After long journey, Martin set to star for Texas
Cuban defector feels fortunate to be competing for Rangers job
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Leonys Martin has always been a man on the move.
As a child, the Rangers prospect spent his mornings running around his Villa Clara neighborhood with friends, and he spent his afternoons chasing fly balls in the outfield.
Martin ran because he loved it. He ran because it made him feel powerful and free. When you grow up in Cuba like Martin, sometimes you feel like you have neither. So you run.
You run bases, you run the outfield and sometimes you run all the way to the United States. Sometimes you leave everything you know behind. And most of the time, you don't know where the road will take you.
If you're Martin, you run because you have come too far to stop running. You've been to Mexico, to Miami, to Texas and now to a new Residence Inn outside of Phoenix. If you're lucky, you start the season roaming center field at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
If you're Martin, you already feel fortunate, because you are not running from the past. You are moving toward the future.
"It's been difficult at times, but a man has to be a man," Martin, 23, said. "It's very hard to leave your family and friends, but this is what God wanted for me, and I'm happy with all that has happened -- the good and the bad."
The details of Martin's escape from Cuba remain mostly mysterious, and he wants to keep them that way. No, he didn't escape Cuba while in Tokyo playing in a tournament with the Cuban national team, but it's OK if you want to believe that, he said, shrugging his shoulders.
He does acknowledge fleeing Cuba for Mexico one summer night in 2010. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, Yaimira, his father, Oscar, and his father's wife.
Martin believes it's his right to protect those who helped him leave the island so they can help others. The "others" are likely the family he left on the island -- his mother, Amarilies, and his 11-year-old brother, Andy.
Maybe one day, Martin's 2-year-old daughter, Dilan, from a previous relationship, will join him in the United States, too, but that situation is complicated.
The relationship with Oscar is the reason why he is here, and Martin said there is no way he would have left the island without his father. The Rangers signed Martin to a five-year, $15.5 million deal last May, but they still owe a debt of gratitude to Oscar Martin for agreeing to accompany his son on his baseball adventure.
|"Escaping to Mexico was my first step, and in that way, it was the best thing that happened, because I became a free agent and signed with Texas. But it was also the hardest time of my life. I wouldn't want to live that way again."|
|-- Leonys Martin|
It was Oscar who taught young Leonys the game. It was Oscar who quit his job to train his son full-time.
"My biggest supporter has been my father," Leonys said. "You wake up and you don't feel well or you have a bad day, and he's there to help you, to support you. I had several opportunities to stay in a country and escape, but I never did it. I needed my father to come, too. I wouldn't leave without him."
Scouts often refer to a "player's makeup," when referring to Martin's character. That makeup is a mix of a player's leadership capabilities, his desire to win, mental toughness -- or lack thereof. By most accounts, Martin's makeup is off the charts. By all accounts, his makeup is made up of the traits Oscar passed down to him.
"The father and son are a lot alike," said Rangers director of international scouting Mike Daly. "Leonys is very a respectful guy, very honest and he has the desire to be the best. His father deserves a lot of credit for the type person he is."
But Martin gets the credit for his performance on the field. He played for Cuba's national team in several world events, including tournaments in Japan and the Netherlands. He had a career .314 batting average over five seasons with Villa Clara in the Cuban League, and was on his way to becoming another name in a long list of Cuban baseball heroes.
But something happened to Martin when he took the field for Cuba at the 2009 World Baseball Classic at PETCO Park in San Diego. He began to envision a future in the big leagues, and he was not the only one. Aroldis Chapman, Martin's World Baseball Classic teammate, defected a few months later and eventually signed a six-year, $30 million deal with the Reds before the start of the 2010 season.
"We got to PETCO Park and it was like, 'Wow. Ichiro [Suzuki]. Wow, Adrian Gonzalez. Wow, look at them,'" Martin said. "I'm 19 and I'm watching these guy plays. Wow. This is for me."
Martin spent the next several months after San Diego pondering his future. Once his father agreed to accompany him, they devised their escape. He didn't tell his girlfriend about the plan until a month before the departure. He told no one of the plan -- not even Amarilies.
They left Cuba without any regrets. But after a few months in Mexico, Martin began to doubt his plan, wondering if he'd made the biggest mistake of his life.
"Escaping to Mexico was my first step, and in that way, it was the best thing that happened, because I became a free agent and signed with Texas," Martin said. "But it was also the hardest time of my life. I wouldn't want to live that way again."
Martin eventually traveled to Monterrey in northern Mexico, a city that had once played host to several Major League contests, including Opening Day in 1999 between the Rockies and the Padres. But like many cities in the country, Monterrey had been affected by the violence stemming from the war between the drug cartels.
The city was not the same.
|"In Spring Training, I will show them that what they did for me was not in vain. The investment and the time was worth it."|
|-- Leonys Martin|
Martin adjusted because had no choice. The outfielder spent seven months in the city going to and from the stadium for workouts and making very few stops in between. He compared the life to living in a safe house. There was one incident involving a family member that still haunts him, but like his passage from Cuba, he chooses to keep the details of the incident a secret.
"It's very hard to talk about and think about," he said. "I don't want to dwell on the past, but it's one of the worst things that ever happened in my life. Things happened to my family, but thank God it worked out, and here we are. I hope it never happens to anybody or their family."
Martin frowns when he talks about Mexico. He shakes his head and clinches his jaw. He also smiles because what happened in Mexico made his deal with the Rangers more gratifying. He officially signed with the Texas less than six months ago and immediately started sprinting toward his big league dream.
"Leonys put himself in a good position by making the Cuban national team at a young age," Daly said. "Our scouts had seen him at big tournaments, and that made it more comfortable to go to [general manager] Jon [Daniels] and for Jon to go up the ladder to sign him. We felt really confident in the makeup of Leonys and what he brought to the table. He produced and he was good. He's only going to get better."
As usual, Martin moved quickly. He hit .348 with nine doubles, two triples and four home runs in 29 games for Double-A Frisco, and .263 in 40 games for Triple-A Round Rock.
He made his big league debut on Sept. 2, and hit .375 with a double in eight games in center field. Martin has been playing twice a week for the Surprise Saguaros in the Arizona Fall League since the middle of last month, honing his defense, baserunning and bunting skills.
Off the field, he bought a house in Miami for his family and plans to return to Florida when the Arizona Fall League wraps up play this weekend. His next big move will be a trip back to Surprise for the start of Spring Training in February for a chance to win a big league job in center field. His biggest competition comes from Julio Borbon and Craig Gentry. The Rangers could also acquire a center fielder this offseason.
As usual, Martin is happy to be in the running.
"In Spring Training, I will show them that what they did for me was not in vain," he said. "The investment and the time was worth it. We will get another chance for a World Series, and I'll show them I am worth it and that everything was worth it."