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The Cuban Coach

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.

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.)


In the Eighties, Betancourt was promoted to a position advising head baseball coaches for Cuba's eastern provincial teams. In the Nineties he became one of ten members of Cuba's national baseball commission, part of the sports-governing bureaucracy, and he monitored the development of more than 200 pitchers from Cuba's sixteen national teams. Betancourt assessed talent for Equipo Cuba, the all-star team representing Cuba in international competitions, and even assisted crucial meetings to draw up Equipo's roster. At one point Cubadeportes S.A., a state-owned agency that rents sports talent to teams abroad, sent Betancourt to Panama for nine months to coach a Panamanian team.

"Yo en Cuba vivia bien," Betancourt says now, while on his way to train Little Leaguers at the International Baseball Academy in southwest Miami (la sauwecera). "Pa' que te voy a mentir. I lived well in Cuba, why lie to you. I had a car, a large house with four bedrooms and a grand front porch. It had all the comforts of a home here in Miami. I had dollars, a good job, and the opportunity to travel abroad. I had prestige. And I left everything."

The driving force behind Betancourt's venture into uncertainty, he now admits, was his family. "Estan locos por venir -- They're crazy to come here," for good, Betancourt reveals. Which is not to say that his own baseball dreams didn't influence his decision to defect during such a high-profile event -- one in which baseball and politics suddenly were synonymous. But it took more than the coach's own ambitions to fuel his defection.

Betancourt hoped that by leaving Cuba in such a dramatic way, he would easily land a coaching gig in the major leagues, then, utilizing the P.R. of international media exposure, reunite with his family fairly quickly. Instead he's coaching Little League, working as a cashier at the Farm Store, a 24-hour convenience store, and desperately searching for ways to bring his wife and children together. In April 2000, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana granted Betancourt's 35-year-old wife, Marta Mesa, whom Betancourt says he sent for when he first got here, a visa. But the Cuban government refused to grant Mesa an exit permit to leave the island. (However, in a not uncommon move by the Cubans, two children from Mesa's first marriage, fifteen-year-old Tay Cruz Mesa and eight-year-old Yasiel Rios Mesa, were allowed to leave Cuba. They arrived in the U.S. last October and are currently living in Naples, Florida, with their paternal grandfather; in early July, Marta Mesa took to the sea in an attempt to reunite with Betancourt and her children, but her boat's motor died just off Florida, and the American Coast Guard deported her and twenty other Cubans back to Havana. "If she dies at sea it will be my fault," Betancourt says, worried Mesa might try again. "The thought torments me; I have no peace of mind.") Betancourt believes the tactic of allowing Mesa's children to legally leave Cuba without their mother is the Castro government's way of retaliating against him for his defection. "They've separated her from her children to punish me," he says.

Betancourt's own professional life has remained stagnant. Last year a job coaching for the Boston Red Sox slipped through his hands. By the time he obtained a work permit in November 1999, seven months after the Red Sox first interviewed him, it was too late. "They told me they had already filled the position," Betancourt says. At press time Red Sox officials who'd interviewed Betancourt had failed to return calls.


Inside the small Hialeah efficiency where the now 56-year-old Betancourt lives, the Cuban coach -- who looks like a cross between Ricardo Montalban and Jerry Vale -- slides a 44-page typed manuscript across a small, round folding table adjacent to his twin bed. It's a paper-clipped pitching guide he laboriously wrote. Its title: "How to Become a Good Pitcher." The pitching book is just one of the things Betancourt is doing in an attempt to gain "popularity," as he calls it, in "the wonderful world of [American] baseball."

 

"I want someone to publish it," he says, a little plaintively.

In the prologue, Betancourt writes: "I hope that with this modest contribution, I may influence in the development of baseball ... pitchers, so that in a not too distant future they become good athletes."

Among the techniques and pitching styles covered in the booklet, Rigo painstakingly describes the steps needed for tossing a good knuckleball. To achieve this difficult lanzamiento (pitch), he writes, pitchers should place pressure on the ball with their fingernails; gravitational pull and wind direction should be taken into account. Betancourt also explains the importance of drawing an imaginary line as a guide for throwing; he writes about the kind of psychological preparation pitchers must undergo and claims to have invented a training method that involves pitching with a blindfold. "This method," Betancourt writes, "consists of the pitcher developing maximum concentration until he is able to throw strikes with his eyes closed."

For now though, the Cuban coach is stuck working the graveyard shift as a cashier at a rinky job that pays $6.50 per hour. On weekends, once he punches out of work at 6:00 a.m., he heads home for a quick shower and then trains chamacos (kids) in Palmer Park. Every now and then, when he has the time and motivation, Betancourt imparts one-on-one pitching lessons; two high school ballplayers and a handful of Little Leaguers are his students. Sixteen-year-old Gilberto Reyes, a student at Miami Beach High, has been training with Betancourt for about ten months. "He's taught me a lot about having control over my movements and dominance over the ball," Reyes says. He also vouches for the pitching-while-blindfolded technique as a valid training method. "It really does work," he assures.

