When Roenis Elias took the mound on a cool Thursday night in Oakland, one thing was clear early: he was nervous. He took each of the first four batters he saw to a full count, and threw 26 pitches in a first inning that seemed to last an eternity. Still, through it all, he never yielded.
It would be perfectly normal for any starter to be nervous for the first start of the year, and especially for a guy who'd never seen major league hitters in a regular season game—hell, even triple-A hitters for that matter.
But still, as Elias battled his way through that first inning, bending but not breaking, it felt weird. Elias, for all we'd seen through the spring, wasn't the type to be overwhelmed. And it wasn't so much the results from spring training that made us think this, but how he earned them. He popped the zone with fastballs to get ahead, then he looped in the yakker breaking ball to put guys away—all while doing so with a demeanor that oozed "Please. I got this."
The belief is that attitude—that "oh you think this is stressful?" attitude—comes from what he's been through, and what he's been through is the dangerous defection from Cuba to a life in the major leagues.
In speaking with reporters after Elias' first career major league win, a 6.2 IP 1 ER 2 BB 5 K cruiser against the Texas Rangers, manager Lloyd McClendon cited his narrative in speaking to about the performance.
"He came off of a boat," McClendon said. "I don't think facing Prince Fielder is really going to scare him that much. He was fighting for his life trying to make it to this country. He's shown a lot of poise."
I've tried many times to imagine what it must've been like out on the water those thirty hours, departing home in the middle of the night with the possibility that anything could happen. Then, once on the water, nothing. Just the seas, and the darkness—likely filling that emptiness with fears for what could go wrong and immense hope for what could go right.
Though, for as much as I've focused on that voyage across the water when trying to imagine what life must have been like for Roenis Elias, it seems coming off the boat is just the beginning for Cuban ballplayers.
In a story that's captured the baseball world, Jesse Katz of Los Angeles Magazine writes on Yasiel Puig's long trek from poverty to stardom. Puig, like Elias, traveled across the water from Cuba to Cancun—or, in Puig's case, an island off the shore. It wasn't the first time Puig had tried to escape for Cuba, but it was the first time he'd made it to the safety of Mexico's shores. Or, the relative safety of Mexico's shores.
See, Puig made it to Mexico because a crooked Miami businessman promised to fund the smuggling upon Puig's delivery. Things didn't go as planned:
Every time the smugglers picked up their satellite phone to call Miami, though, Pacheco seemed unable or unwilling to meet their demands. It was unclear whether he was stiffing the smugglers or whether the smugglers were gouging him. For every day of nonpayment, they upped Puig’s price by $15,000 or $20,000. The calls between Mexico and Florida grew furious. The days turned to weeks. Holed up in that dump of a motel, all four migrants in the same dank room, Puig was so close to the prize—now was not the time to lose faith—and yet having just been liberated, his fate was never more out of his hands. The defector had become a captive.
"I don’t know if you could call it a kidnapping, because we had gone there voluntarily, but we also weren’t free to leave," said the boxer, Yunior Despaigne, who had known Puig from Cuba’s youth sports academies. "If they didn’t receive the money, they were saying that at any moment they might give him a machetazo"—a whack with a machete—"chop off an arm, a finger, whatever, and he would never play baseball again, not for anyone."
It reminded me, immediately, of a passage from a 2012 story on Elias' own journey from Cuba to the United States.
Elias said he and the five other baseball players on the boat "laid low" in a hotel room in Cancun, biding their time until they could get the paperwork necessary to be in Mexico — a process Elias declined to elaborate on.
It sounds harmless enough, and given the shadowy nature of these proceedings you can hardly blame Elias for passing on getting into the gritty details. But given what happened to Puig, and the shady dealings surrounding other Cuban imports, it's impossible not to wonder.
And wonder I did when I went looking to find out a little more. Elias, as Shannon Drayer wrote late last month, was signed by the Mariners at a tryout that featured "five or six" other Cuban players, one being current Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin. Really, Martin was the main event at the tryout, the known commodity, but Elias flashed enough to be signed by the Mariners—specifically, Tim Heid, the organization's scout tabbed with tracking Cuban players who left the country with intentions of playing stateside.
"We knew a group had gotten out by a boat," Heid told Drayer. "We didn't know any of the details, but they had landed somewhere near Cancun and immediately went to Monterrey."
Drayer goes on to write that "While details are not clear, there appears to have been more than one group of Cuban ballplayers that arrived in Monterrey around the same time," but still, I was curious. It was possible that Elias and Martin had made the journey from Cuba to Mexico together—so what was his experience like? Given Martin's high profile, did he have an experience similar to Puig?
[Martin] and family members and friends made contact with a man who offered them a trip from Cuba on a yacht to Cancun, Mexico. From there, they could eventually cross by land into the U.S. But instead of journeying directly north, they were taken to a house lined inside with mattresses and watched by two armed men, one of them identified as Eliezer Lazo.
"You are worth a lot," Lazo told Martin, according to the lawsuit [alleging ransom and kidnapping.] "I am not going to let you go."
Lazo is one of the three people charged criminally in the Miami federal indictment. He is serving more than five years in federal prison in Mississippi for money laundering and other crimes related to a South Florida health care fraud scam. Lazo has not yet entered a plea in the Martin case and court records do not show a lawyer for him.
Eventually, Martin and other unidentified Cuban players were taken to a compound called "The Ranch" near Monterrey, Mexico, where they were supposed to train. Martin's family and friends were taken across the U.S. border at Laredo, Texas, and put on a bus to Miami where they would live for five months in a townhouse owned by Lazo, according to the lawsuit.
In Mexico, there was a nearby baseball field where the players would train and play games before U.S. scouts, and Martin was introduced to another man he was told would be his agent.
It's impossible not to give pause at "other unidentified Cuban players."
Elias, to be clear, told the reporter in 2012 that he made his way from Cuba to Cancun in a "small boat," and not a yacht—but it was one capable of carrying "26 other individuals, including five baseball players who shared Elias’ dream of playing professional baseball."
Elias, like Martin, spent his days training. Here's his tale, again from Drayer:
"It was really difficult, there were a lot of barriers," he said. "I was there for seven months and it was really hard because you get up at 6 to train and you basically train for an hour and then go home. You don't see people of my complexion there so you never know what dangers are there. So you go work out early and then you go home and you wait until the next day when you go work out again. There were a lot of barriers there, but when you have in your mind that you want to succeed you don't let those barriers get in your way."
What exactly were those barriers? We don't know. They could've been as bad as Puig's, or Martin's. Given Elias' lower profile, they may well have been less. But it's impossible not to wonder how bad it might have been given everything we know about what Cuban ballplayers have to go through in defecting to the United States—and especially given the distinct possibly Elias was one of those "unidentified Cuban players" traveling with Martin.
Elias told Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com that he, Puig, Martin and fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes still stay in close contact, and that they'd been hoping he'd win a spot in the Mariners' rotation.
"We have to be like a family because all of our family is back home," Elias said. "We have to stick together."
Only those who have made the traumatic trek from Cuba to the United States know what it's like. But as we sit here now and watch, it's impossible not to see its lingering effects.
And, honestly, how can you not feel the same?