Being the ace of an expansion team's pitching staff is a lot like being the most cerebral Spice Girl. It's a tag you wear not because it fits you well, but because it fits everyone else worse. Peruse the list of the winningest pitchers on past expansion teams, and the names—Dick Farrell, Bill Stoneman and Al Santorini, for instance—aren't likely to ring a bell. In that regard Rolando Arrojo of the Devil Rays fits right in. Before this season, few outside of international baseball circles had ever heard of the 29-year-old Cuban.
What sets Arrojo apart from his expansion brethren is his performance. Farrell went 10-20 for the Houston Colt .45s in 1962. Seven seasons later, Stoneman lost 19 games for the Expos, and the not-so-great Santorini was 8-14 for the '69 Padres. Arrojo, meanwhile, was off to an 8-4 start with a 3.03 ERA through Sunday.
Arrojo (pronounced a-ROE-hoe) not only has a fastball, slider, curve and sinker, but also throws them with such an array of release points and arm angles that hitters sometimes feel as if they're facing a guy who's inventing pitches as he goes along. After Arrojo held the Rangers to four hits in seven innings in a 4-1 win on June 1, Will Clark said, "He was coming up with some weird stuff."
Arrojo's eight wins a third of the way into the season put him on pace to easily break the record of 13 victories by an expansion-team pitcher (a mark shared by Dave Lemanczyk of the Blue Jays and Gene Brabender of the Seattle Pilots), and he could become the first rookie 20-game winner since the Reds' Tom Browning in 1985. Don't be fooled by his rookie status, though: Arrojo is no naif. He baffled hitters for 10 years as a member of the Cuban national team. But he was consumed by dreams of getting out of Cuba—where, despite winning 160 games for his country, he was paid about $11 a month—and pitching in the majors. He began considering defection in 1994, but he refused to leave his wife, Mayda, behind. Two years later, she, of all people, convinced him to do it. "She said, 'If pitching in the majors is what you want to do, you should,' " Arrojo says. "She gave me support and told me sooner or later she would get out."
So at 2:00 a.m. on July 9, 1996, Arrojo walked out of the Quality Inn in Albany, Ga., that was housing the Cuban national team and got into the car of agent Joe Cubas, who drove him to Miami. The Devil Rays won the ensuing bidding war for his rights, and at the press conference nine months later to announce that he had signed a deal with a $7 million signing bonus, Mayda—who had made good on her promise by smuggling herself and the couple's two children, Rolando and Jason, out of Cuba on a boat—was on the dais next to him.
Arrojo has spent the last year learning hitters' tendencies, how to spend money and how to drive. About the only thing he hasn't learned is English, so his interviews require an interpreter. However, when he's asked if he ever imagined that things would turn out this way, he doesn't need a translator. "No," he says, and the beaming smile on his face speaks a language all its own.