Among Betancourt's many dreams is to open a baseball academy. He's even registered a corporation called Betancourt Academy. "At least I'm not unloading car parts at a warehouse like before," Betancourt says with relief. "It was back-breaking work." But Betancourt would have kept at it if he hadn't been laid off. "I don't have the luxury of quitting a job."

Having a baseball academy would be nice, but that's just one of many possibilities. Betancourt still has his eyes on the major leagues. Eight months ago, he says, he spoke to Adrian Hernandez via telephone while the pitcher for the Columbus Clippers (the Yankees' triple A team) trained in Tampa. Betancourt offered to correct some errors in his lanzamiento. Of course Hernandez, who defected last year, declined his former coach's overtures, citing his contract with the Yankees.

Betancourt actually introduced Hernandez to baseball in Cuba. "At the age of ten he came into the baseball academy where I was teaching in Havana, barefoot and hungry. I noticed he had potential, and eventually he made it to the national series, playing for Los Industriales [one of Cuba's national teams]." But, according to a slightly bitter-sounding Betancourt, Hernandez never made Equipo Cuba. "He was always among the ten on reserve," Rigo says. "He's just not an intelligent pitcher. He has quality but no brain. Yet look where he's at now, pitching for the Yankees. Un negro que era un muerto de hambre en Cuba, pa' que tu vea." (A black man who was dying of hunger in Cuba and look at him now.)

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Betancourt claims, has indicated he would like his former coach to evaluate his pitching. Betancourt and Hernandez met on a baseball field in Tamiami Park about five months ago. "We talked for about twenty minutes," Betancourt recalls. "I suggested he let me correct his curve ball. He said “Coño, Rigo, that's what I need.' I want to help them both," Betancourt says. "When they're not under contract. I wouldn't even charge them any money. Just training them would be good publicity for me. Prefiero que se corra la bola que tener cuatro pesos en el bolsillo." (I prefer getting the word out than having a few dollars in my pocket.)


Working odd jobs is not what Betancourt had in mind when he decided to defect.

During his first few weeks in America, Betancourt happily rode the media wave that had splashed his story over front pages and prime-time news. According to Rigo, sports agent Joe Cubas, who has identified himself with Cuban defectors, had gone out of his way to meet him, and offered him the possibility of coaching for the Boston Red Sox.

He was interviewed by Telemundo's WSCV-TV (Channel 51) and CBS's Telenoticias. Betancourt was even a topic of discussion on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation. TV reporters, mostly from Miami, portrayed his defection in a political light. Betancourt's decision, some members of the media suggested, was symbolic of discontent brewing beneath the superficial goodwill surrounding the Cuban vs. U.S. baseball series.

 

Once the spotlight dimmed, however, Betancourt was forced to face the harsh reality of his exile life. He was alone. His media friends were on to a new trend: "Looking back, I haven't received help from anybody," he complains. "Here, the only thing that interests people is money and politics. And like an idiot, I believed everything promised me was true." Like Joe Cubas, for example.

Cubas and Betancourt met for the first time on May 7, 1999, at the WSCV-TV (Channel 51) news station, just a day after Rigo had arrived in Miami from Baltimore. TV cameras welcomed Betancourt at MIA like fields of metal poppies. At the station, according to Rigo, Cubas shook his hand, hugged him, practically proposed marriage. "He told me the Cuban community would receive me with open arms. At that moment I felt very happy."

A week later, thanks to Cubas, Boston Red Sox officials were interviewing Betancourt in Tampa for a job coaching minor leaguers at the RS camp in Fort Myers. On May 24 the team organization flew him to Fort Myers for a second interview. Rigo had dinner with fifteen Red Sox officials, including director of player development Kent Qualls, who, according to Betancourt, said he had a job once he got his U.S. work permit.

Cubas wasn't present at either interview. Within a few weeks of the last meeting with the Red Sox, conducted with the help of an interpreter, since Betancourt speaks no English, phone calls from Cubas suddenly stopped, and his own calls to the agent began to go unanswered. Betancourt says when he last spoke to Qualls, the coaching job had been filled. According to Betancourt, Cubas had promised help in speeding up the red tape surrounding the issuance of a U.S. work permit, but hadn't made much of an effort. After the deal fell through -- ostensibly because of the work-permit issue -- Betancourt couldn't get Cubas on the phone, though he'd been relentlessly present when Rigo was in the middle of the media swirl. It seemed as if Cubas had just signed on for the publicity, and when that waned, he didn't want to know "a loser."

"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 Depths feeling, 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.


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