Striking out on his own

Cuban pitching coach Rigoberto Betancourt threw Castro a curve by defecting. Now he's in immigration hell.

On a recent sweltering June afternoon, Rigoberto Betancourt sits outside his uncle's Hialeah home and repeatedly pushes the redial button of a black cordless phone. The stifling air in the cement yard adds to his frustration; for the past few hours he's been trying unsuccessfully to call his wife in Cuba.

The 54-year-old Cuban pitching coach, who skipped a flight home after the island's national team (Equipo Cuba) beat the Baltimore Orioles 12-6 at Camden Yards this past May, has spoken to his family five times since his defection. "Being in this situation depresses me," says the dwarfish, silver-haired man, squinting at the beaming sun. "My diabetic brother, whose leg was just amputated, has even called asking for medicine and money. I can't do anything to help. My kids call to ask if I've started working. I just sent my wife $60, it should last her at least a month."

Twenty minutes later Betancourt gives up on the call and goes inside to cool off. In the modest two-bedroom home, Alfonso Gonzalez, the elderly uncle with whom Betancourt lives, uses a walker to tread slowly across the tiled floor while his wife Aidee, who recently underwent heart surgery, takes an afternoon siesta. A colossal, elaborately framed quinceañera photo of the aged couple's daughter adorns the otherwise bare living-room walls. Peach-color vertical blinds are closed, shutting out all light. Black formica furniture, two gray-print sofas, and a bulky, charcoal-color leather armchair fill out the somber decor, which seems to reflect the household's mood.

Betancourt is in a constant state of desperation and melancholy
photo courtesy Rigoberto Betancourt
Betancourt is in a constant state of desperation and melancholy
Betancourt is in a constant state of desperation and melancholy
Lissette Corsa
Betancourt is in a constant state of desperation and melancholy

Betancourt sits before the blaring television, seduced by advertisements for cars, laundry detergent, and shampoos. "When I came to this country for the first time about eight years ago, I was impressed by everything," he remarks. "In Cuba I felt like I was on Pluto, way out there, the farthest planet from the sun."

After his defection, the media quickly jumped on Betancourt's story. Reporters portrayed his decision to leave home as symbolic of discontent brewing beneath the superficial goodwill surrounding the series. Newspapers across the country detailed his dramatic getaway. He was interviewed on Telemundo's WSCV-TV (Channel 51) and CBS's Telenoticias. He was even a topic of discussion on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation.

But now that the spotlight has dimmed, Betancourt must cope with his life as a newly arrived exile. He spends his days waiting and wondering what's next. At about 1:00 p.m. each day he hounds the mailman for correspondence from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Betancourt, who has received political asylum, impatiently awaits permission to work. He's also anxious to hear from Joe Cubas, the sports agent who has helped many Cuban baseball players to defect and find major-league work. Cubas promised Betancourt he'd recommend him for a gig with the Boston Red Sox, but the lack of a work permit has hampered the effort. Coaching for the pros remains just one of Betancourt's countless major-league dreams.

Betancourt stands up and goes outside for a smoke. He lights an unfiltered Competidora-brand cigarette, chugs a cup of cold Cuban coffee, and tells a reporter that he hopes his situation will soon be resolved. At night, when slumber escapes him, he pops sleeping pills to find solace until morning.

Despite his defection from Cuba, Betancourt's baseball success was at least partially a result of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. He began feeding his appetite for the sport at an early age, batting and fielding in the barrio scrimmages (called piten in Cuban slang) of Naranjo Arroyo, his hometown in Havana province. When Betancourt was sixteen years old, the Cuban Sugar Kings, a team belonging to one of the island's two professional leagues, rejected the aspiring left-handed hurler because he was too short. "They said to me 'Look, lefty, we're sorry, but we like our pitchers tall,'" the five-foot six-inch Betancourt recalls bitterly. "I was crushed." In 1961 Cuban baseball severed its ties with the American game and Betancourt excelled, eventually making it to Cuba's equivalent of the big leagues.

Unlike the new breed of Cuban peloteros, who from the age of seven study at Soviet-style athletic academies called "sports initiation schools," Betancourt is from an era of self-taught players who cultivated their skills in the street. Betancourt lived through a magical era in Cuban baseball, when the island was a melting pot of Cuban, American, and Negro League players. He made the national team while the revolution was still an experiment and players carried the weight of ideology into international competition.

As a boy Betancourt was a passionate fan of Almendares, one of four teams belonging to the prerevolutionary professional Cuban league. He was mesmerized by his heroes' command of the diamond. "I would choose being taken to a ballgame over the most marvelous of toys," Betancourt recalls. "Going to the stadium was the greatest of all prizes."

In 1963 Betancourt qualified for one of the country's best amateur units, Nueva Habana. Manolo Alvarez, a former broadcaster for WQBA-AM (1140) who saw Betancourt play in Cuba, recalls that the youngster was brimming with untapped talent. "He was young and hadn't developed a pitching style, but [his throwing] had natural force and velocity," Alvarez remembers.

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