Raul Valdes' long journey to the Majors
Mets reliever escaped Cuba in 2003 after five failed attempts
As a young pitcher growing up in Cuba, left-hander Raul Valdes watched the exodus of baseball talent, sometimes teammates on the country's national team, sometimes other players, determined to reach America and play in the Major Leagues.
He saw the Hernandez brothers become major postseason contributors, Livan as the World Series Most Valuable Player when he pitched the Florida Marlins to a title in 1997, and Orlando, "El Duque," doing much the same thing for the New York Yankees for the next four years.
There was Danys Baez in 1999 and Jose Contreras three years after that. Rolando Arrojo left in 1996 and played in the All-Star Game two years later. All of them were pitchers, just like Valdes. And he thought to himself, if they can do it, if they can make it to the Major Leagues in America, then why not me?
And so, Valdes planned his own escape from the Communist island. "Beginning in 2001, I was determined to get out," he said in Spanish, translated by fellow pitcher Oliver Perez.
He would make five attempts to reach freedom, turned back each time, stopped by Cuban authorities and sent to jail. He was not discouraged. "I was not scared," Valdes said. "Sooner of later, I knew I would make it."
Each time he was captured in the waters off Cuba's shore, Valdes would spend two weeks in jail, the penalty for his attempted escapes. He would not give up, though. Each time he was released, he began plotting another escape attempt. This went on for two years. Finally, on the day after Christmas in 2003, Valdes left again and this time, after a harrowing trip of five days on a 20-foot boat, he landed in the Dominican Republic on New Year's Day.
Baseball rules consider players in the Dominican to be free agents and three months later, Valdes signed with the Chicago Cubs.
If leaving Cuba was difficult, reaching the Majors would prove just as complicated for Valdes. Pitching for the rookie-league Dominican Cubs in 2004, he seemed a legitimate prospect. He was 7-2 with an 0.51 ERA in 16 games with 152 strikeouts and just eight walks in 87 innings.
By 2005, he was pitching for Triple-A Iowa. But he struggled and was released, signing first with Nashua and traded two weeks later to the New Jersey Jackels of the independent Canadian American League. He was 7-3 with the Jackels and showed enough to earn a Minor League free-agent contract with the Mets.
He spent 2007 in New York's Minor League system and then drifted to Mineros of the independent Mexican League for the next two seasons. In 2009, pitching in the Dominican Winter League, he went 2-0 with a 2.02 ERA and then won two more games for the Escogido, the Dominican's Caribbean World Series champions, leading all pitchers with 13 strikeouts.
By then, he was 32, well beyond the prospect age. But he is a left-handed pitcher, something teams are always looking for, and the Mets invited him to Spring Training, where he nearly made the team. A week into the season, he was recalled from Triple-A Buffalo and has been a useful piece in a sometimes shaky Mets bullpen since then, with a stretch of 10 consecutive scoreless innings over six appearances in July.
It took a long time and some ups and downs on the baseball roller coaster, but Valdes became another Cuban expatriate to reach the Major Leagues. He sometimes reflects on the journey and the price he paid to achieve his dream.
"The toughest part of all of this was leaving my family behind," Valdes said. "My mother, father and brother are still in Cuba. I have not seen them since I left, seven years ago."
He is in touch with his family by phone and the Internet and sends them money. But in the back of his mind, he wonders when they will be able to be together again.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.