By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Terrence McCoy
By Jeff Weinberger
By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
"Cubas promised I would have a work permit within twenty days after I was granted political asylum! [It took seven months.] Then I never heard from him again! Not having the work permit on time cost me my future," because, Betancourt maintains, the Red Sox needed to fill a slot, and hired someone else since he lacked the proper credentials. (Cubas has little to say about Betancourt. After numerous attempts to get him to talk, his only comment to New Times was, "No, I know nothing about his whereabouts, or what he's doing.")
At first Betancourt was stoic, but after a definite descending pattern began to emerge in his fortunes, he admits growing despondent. At one point he was so unhappy, he considered ending his life. "You don't know how many times I've cried while lying in bed. My talent is going to waste here." He decries the exile life, the feeling of being a foreigner. Melodramatically he complains about being alone, not having a woman, not having the job he dreamed of. He can't see past his current situation. In Betancourt's mind, there's not much light ahead....
Inside the little efficiency where he lives, the Cuban coach shuffles across the room to a miniscule kitchen and begins making coffee. "It's the only thing I can offer you to drink," he shrugs. His back is hunched, his head hangs down. "All of my plans have fallen apart...."
To add to the Lower Depthsfeeling, almost all of Betancourt's teeth have fallen out, the result of bacteria spreading in his gums. "It was horrible," he says when answering questions about what happened. Sitting down, with a small cup of Cuban coffee, Betancourt places his hand on his forehead and leans on the table with his elbow. It all happened within two weeks, he says. He didn't dare leave work to go to a dentist because he couldn't afford to. "How would I pay for a dentist if I didn't work? The pain was unbearable, but it was the only way." He looks very sorry for himself.
In Betancourt's back yard is a little batting cage. A ten-year-old kid lives in the house with the Cuban family who rents Betancourt the efficiency. The boy happens to play ball, and sometimes Rigo coaches him. Next to the batting cage, a bird cage hangs from a tree limb. Inside are two parrots. "They're like guard dogs," Rigo jokes grimly. "Every time I come in and out, they bark." Like Cerberus, at the river Styx.
Fortunately nothing can remain unrelievedly dark, except terminal cancer and the South Pole. On the first day of July, 9:00 a.m. on a Sunday, the baseball fields at Palmer Park are optimistically clean. Orange-brown diamonds seem to float in a sea of sharp, green grass, freshly sprinkled with water. Betancourt, looking engaged and healthier (and with dental implants!), wearing cleats, white baseball pants, and a green jersey, is grilling two Little League pitchers. One of them, a skinny and agile prepubescent twelve-year-old named Delvis Pijeira, wears Oakley sunglasses that almost cover his entire face. He is the starring pitcher of International Academy's team of eleven- and twelve-year-olds. Betancourt also trains the puny Pijeira on the side, for $25 a lesson. "He's Rigoberto's favorite," says Delvis's father, Ramon, with a big smile, while sitting at a wooden picnic table.
"Rigoberto es un salvaje pichando --Rigoberto is a savage when it comes to pitching," adds the proud papá. (The term savage in Cuban slang has a very positive connotation, usually meaning "greatness.") "Delvis, the book I gave you, have you read it or not?" Betancourt barks at the introverted kid, before going out to the field. Rigo's personality has filled out with his temporary authority. "A little," the kid replies, timidly. "The problem is he can't read Spanish," Delvis's father interjects.
Twelve-year-old Yasiel Munoz is out on the practice mound. Betancourt is by his side, correcting basic technical errors common in young pitchers. "Draw an imaginary line," Betancourt tells Yasiel. "Release the ball in front of your face. Let's see if you can do it." The boy throws the ball looking down. "You can't pitch and not know where you're throwing the ball," Betancourt insists. "You just won't have the direction needed for a strike. Good, that's it, eso es,see how the ball cuts straight through the middle." Indeed the ball zipped through 60 feet and plopped with speed right into the catcher's mitt.
"Now lift your leg more, to the height of your hip," Betancourt says. "That will give you more speed. A little bit more, that's it."
A second later, he admonishes: "Oh, you're doing it again! Get used to lifting that leg more!"
"Yasiel, stay tall," screams International's head coach, Rolando Hernandez, from the outfield.
"Don't leave your glove behind you after you've thrown the ball," Betancourt hammers at Yasiel. "You have a glove on for a reason. It's to catch balls with, so you must always have it in front of you. You have to be prepared. Eso es."
Today's training session at International was the last for the summer. Betancourt walks away from the field a little pumped up, proudly comparing American kids and Cuban kids in baseball. Los Americanos,Betancourt says, may have access to a lot of protein in their foods, but the enthusiasm and zeal displayed by Cuban boys who play the game is without comparison. "Besides," Betancourt shrugs, "the children here have too many diversions competing for their attention."
Then he reverts: "Back to what I was telling you," Betancourt says seriously. "I have many possibilities, many, but no real options yet. Nothing in my hands."
But at least the Cuban coach was smiling.