Escape from Cuba–St. Louis Cardinals–Thanksgiving

The St. Louis Cardinals signed Raul Valdes yesterday, and while not a big name, he may end up filling a key spot in the bullpen.  There’s nothing spectacular about Valdes, and he might not even make the opening day roster, but with it being Thanksgiving Day tomorrow, I thought I would do an article not only on Valdes, but about some of the other Cuban players to have made it to the states to play in MLB.

First, let’s give the brief overview on Valdes.  In his one year in MLB with the New York Mets in 2010, the 32 year old Valdes went 3-3 with a 4.91 ERA in 58.2 innings.  He struck out 56 and had a WHIP of 1.46.  Valdes was not exactly dominant, and actually had better stats against right handed batters.  Righties hit .216 off Valdes while LHB hit .330.  It might be cause for concern if he makes the invite out of spring training and Tony tries to use him as a lefty specialist.

Like I said though, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, so I wanted to look at how Valdes and other Cubans have overcome adversity on a scale most of us would never know, and talk about their path to MLB.

For Valdes, it took 5 failed attempts trying to defect from Cuba before reaching the Dominican Republic in 2003.  Valdes finally arrived in the DR after a week on a small boat in his 6th attempt. From there, Valdes found his way to the professional baseball, and pitched for the Cubs AAA Iowa team in 2005. Valdes didn’t do well as a starter, and was released.  After playing in the independent Can-Am League and the Mexican League, Valdes found his way into the Mets organization, where he was well received by the Mets AAA Buffalo manager, Ken Oberkfell.  When Sean Green of the Mets went down with injury in 2010, Valdes got his shot.

Valdes talked about leaving his family behind, and that it has been 7 years since he’s seen them.   Adam Rubin of ESPN wrote this article about Valdes in April of 2010, where Valdes talks about going to independent ball just to stay active and hoped he would be noticed.  Valdes is quoted as saying that “It’s been worth it to leave my family behind.  Now that I’m here, I can support my family economically.  That was the reason why I left Cuba.” 

There are plenty of better known Cubans in MLB.  One of the steps that they all have to take once arriving is getting clearance from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assests Control.  While a better known Cuban like Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez has also claimed that he risked his life escaping on a raft to the U.S., Alexei Ramirez claims that he simply married his wife Mildred from the Dominican Republic and was allowed to leave. He says it was a dream come true to play for the Cuban National Team in the World Baseball Classic.  Ramirez says the stories of manhunts and shark-infested waters from others like “El Duque” are full of holes. 

Since 2009, MLB has cleared 21 Cuban nationals, and currently many more are being processed.  In 2008, two 19 year olds defected from Team Cuba in a world junior championship in Edmonton.  While Chapman has received most of the top stories, shortstop Jose Iglesias was signed by the Red Sox for $8.2 million and LHP Noel Arguilles was signed by the Royals for $7 million.

I’ve always wondered how much certain teams assist in getting these players to the states.  Cuba has some of the best ballplayers in the world.  For every Chapman that receives $30 million, there has to be 10o players from Cuba who are not even going to make as much as guys like Valdes.  How many players do we never even hear about who make the journey only to be injured or just not even make it in the minors?   What is life like for the ones who are shipped back?  Whether the waters are shark-infested or not, and whether they come on a raft or a yacht, it seems most of the best players in Cuba are trying to come to the U.S. 

I’m not just excited today because we signed a potential LOOGY.   When I was on the UCB blog talk radio tonight, I gave and heard a lot of answers about why we are all thankful to be Cardinals fans.  The recent recognition of Stan Musial, being able to watch a team every year that is in the hunt, watching a living legend in Albert Pujols, being born into Cardinal Nation, along with many other things have made people thankful for being Cardinal fans. 

The Cardinals success has made hard times in my life seem easier to deal with.  The times I spent with my Dad going to Cardinal games as a kid before he passed still stand out in my mind like it was yesterday.  The things he passed down to me and the time he took with me about baseball and the Cardinals is something I couldn’t imagine being without.  There really is something unique and special about being a St. Louis Cardinals Fan. 

The pleasure of being back in Missouri and taking in Cardinal games with my wife or my good buddy Jack are always great days.  It’s not just the game, it’s the drive to the stadium, the anticipation of the game, the feeling once inside park and the post game talks over a meal.  A 3 hour game is usually capped by 2 hours on each end talking about baseball and the Cardinals.  It’s probably a bit much, but, what can I say, I never feel like I can get enough.

I guess the point is that people want to come to this country for a reason.  Whether it’s freedom, money or baseball, there are plenty of reasons to choose from.  I’m thankful that I didn’t have to go through things like Valdes just to be a part of the U.S., a part of baseball, and a part of the Cardinals.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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