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

Striking out on his own

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 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.

He began mandatory military service in 1964 and played on the army's baseball team. During practice, José "Guanabana" Quintana, the team's coach, schooled Betancourt on the mound; that year the young lefty led the military team to victory in a regional championship. In 1965 Betancourt pitched his first national series for Occidentales, a top-level team representing the western provinces. On December 30, 1965, in a game against Granjeros, Betancourt struck out eighteen players, only two away from the national record.

Between 1965 and 1975 Betancourt played for four of the country's best nines and made the national team three times. He also pitched in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and at the 1967 Pan American Games in Canada. Twice while abroad, Betancourt says he was scouted by American major-league teams. In Puerto Rico, Kansas City Royals scout Carlos "Patato" Pascual was impressed by Betancourt's curve ball and spoke to the head of the Cuban delegation about the 22-year-old lanzador (pitcher) in 1966. (Pascual confirms the communication.) Betancourt says the delegation chief told him of Pascual's interest. "He said that I was free to choose, but not without reminding me that in Cuba I was seen as an exemplary baseball player," Betancourt says. "I didn't stay in Puerto Rico because I would have never been able to return to Cuba. And I was newly married. My father was also very sick. It just didn't feel right to leave them behind."

The following year during the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies also scouted him. Betancourt claims he could have signed for a lot of money. "A Phillies scout approached me in the dugout and said, 'Lefty, if I get you a good contract would you be willing to sign?' I asked him how much he'd offer if I struck out fifteen players and he replied, '$125,000.'" Betancourt contends he struck out eighteen that day. "At the end of the game he came running to me with a contract, but I told him that I preferred to stay in Cuba," Betancourt says. "He told me I was missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

But Betancourt would have at least five more chances to defect before he finally made a move.

In Cuba he gained a reputation as an elegant lanzador zurdo (southpaw) who had tremendous control and a wicked breaking ball. "Because I was short, I could do what the big guys couldn't," Betancourt says. Cuban sports reporters of a newspaper called El Mundo hailed him as "the sensational lefty of Havana" and "one of the best left-handed pitchers of our béisbol."

But according to Cuban baseball expert Peter C. Bjarkman, who lives in Indiana, Betancourt was only slightly better than average. "He was one of a handful of pitchers who excelled for a couple of seasons," offers the author of Baseball with a Latin Beat: A History of the Latin American Game, published in 1994. "But any notion that he was a huge star would be a little bit exaggerated."

The year 1969 marked the beginning of the end of Betancourt's pitching career. A capillary in his left arm popped and the blood clotted in his elbow. Betancourt couldn't bend his arm. He used cortisone, an anti-inflammatory, at least five times that season, then underwent surgery and took a year off to recuperate. Despite the operation's success, his curve ball lost some of its zip. "I was never the same man again," he says.

But Betancourt had one last stellar moment on the mound. On January 7, 1970, he pitched a no-hitter for Industriales in the national series. "Luis Misiñak from Club Oriente, I'll never forget that name, stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the eighth," Betancourt recalls. "I delivered and he hit the ball straight at me, striking my left arm and bouncing off me as a fly ball to third baseman German Aguila, who caught it. I was in terrible pain and so our head coach wanted me in the dugout, but I told him I would finish the game. In the ninth inning I continued pitching in pain and still I struck out two players. We won by a score of 1-0, and I had my day in baseball." Afterwards he was taken to the hospital. His left arm was fractured.

Betancourt continued to play for five years but never again represented Cuba abroad. He also started going to school. "As an athlete the only thing I had thought about was the good life and women," Betancourt remarks. "But then I realized that it wasn't going to last forever. I started to think about the future. I knew that if I went to school I wasn't going to have such a rough time, so I studied something that I liked, something that has been my life: baseball."

In 1975 Betancourt obtained his degree from Havana's prestigious Commander Manuel Fajardo Physical Education School. He specialized in coaching pitchers. According to the official Guide to Cuban Baseball published by the Cuban government, Betancourt compiled a win-loss record of 38-27 in 108 appearances on the mound. During 569 innings pitched, Betancourt struck out 573 batters and permitted a career earned run average of 2.51 home runs per game. The 2097 batters who faced him achieved a batting average of only .216 and hit but thirteen homers.

