Julio Soto and Ramon Duquesne, two Cuban refugees who dreamed of playing major league baseball, were cut from the Macon Peaches, 25 days after signing professioanl baseball contracts.
Soto, 34, and Duquesne 27, were among several players who came to the U.S. when Cuba premier Fidel Castro opened the doors to all those who wanted to leave last spring.
They had attended a tryout camp conducted by a Cincinnati Reds scout and, after baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn lifted a ban forbidding pro teams from signing refugees, Soto and Duquesne signed, on June 3, 30-day, $300-a-month contracts with the Peaches, a Class A team in the South Atlantic League.
"We love to play," said Duquesne, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound first baseman who graduated from the University of Havana. "We will play and we will play good."
"This is a first for baseball and a first for Macon," Hillman Lyons, president of the Peaches, had said. "We want to get them started on a new life in a country."
But that life quickly soured for the two players. After spending 25 days with the team, Soto and Duquesne were released, and last Thursday both men applied for welfare funds in Macon.
Soto, who started several games for the Peaches, batter .291 with nine RBI in 16 games. Duquesne hit .257 for 11 games.
"It's unfortunate that they didn't get a chance to go to spring training and get in shape, but I'm not in a position to wait," said Lyons, who received some criticism from some factions of the Macon community for signing the players. "I'm not blaming them, but I've got to do something to try and turn this (team) thing around.
"I hated to start picking on two guys who needed a home," said Lyons, a baseball yeteran of 24 years. "But nothing has happened since they have been here."
Macon finished the first half of its season with a 21-48 record, the worst mark in the Sally league.
What happened to the Cuban players and exactly why they were released still is unclear. But their experience in Macon is an interesting story about two refugee athletes struggling to survive in a land where they have few friends, little or no money, no job skills and have difficulty communicating.
"They'll need some help and we'll get them some if it is the last thing we do," Lyons said. "We just can't put them out on the street I want to get with their sponsor (local restaurant manager Al Iglesias) and see if we can get them working in a restaurant or something."
Iglesias originally had arranged for the tryout camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He was miffed by the players' dismissal from the team.
"He (Lyons) told me that they were not producing," said Iglsias, who brought the two men from Flordia and recommended them to the Peaches."But how could they? Thirty days isn't long enough to show anyone whether or not you can play baseball.
"There are a lot of other players who aren't hitting nearly as well as them and they're still there," he said.
In recent weeks, unlike when they first joined the team, Soto and Duquesne were no longer reclusive and withdrawn. Before games they could be seen joking with players, discussing strategy or signing autographs for fans.
Soto had even learned to speak English well enough that teammates teased him about the way he picked up dates during road trips.
However, Soto had raised the ire of Lyons and interim manager Brannon Bonifay by his shifting temperament and his failure to report to games on time. He had been fined recently, following his ejection from three games, once for allegedly flinging a bat at an umpire.
According to several Macon players, Soto had also become angry at Bonifay after his removal from several games.
The two Cubans were finally told of their releases by Peaches catcher George Curbelo, who had helped ease the transition for Soto and Duquesne by tutoring them in English and translating team signs during games.
Bonifay has declined comment or the players' release.
Soto and Duquesne said that under no circumstances would they return to Cuba.
"We worked very hard there (Cuba) and we were given very little money in return," said Duquesne "I would never go back there. I would rather die first. If possible, we would like to go somewhere and find a job. We don't have that much money and no real friends."
Iglesias said there was a possibility that the two men would be picked up by the semipro Tampa (Fla.) Marlins.
But Manuel Valdes, who works closely with the Marlins, an all-U.S. Cuban team, said finding a place for the two on the team's roster might be difficult. "Their season is almost over, so I don't know if they're going to be able to play with them or not," Valdes said. "I'm going to try and arrange a trial for them. I don't know how much money they have but I'm going to advise them to go back to Miami.
"They have an association of Cubans there and if they get in touch with the right people, there might be something someone can do for them."