Searching for a Home Base
Friday, March 3, 2006
VIERA, Fla . -- Washington Nationals pitcher Livan Hernandez is the proverbial man without a country.
This winter, as Major League Baseball put together its first international tournament, Hernandez scrambled to find a team. Unable to pitch for Cuba, from which he fled in 1995, he and other defectors petitioned unsuccessfully to field a team in exile. He then offered to lend his notorious curveball to Puerto Rico, where he has a home, but again was denied.
Now, as dozens of major leaguers, including six of his Washington teammates, prepare to leave spring training this week to participate in the World Baseball Classic, Hernandez said he is resigned to staying in Viera with the Nats. He plans to watch the tournament on television, and while he might pull for the Cuban players, he will be rooting for Cuba to lose.
"It's difficult, because I want to defend my flag but I don't want to [support] Fidel," said Hernandez, referring to Cuban President Fidel Castro. For the defectors, he said, "It's difficult to watch, because everyone wants to play in that kind of tournament."
Hernandez is among dozens of Cuban players essentially left stateless by the WBC, the tournament that major league officials hope one day will evolve into the baseball version of soccer's epic World Cup. The ambitious 16-nation tournament begins Friday in Tokyo, with first-round play also to take place beginning Tuesday in Phoenix, Orlando and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Cuba's powerhouse national team will play its opening games.
"Everyone wants to play," said Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Livan's older half-brother, who since defecting eight years ago has won four World Series titles. "But if you don't have a country, you can't play."
The defectors' plight is a function of the WBC's fuzzy eligibility requirements and the anachronistic politics that mark U.S.-Cuba relations. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two countries, which share baseball as their national pastime, increasingly have turned to ballplayers in their efforts to establish preeminence in the hemisphere.
One American sports agent, Juan Ignacio Hernandez Nodar, is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for illegally recruiting ballplayers on the island. Since Jose Contreras, the dominating 250-pound right-hander for the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox, signed a record $32 million contract with the New York Yankees after defecting in Mexico in 2002, the business has gotten increasingly cut-throat, according to agents and scouts. With Castro restricting the national team's travel to limit opportunities to defect, smugglers have taken over, extracting the players from Cuba by boat and then selling them to agents and teams after delivering them to a third country.
Joe Kehoskie, a Syracuse-based agent who has managed more than a dozen Cubans, said in 2004 he was contacted by smugglers who invited him to Miami to consider some recently arrived prospects. He arrived to find the Cubans sequestered in a house. "Three minutes into the meeting, they're asking me for $200,000 for the right to represent the players," he said. "It wasn't like, 'Hello, how are you?' It's insanity. It was like a ransom situation. The players were all sitting around on couches and basically they were kept hostage until somebody paid for them."
WBC organizers hope the tournament, like an exhibition series between Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles in 1999, will alleviate some of the tension.
For participants who aren't Cuban, the tournament's eligibility rules are exceedingly charitable. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, whose parents are Dominican but who was born in New York, wavered over which country he would play for before opting for the Americans. St. Louis pitcher Mark Mulder plans to pitch for the Netherlands. He was born in South Holland, Ill, which was settled by immigrants from South Holland, Netherlands.
Catcher Mike Piazza, the future Hall of Famer and a native of Norristown, Pa., will be playing for Italy, even though he and his parents were born in the United States. Piazza said the Italian government plans to issue him a passport before the tournament.