More than two decades before he departed Cuba for good, Betancourt started coaching youth baseball in Naranjo Arroyo, where he had grown up. In 1978 he became a professor at Havana's Provincial Academy of Baseball. There he trained at least three players who made the national team.

In 1980 Betancourt was again tempted to leave Cuba during the Mariel boatlift. But he says American relatives never followed through on a plan to ferry him to Miami. Betancourt continued to impart baseball theory and technique, wondering when the next opportunity to depart might arrive.

In 1986 the diminutive lefty became an advisor to baseball coaches in Cuba's eastern provinces. He also tutored pitchers for a team called the Metropolitanos during three national series. Fellow defector and former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rene Arocha played for the team in those years. Arocha remembers Betancourt as a dedicated worker. "I was just a kid when he pitched for Occidentales, but from what I've heard and from what he demonstrated as a coach, he must have been great."

In 1990 Betancourt became a member of Cuba's national baseball commission, part of the national sports-governing bureaucracy. A year later he traveled to Miami for the first time. "When I got here I realized, my God, compared to this country Cuba is behind about 500 years. It's beyond third world." But Betancourt cut his stay short when he learned his ill mother in Cuba had taken a turn for the worse. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage just a few days after his return.

Betancourt came to Miami again in 1993. This time he stayed for six months. He says he didn't defect then for fear of reprisals against a son and daughter who were attending medical school on the island. When Betancourt returned home he divorced his wife of 30 years and in 1996, after a three-month courtship, he married 33-year-old Marta Mesa. "I figured dating would be expensive, taking a woman out to eat and then to a posada(hotel) would put a hole in my pocket, so when she proposed, it took me just three days to say 'I do.'"

Until his defection, Betancourt consulted with athletes throughout Cuba. "I detected errors in pitchers' [techniques] and would point them out to the coaches so that they could work on them," Betancourt explains. He also assessed talent for the Cuban national team. Cubadeportes S.A., a state-owned concern that rents sports talent to teams in other countries, sent Betancourt to Panama for nine months in 1997. Betancourt's monthly stipend of $1300 for coaching a Panamanian team mostly went to the Cuban government. He was left with $150. Still for Betancourt, whose monthly wage on the island amounted to about $12, it was a good deal.

Once in Panama, Betancourt separated from Marta Mesa and found a new love. He says he could have stayed in Central America, but he hated the weather and poverty. After he returned to Cuba, Betancourt claims Mesa welcomed him with open arms. He was scheduled to work in Colombia and Guatemala. But his stint in Cuban baseball would come to an abrupt end.

The showdown dubbed "Washington's baseball diplomacy" was a recent highlight of the Clinton administration's new people-to-people exchange, which aims to re-establish contact with Cubans and promote a smooth transition to democracy. The game also marked the first time an American major-league team had played on the island since Sandy Koufax led the Dodgers to a 4-3 spring-training win over the Cincinnati Reds in Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano on March 21, 1959. That was eleven weeks after Castro's takeover.

In mid-April government officials named Betancourt to a group of retired ballplayers who would travel to Baltimore as a goodwill gesture. The pitching coach says he was unimpressed by the historical and political importance of the exhibition games. All he could think about was defection. Less than a month later, he became one of more than 30 baseball defectors who have escaped the island since 1991. "The situation in Cuba is precarious to say the least," he comments. "I wanted to better my personal situation. I didn't feel at home anymore. Home is where you can best live."

Betancourt thought his plan had hit a snag when his wife told him she had registered the family, including Betancourt, in the annual visa lottery. (Since 1995 Cuba has allowed 20,000 people a year, chosen by lot, to depart the island.) "It was as if someone had poured a bucket of ice water over me. I thought the government would find out that I wanted to leave and not let me go to Baltimore." But somehow he passed undetected. On May 2 he left with the Cuban delegation.

At Baltimore's Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel on the morning of May 3, Betancourt spotted a woman named Diana whom he describes as a "lovely blonde" sitting at the hotel bar. He skipped breakfast, sat next to her, and ordered a Coke. Before long, and despite language barriers, Betancourt befriended the woman, whose last name he doesn't recall. She bought him two more Cokes. The pair then proceeded to walk arm-in-arm around the hotel lobby. They posed for photos together and Betancourt kissed her many times on the cheek, all in the presence of some of the 300 swarming delegation members who occupied six of the Sheraton's fifteen floors.

