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Rene Arocha walked through a door marked exit two years ago, and last Friday night he made a memorable major league entrance. Arocha, a righthander for the St. Louis Cardinals, pitched eight innings in his debut, giving up only four hits and two runs in an 8-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.
On July 10, 1991, Arocha was on the Cuban national team. The club was at Miami International Airport, catching a flight home after a series of exhibitions against the U.S. team in Millington, Tenn. But Arocha didn't get on the plane. "It was easy," he says of his defection. "All I had to do was find an exit sign." Waiting in a car nearby was Manuel Hurtado, a former Cuban pitching coach who had defected a few years earlier.
Even though Arocha was considered only the third- or fourth-best pitcher on the national team, his defection—the first ever by a Cuban baseball player—enraged Fidel Castro and intrigued major league scouts. In tryouts arranged by Hurtado, Arocha impressed so many teams that a special lottery was held to determine who could sign him. The names of eight teams were put in a hat, and St. Louis was the winner.
Arocha spent last season at Triple A Louisville, going 12-7 with a 2.70 ERA in 25 starts. He was probably ready for the majors, but the Cardinals held him back rather than call him up and thus make him eligible for the expansion draft. He is no ordinary rookie, however. He had already won more than 100 games in Cuba's major league, and he claims to be able to throw 20 different pitches, one of which is an above-average fastball. And although he is listed as 27 years of age, he looks older. "I had a hard life in Cuba," says Arocha.
When he left that life behind, he also left behind his 20-year-old wife, Evelisy, and an eight-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. Evelisy had no idea he was defecting. In fact, she went to the Havana airport to greet the team that fateful day. Later that summer, when some American reporters interviewed her in Havana during the Pan American Games, she gave Tom Archdeacon of the Dayton Daily News an inflatable bird with these words written on its yellow hat: "You receive as proof of our love this simple gift from someone who longs to be by your side for the rest of her life, since having you would mean enjoying the richest life anyone could have in this world." Alas, Evelisy, who pinned her hopes on that little bird, remains in Havana while Rene, who pinned his hopes on the Redbirds, has married again, to a Cuban-American.
Arocha was originally going to go north with the Cardinals as a long reliever, but starter Omar Olivares had such a wretched spring that manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Joe Coleman decided to put Arocha into the rotation. He more than justified their faith on Friday night. Arocha's only real worry was making sure he got the game ball. "He thought he should stay in the dugout until the last out to make sure he got the ball," says infielder Jose Oquendo. "I told him he didn't have to worry."
National League hitters are the ones who should be worrying. Cuba's fourth-best pitcher defects, and in less than two years he has them muttering. As Torre says, " Joe Coleman wants to go there and see if he can find the other three."