For 12 days the rumors flew. The men were dead. They were lost at sea. They had been picked up by a freighter. They had washed ashore in the Dominican Republic. All the rumors were wrong. When it was reported last week that another group of Cuban defectors—nine men, including four baseball players and a coach—had stepped onto a makeshift raft and taken to the sea, a chain of hair-trigger alarms was set off across the Caribbean. "The whole city is going crazy," said one resident of Santa Clara, in central Cuba, the home of four of the rafters. The Bahamian and Dominican coast guards were mobilized. Helicopters combed shorelines. Everybody was looking.
"The search was so intense," said Guillermo De Paula, a captain in the Dominican department of civil aviation, after spending last Friday afternoon patrolling his country's northwest coast. "We weren't looking for normal people. We were looking for millionaires."
The search ended last Saturday, the day after the nine men were plucked from their raft by the crew of a fishing boat near the Bahamas. Whether the abilities of first baseman Jorge Luis Toca, catcher Angel Lopez, second baseman Jorge Diaz, shortstop Maikel Jova and pitching coach Orlando Chinea translate into riches remains to be seen. What's clearer is that the long-simmering dispute between the Castro regime and Cuban players and coaches has reached its most dangerous point. According to the state newspaper, Granma, Chinea, Diaz, Lopez and Toca were banned from Cuban sports last year for offenses such as talking about playing professionally in the U.S., speaking on the phone with "traitors to Cuban baseball" and criticizing the country's sports policies. Suspensions are the state's current answer to a long stream of defections. Most of the escapes by Cuban athletes in the past, however, were made while their teams were competing in other countries and were relatively easy strolls out of hotels or sprints to waiting cars.
Now the conflict has escalated: Expelled from their teams and unable to flee during trips abroad, defecting athletes must make a desperate escape by sea. What could be more embarrassing for the regime than to have its world-renowned baseball players, the jewel of Cuba's vaunted spoils system, risking their lives to get away—or, worse, dying and becoming martyrs? Unpredictable currents and swirling winds can make the Bahama Channel a death trap. The mortality rate among Cuban rafters is estimated to be at least 40%. Orlando ( el Duque) Hernandez, a banned player who spent four days at sea last December with his wife and six other refugees and recently signed a four-year, $6.6 million contract to pitch for the New York Yankees, doesn't have fond memories of the trip. "My message to the Cuban athlete is, Try to learn about freedom," Hernandez said last week, "but don't take the risks I did."
But the fact that Toca and his comrades—all members of the Villa Clara provincial team in the Cuban league—took those risks and succeeded easily will encourage others to follow suit. Despite numerous reports that their raft set out to sea on March 10, the players and the coach hid in Cuba for 10 days, until last Friday, then spent less than 24 hours on the water before being rescued and dropped off on a Bahamian cay called Ragged Island. Their gamble paid off instantly. By Sunday afternoon, after being taken to a Nassau detention center, the ballplayers, coach and four others on their raft were brought money, food, clothing and immigration advice by Miami-based sports agent Joe Cubas, who has made a career out of maneuvering Cuban ballplayers out of their country, over visa restrictions and into major league uniforms faster than most people get through customs. The other 100-plus Cuban refugees being held in the center-some for more than a year—greeted Cubas with a chant of "We are equals!" and vowed to go on a hunger strike to protest the preferential treatment of athletes.
Thus ended one of the most tempestuous weeks in the odd annals of Cuban sports defection. It began on March 17 when Hernandez arrived in Miami to begin his new life as a pro ballplayer and spoke to the press. Alternately weeping and laughing—and avoiding a question about the similarities between George Steinbrenner and Fidel Castro (Hernandez: "Who is Steinbrenner?")—he insulted Castro and said everything the fervently anticommunist Cuban exile community could hope for. There was applause. Then a reporter stood and informed Hernandez and the world that a new group, led by Toca, was thought to be lost at sea. Hernandez started to answer, but at that moment his half-brother Livan, the Florida Marlins pitcher and '97 World Series MVP, sailed into the room. The two hadn't seen each other since Livan defected in '95. They hugged, and Livan kissed his brother's shaved head.
Just as one Cuban family was beginning to heal, others began to ache. Jova, barely 17, the youngest of the rafters and a member of Cuba's junior national team, had given his family no indication that he was thinking of leaving. He was never political, even though his father, Pedro—who had played 13 years on the national team and then managed the Villa Clara squad-was banned from the game last year for, according to Granma, "speaking on the telephone with Rolando Arrojo," the defector who now pitches for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Maikel Jova "was not in disfavor with the system," said his stepmother, Geidi Aguilera. "His whole life was baseball."
The morning of March 10, Maikel put on his uniform, grabbed his spikes and his glove, and skipped downstairs into the narrow streets of Santa Clara. He never came back. His father was stunned. In the 12 days following Maikel's departure, Pedro mumbled to himself, "Why did he have to run? Why did he do this to me?" Pedro walked the streets endlessly. His blood pressure rose, and his wife feared he would die of a heart attack. As rumor after rumor about Maikel failed to pan out, as each day brought more people asking how Pedro was doing, he refused to speak. The phone kept ringing: reporters from abroad calling with new leads. Last Friday came news that the rafters were in the Dominican Republic. By the next day that story was dead.
"He's not talking to anyone; he's not even talking to me," Pedro's wife said on Sunday, even though news that Maikel had been found in the Bahamas had filtered back to Santa Clara. "The only person he will talk to is his boy."
Nearby, in the village of Remedios, in a cramped yellow house on a rutted street across from a ball field, Francisca Gomez, Toca's mother, knew just how Pedro Jova felt. Hour after hour she took calls from people saying her boy was safe or in a hospital or lost. "I'm dying of the pain," she said. "Nobody knows what's really happening." She smoked cigarette after cigarette, dropping ashes on a floor covered with tiny ash heaps. She cried at the mention of her son's name. She is 56, and now she'll be raising his 1�-year-old son, also named Jorge Luis. The boy looks, she said, just like his dad did at that age.