"My intentions were two-fold," Betancourt explains. "First I wanted her to fall for me so that she would help me escape, and secondly I wanted my compañeros to see us together from the beginning so that when the time came, nothing would be thought of my wandering off with her other than that I was being intimate."

Betancourt and Diana agreed to meet after the game; according to him they planned to spend the night together at a hotel. After the game finished, he realized that he had left his passport and other documents in his hotel room. He told Diana that he had to attend a postgame reception and asked her to meet him at the Sheraton.

The delegation returned to the hotel at about one o'clock in the morning. To Betancourt's surprise, Diana was waiting in a parked car. Then a final snag arose: Cuban officials abruptly changed their departure time, giving the group only a half hour to prepare. "I threw the few things I'd brought with me in my bag and said to myself, Well, I'll just walk out those doors and whatever happens, happens," Betancourt says. "I knew that Diana was outside, so I told the guard at the entrance that I was going outside for a smoke and to say good-bye to my Americanita. He said, 'Sure, no problem.'"

Out in the parking lot Betancourt asked Diana to walk with him while he smoked his cigarette. He says he explained that it was his custom to go for a stroll before having sex. About three blocks from the Sheraton, Betancourt dropped the bomb. "I said, 'Thanks for everything, but from here on I go alone.' She was confused until I said, 'Look, so long, baby.' She told me I was crazy, and I responded that indeed I was and left her standing there. I could hear her yelling, 'Rigoberto, come back!'" Betancourt laughs nervously. Then he shows a newspaper clipping picturing him with the blond woman.

Fearing arrest, Betancourt hid in the bushes of a nearby park for about eight hours. At 9:00 a.m. he wandered the downtown streets for close to an hour until a concerned stranger offered to help. Betancourt followed the man's directions, and at 10:00 a.m. he walked into the central district police station, which was located eight blocks from the Sheraton. He was wearing a light jacket and brown pants. The blue Cuban delegation credential still hung from his neck. Betancourt asked for a Spanish-speaking officer and requested asylum. Police called the INS and officials arrived 90 minutes later. In the meantime Betancourt was given a Coke and cookies. He autographed his credential and gave it to Lt. Antonio Rodriguez as a memento. Betancourt was one of seven Cubans who missed charter flight L-1011 to Havana. All the others promptly returned to the island, insisting they had simply overslept, according to press reports.

After finishing grueling meetings with the INS in Baltimore, Betancourt arrived in Miami on May 6. Family and TV cameras awaited him at the airport. He was shuttled off to Don Shula's Hotel and Golf Club where WSCV-TV (Channel 51) newscasters interviewed him. Sports agent Cubas met him at the station's headquarters the following morning. A week later, thanks to Cubas, Red Sox officials were interviewing Betancourt in Tampa for a job as a pitching coach. "I was able to get his foot in the door, but since I'm not his agent, I don't know what his status is with the Red Sox," Cubas says.

On May 24 the Red Sox flew Betancourt to Fort Myers for a second interview. Betancourt describes the meeting thus: He dined with fifteen Red Sox officials, including director of player development Kent Qualls. Then he sat in on a practice. Qualls told Betancourt that as soon as he was authorized to work, he had a job. It seemed Betancourt's fortunes had taken a turn for the better. (Qualls confirmed the two meetings, but would provide no further comment.)

As the weeks passed, Betancourt became increasingly impatient. He received no information on the status of his work permit application. On June 6 a Red Sox official called Betancourt. "He told me not to worry and that they would wait for me," he says, his rasping voice hinting at his anxiety. "They have a business to run. They can't wait for me eternally. I'm afraid to lose this job. [The INS has] left me in oblivion, I'm desperate."

"I know exactly what he's going through. I lived it," offers Arocha, who fled Cuba's baseball machine in 1991 when he stayed during a stopover at Miami International Airport. "It's never too late to start a new life. I think he made the right choice. No matter where he ends up working he'll be better off than in Cuba, and above all he'll be a free man."

Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball, says he admires Betancourt. "He's a courageous man to make a move like that at this point in life when all he can do now is be a coach."

Sitting in the grandstands at Pro Player Stadium during a rainy June 9 game between the Marlins and Orioles, Betancourt holds forth on a panoply of subjects: the void left in baseball by the revolution, his days in the game, and the steps to becoming a good pitcher. It's the first game he has attended since Cuba beat the Orioles at Camden Yards. He says it's also the first time since childhood that he has sat in the stands, just another spectator among fans. "Being here means so much to me, it stirs up my desire to play," he tells a reporter, never letting his eyes leave the field.

