08/21/13 - The Detroit News - A new generation of Cuban stars is staging a baseball revolution
Detroit - As a kid, Brayan Pena idolized The Kid.
These days, he wonders how many kids in his native Cuba are growing up
wanting to be like him. Or more likely, wanting to be like the precocious
kid he sits next to in the Tigers' clubhouse, rookie shortstop Jose
Pena, the Tigers' veteran catcher, says he revered the third baseman for
his country's national team, Omar Linares, as a youth. Still does,
"He was like the Miguel Cabrera of our time," Pena said, smiling as he
nodded in the MVP's direction prior to Tuesday's game against the Twins at
Comerica Park. "Everybody was amazed by the way he handled himself on and
off the field. He's still a big idol for all of us."
But "El Nino" never got a chance to do what Cabrera's doing, or what
Iglesias and several of Major League Baseball's emerging young stars - from
Yasiel Puig to Jose Fernandez to Yoenis Cespedes - are doing, because he
never defected the way some of his peers eventually did, beginning with
Rene Arocha in 1991.
Linares turned down the New York Yankees, starred for years in Cuba's
National Series - he later spent a few years playing in Japan - and was
held up by Fidel Castro as the gold standard for his revolution.
Now, a new generation is staging a different kind of insurgency. There's
Puig, a 22-year-old outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was the talk of
the league earlier this summer, sparking one of the hottest streaks in MLB
history. There's Fernandez, the 21-year-old ace for the Miami Marlins,
who's vying with Puig for National League rookie of the year honors. And
then there's Iglesias, 23, the slick-fielding shortstop acquired from
Boston at the trade deadline and arguably the frontrunner for the AL rookie
There's also Cespedes, a five-tool talent and reigning All-Star Home Run
Derby champ the Tigers pursued before signing Prince Fielder, who
immediately helped Oakland return to the playoffs after a five-year
drought. And there's more, with players like Aroldis Chapman (Cincinnati)
already established in the U.S., and others on the way - slugger Jose Abreu
is the latest defector poised to strike it rich as a free agent.
"It's just really fun to see the young players' success on this level,"
said Iglesias, the defensive whiz who had another two-hit night for the
Tigers in Tuesday's 6-3 loss.
Fun? Yes. And important, too.
"Definitely," said Pena, who limped off with a toe injury after his leadoff
single in the ninth inning Tuesday. "Because we do take a big pride in our
baseball in Cuba. It's our national pastime. ... And for them to see the
success that we're all having here at this level, it's pretty
Pena's individual story is, too, of course. At the age of 17, after months
of fearful planning, he defected from Cuba by escaping out of a bathroom
window at a hotel in Caracas, Venezuela, where he was playing in a
tournament with the national team. He spent five months in hiding in
Venezuela, and then a few months more in Costa Rica before getting a
major-league tryout and a new life in the U.S. His family was kept in the
dark - for its own safety - back in Cuba. Now more than a decade later,
he's a naturalized U.S. citizen, with a young family of his own in Florida
and his parents and four brothers moved safely to Miami.
"Everybody knows how we struggled to leave the country and everything we
left behind - the family, the friends, the land where you grew up," Pena
said. "So for us to make it and do well, humbly, it makes them proud. Back
home they wake up and try to find the scores, wondering 'What did Puig do?'
or 'What did Iglesias do?' and stuff like that, It's very exciting for
Exciting for baseball fans here as well, obviously, whether it's Puig's
flair for the dramatic - another first-pitch, pinch-hit homer Tuesday - or
Iglesias' flashy plays in the field. ("He'll make some plays that'll have
'em 'oohing' and 'aahing'," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who raves
about his new shortstop's instincts and baseball smarts.)
There were Cubans playing in the majors here before Castro came to power,
certainly - players like Tony Perez and Tony Oliva. And there have been
Cuban-born stars since, including Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro. But we
can only imagine the ones we've missed over the last half-century. Ask
Pena, and he'll talk about Linares. Ask Iglesias, and he'll talk about "The
Magnet," German Mesa, "the best shortstop I've ever seen."
"Everybody knows, with all due respect, the Cuban talent on the island has
been there forever," Pena said. "But the fact that now we've got a little
bit more opportunity to see players show their talent here, it means a
Earlier in his career, Pena says, "Whenever I got the opportunity to talk
to old-timers or guys who played back in the day, they'd tell me, 'Man,
Cuban players, they play hard and they come here and play with a lot of
passion, with a lot of desire." That makes you feel good."
But it makes him feel even better that "maybe 10 years down the road, some
of the Cuban players are going to look up to us and say, 'You know what?
Those guys really did it for us.' "
Original Source / Fuente Original:
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