The Cuban Coach

Rigoberto Betancourt's life in baseball takes a seventh-inning stretch

Rigoberto Betancourt hasn't left Hialeah -- or as he prefers saying, "Hialeah no me suelta." (Hialeah doesn't let go of me.) What does he mean? That a pitcher's best moves are often in vain? That all Cuban béisbol defectors don't end up like El Duque?

It's been more than two years since Betancourt, a renowned pitching coach, defected during a highly publicized exhibition baseball game between Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles. He walked out of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel in downtown Baltimore on a May morning, smoking a cigarette, just as his countrymen were savoring a 12-6 win over the Orioles at Camden Yards. He wanted a taste of American life. So far it's been bitter. Betancourt isn't coaching professional players as he thought he would be, he hasn't been able to bring his family over from Cuba, and most of his teeth have fallen out, "a bad omen," as he understates. Still, Rigo insists he has no regrets.

On May 4, 1999, a blond woman, known only as Diana, whom Betancourt had befriended at the Sheraton bar about 24 hours earlier, waited for him at daybreak outside the hotel, where he and about 300 other Cuban baseball officials and players were staying. Betancourt and Diana went for a stroll, and then he suddenly split, leaving her dumbfounded. "So long, baby," Betancourt cracked. "Rigoberto, come back," she cried, as he disappeared over the horizon, like Clint Eastwood in an old spaghetti Western.

Betancourt shares his pitching knowledge with Miami Little Leaguers and high school players
Steve Satterwhite
Betancourt shares his pitching knowledge with Miami Little Leaguers and high school players

For hours, Betancourt hid in the bushes of a nearby park. He even fell asleep. At 9:00 that morning, he wandered the downtown Baltimore streets for about an hour, and then a concerned pedestrian gave him directions to the Central District Police Station. Betancourt's Cuban delegation credentials still hung from his neck. When he arrived at the precinct house, he asked for a Spanish-speaking officer, and immediately requested asylum. Police called the INS and officials arrived 90 minutes later. In the meantime Betancourt drank a Coke, ate cookies, and signed his autograph for Lt. Antonio Rodriguez. The Cuban coach was one of seven from Castro's workers' paradise who missed charter flight L-1011 home to Havana. But all six others promptly returned to the island, insisting they'd just overslept.

The showdown at Camden Yards was the second encounter in a two-game series between Cuba and the U.S. A highlight of the Clinton administration's "people-to-people policy," the goodwill exhibition games were dubbed "Washington's baseball diplomacy." The first game of the series was played in Cuba in March 1999. The Orioles won, and because of the team's presence on the island, they made baseball history. It had been 40 years since major-league gringos last played in barbudo-land. On March 21, 1959, eleven weeks after the triumph of Castro's revolution, Sandy Koufax led the Dodgers to a 4-3 spring-training win over the Cincinnati Reds in Havana's Estadio LatinoAmericano. Then American baseball bade farewell to Cuba until 1999.

During the second game, played in Baltimore, the Cuban all-star team showed off its offensive side, as did Cuban exiles protesting the game. Omar Linares, one of Cuba's top players, went 4 for 4 and walked twice. Daniel Castro, who played shortstop instead of star German Mesa because of rumors Mesa might defect, had four hits, including two triples, and scored four runs.

The game reached a climax in the fifth inning when Cuban umpire Cesar Valdez body-slammed and punched an anti-Castro demonstrator who bolted into short center field, holding a sign that read: "Freedom -- Strike Out Against Castro."

Andy Morales delivered the clinching blow: a three-run homer to center field in the ninth inning. He zoomed around the bases with his arms outstretched like an airplane, then zigzagged his way home. Morales cheered his teammates in the third-base dugout and pointed to the sky before he touched the plate. (Morales, who actually considered defecting during the Baltimore game, finally was smuggled out of Cuba last summer after having tried and failed once before. He played for the Yankees until they annulled his third-baseman's contract on July 5th.)

Through it all, baseball agents Joe Cubas and Gus Dominguez circled Camden Yards like sharks; they were waiting for one good Cuban pelotero (ballplayer) to jump ship. (Dominguez, a West Coast operator, was even spotted speaking to Morales after the game, and, not surprisingly, is now Morales's agent.) But when push came to shove that day, it was Rigoberto Betancourt, then a 54-year-old pitching coach, who made the big move: "Rigo has balls," says Alberto Fuentes, a private investigator whom Betancourt met a few months after his defection. "I can't believe how such a talented guy hasn't been able to find steady work in baseball. He's a guru."

In Cuba, Betancourt had been a baseball insider whose stint as a player was short but sweet. As a left-handed pitcher for the national team during the Sixties, he came to be known as the Little Giant of the Mound and el Elegante Lanzador Zurdo -- the Elegant Southpaw. With a 90-mph fastball and a wicked breaker that flummoxed hitters, Betancourt, standing only five feet six, was a pitcher to be feared.

In the Seventies he was an instructor at Havana's Provincial Academy of Baseball. Betancourt trained such stars as Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and Rene Arocha before they made it to la Yuma (Cuba slang for the United States) and then the major leagues. (El Duque fled Cuba in December 1997 and signed with the New York Yankees. Arocha, the first Cuban ballplayer to defect, played for the St. Louis Cardinals in the early Nineties and is now retired.)

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