Sestriere, Italy, top Cuban pitcher Osvaldo Fernandez strolled out of the lobby of his hotel in Millington, Tenn., and hopped into the back of a white van for a 16-hour ride to Miami. "I'm finally free," Fernandez cried. "Free!"
Those events provided vivid examples of two extremes of Cuban sport. Pedroso's jump of 29'4¾", which broke both Mike Powell's four-year-old mark of 29'4½ and the 27-year-old U.S. stranglehold on the event, is a testament to the remarkable ability of Cuban athletes to thrive in the most dire economic times. And Fernandez's defection—the third flight from Cuba's world-champion national team since pitcher Rene Arocha bolted to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1991—showed that concessions by the Castro regime allowing athletes some financial reward are insufficient.
Pedroso, 22, will be allowed to keep the $130,000 Ferrari he won for Saturday's feat (even though he doesn't have a driver's license), and he'll continue to draw sponsorship money from Larios, a Spanish beverage company. But his is a rare case. Indeed Fernandez, 29, a five-year veteran of the national team and the winning pitcher in Cuba's semifinal victory over the U.S. at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, received $800 from the Cuban team's current three-country tour. He left behind a small apartment, a Russian-made Lada and a monthly stipend of about $5.
Leaving Cuba gives ballplayers like Fernandez more than a chance to speak freely and make big money; it affords them the opportunity—already realized by track stars like Pedroso and high jumper Javier Sotomayor—to test themselves against the best. "I was so hungry for that," says Fernandez, a righthander who went 10-2 with a 2.46 ERA in Cuba's National Series last year. "I just couldn't wait."
His impatience is leading Fernandez to try a unique route to a big league team. Instead of having him apply for U.S. citizenship and wait until next June's amateur draft, agent Joe Cubas plans to fly Fernandez to the Dominican Republic, where he has relatives, and ask for asylum there. As a Dominican resident, Cubas says, his client could negotiate immediately as a free agent with any team. Fernandez says he has few regrets, even though he left his parents, five brothers and a one-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, behind. "I've got a feeling that I'll see them very soon," he says.
After an ATP tour event in Stuttgart two weeks ago, 19-year-old Marcelo Rios of Chile wanted nothing more than to board an airliner back to his homeland. But Rios, a lefty who has climbed 55 places in the rankings this year, missed his flight to Santiago. Stuck on the Continent, he did his ponytail and earring proud by schlepping to Amsterdam. There he took a qualifier's berth in the $500,000 Netherlands International, played his way into the tournament's main draw with two victories and then won five straight matches, including Sunday's final over Jan Siemerink of Holland, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4. All of which made Rios, the first qualifier to win any event on the circuit since 1993, king of the ATP detour.