Dressed to impress and showered in cologne, Betancourt is fascinated by the vendors selling beer, popcorn, and Coke. The high-tech scoreboard and overwhelming size of the stadium intimidates him, he says. A swirl of smells from sweet cotton candy to roasted peanuts, hollering vendors by the dozens, and screaming kids are nothing like the desultory stands on the island. Cuban grandstands lack ambiance and fans, he contends. American zeal for the game is reminiscent of Cuban enthusiasm of long ago. "None of this exists in Cuba today; there is no baseball atmosphere," Betancourt comments.

Bjarkman's view of the differences between Cuban and American baseball seems to indicate that exuberance is in the eye of the beholder. "Baseball on the island is delightful to watch," he says. "These guys are obviously playing for the love of the game and for national pride. The fans are the greatest in the world. It's very much like stepping back into American baseball in the Forties. It has all the innocence that's been lost here."

For all the talk of American baseball's greatness, Betancourt can't help but feel pride for Cuba's gamesmanship. He hopes the young players he once drilled will someday be able to realize their potential. "I had prestige," he says. "I was born with a ball in hand and I struggled incessantly to be recognized. I think every player dreams of playing in the big leagues. I hope I live to see a Cuban team fulfill that dream."

As Marlins hurler Dennis Springer takes the mound, Betancourt's attention turns to the veteran's pitching. "He looks down too much before delivering the ball," he says. "That's not good. From the moment a pitcher takes his position he should never lose sight of his target." According to Betancourt, concentration makes or breaks a pitcher. Control, focus, and dominance over the ball are elements of success. "A man who concentrates is surrounded by silence. He doesn't even hear the roar of a crowd."

On a Thursday morning in June, Betancourt arrives at Charles Monfort's front door in Westchester. He's never met Miami's top collector of Cuban baseball paraphernalia and is a little nervous. Monfort opens the door, introduces himself, shakes Betancourt's hand, and hugs him. "Come, come this way," Monfort says warmly. Shuffling past a Victorian-style living room, Monfort solemnly leads Betancourt to an office he calls "mini-Cooperstown." In fact Monfort has hundreds of astounding autographed black-and-white photos of America's best players. Mounted on plaques, each one is emblazoned with the player's name, the seasons he played, and his achievements. From Satchel Paige, "baseball's ageless wonder," to Johnny Vander Meer, who "pitched the only consecutive no-hitters in baseball history," to Martin Dihigo, the only Cuban inducted into Cooperstown, New York's National Baseball Hall of Fame. Monfort's collection is a multiethnic treasure trove. A 1932 photo shows a young Joe DiMaggio at the kitchen table eating as his mother hovers over him clad in a white apron with a wooden spatula in hand.

Betancourt is awestruck; he's never seen anything like it. "I've been working on my collection since I was ten years old," the 69-year-old Monfort says. "I'm truly impressed," Betancourt replies.

Baseball talk a lo cubano ensues over cigarettes and syrup-thick Cuban coffee. The Cuban coach poses for pictures and autographs Spalding baseballs, and Monfort gives Betancourt a copy of his hitting and fielding statistics compiled for the occasion. "Do you know anything about Chiquitin Cabrera?" Monfort asks. "Chiquitin died," Betancourt replies matter-of-factly.

"He died?"

"Yeah, he was a good friend of mine."

"Mine, too," Monfort says. "How about Tomas Soto?"

"Haven't seen him in a long time," Betancourt responds. "He's from another province."

Monfort asks Betancourt if he has any memorabilia, perhaps an old uniform, to contribute to the collection. "I'll have you sign it and then mount it on the wall," Monfort says.

"I gave my old uniforms away in Cuba and you know that in Cuba people don't save things, they use them," Betancourt says.

Betancourt stares blankly at the hundreds of snapshots of his heroes. Then he begins to talk about hard times. "Sometimes I ask myself why I didn't return to Cuba," he says, slumping in his chair. "I feel so lost, like a cosmonaut who was dropped on foreign ground. I thought I would be working right away, but everything has been an obstacle. There seems to be no way out. If I would have known that this is how it was going to be, I would have never stayed."

"You would have made it to the major leagues," Monfort offers, "if only you had gotten here sooner."


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