By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES — In part because Cuba’s official media concealed the information, Alexei Ramirez’, Jose Dariel Abreu’s and Yasiel Puig’s visit to Cuba was a complete surprise for most baseball fans.
Even the press was uncertain about whether these Cuban players would actually come or not, and, in the brief note they published, they only made mention of Joe Torre and David Winfield. It was not until the players were seen in the vicinity of Havana’s Hotel Nacional that word began to go around.
In the United States, the visit of the baseball players was announced in detail, such that the silence on this end prompted some incredulity. Venezuela’s multinational broadcaster, Telesur, whose news program can be seen in Cuba, did offer a vague coverage. However in all its coverage related to Cuba-US relations, prudence always recommends that one wait for things to actually happen before making any pronouncements.
Ultimately, all the players were able to make their way to Cuba, and the warm welcome offered by their compatriots, hungry for selfies and autographs, suggests that no one could have contained the island’s avalanche of enthusiasm had the news been more widely divulged.
Havana Times was able to access Cuba’s most renowned hotel and interview two of the most popular players, who, incidentally, are teammates on the Chicago White Sox: Alexei Ramirez and Jose Dariel Abreu.
Alexei had already served his eight years in “exile” and had had the opportunity to visit Pinar del Rio, his native city, so he was comfortable touring around town, as was Bryan Peña, unlike the other two (Abreu and Yasiel Puig). “It wasn’t a surprise for me,” Alexei told me when I asked him about his visit to the island. “I’d been in Cuba four weeks before. But I was happy to have the opportunity to see my people again, very happy. I had a good time in Pinar del Rio. I spent time with family and made the most of my time there; trying to make up for the eight years I wasn’t able to come and was away from them. Reuniting with them was something very special and beautiful. One has to experience and enjoy it as much as one can.”
“The people I hadn’t seen for the longest time were my brothers and my niece, who’ll be turning 15 next week. We’ll be throwing her a party. I also spent time with my uncles. I have a very big family.”
“I couldn’t miss seeing my former teammates. I visited Pedro Luis Lazo’s house and spent some time there; I also shared with Luis Girarldo Casanova, Juan Carlos Linares and others who played with me in Pinar del Rio, when we were kids. God willing, I’ll try and get everyone together when I come back, so we can share anecdotes.”
With respect to his future in the Major Leagues, he said his agent is currently at the negotiations table and that he is preparing for what lies ahead, training every day.
HT: In the Major Leagues you play a position that wasn’t your regular position here in Cuba. How did you handle that?
Alexei Ramirez: It was there that I got the opportunity to play the position I’d always wanted, to be a shortstop. I made the most of it. It had been my natural position when I started playing baseball. In Pinar del Rio, it had been difficult for me because Onel Olivera was an established player and, since I quite simply wanted to play baseball, an opening in other positions came along and I took it.
HT: Do you stay up to date on what’s going in Cuban baseball?
AR: Of course! I follow Cuba’s team and the National Series, we Cubans hold on to that. I follow the games over the Internet, because it’s hard to get a TV signal from Cuba.
HT: Was adapting hard for you?
AR: Ozzie Guillen gave me the opportunity to play every day, and showed me the confidence I needed after facing so many difficult situations. I can’t say the language has stood in the way, because the sport doesn’t need you to speak well but to perform well. The cold was what got to me the most. I had to adapt quickly, because I had several months of games ahead of me. Luckily, there have been other Cubans on the team in recent years. Everyone who makes it to my team will be well received. That’s the welcome Jose Ariel Contreras offered me, and I try to be like that, to help wherever I can.
For Jose Dariel Abreu The Opportunity Was a Surprise
In contrast, “Pito” Abreu was surprised to be invited to visit Cuba, particularly because, legally, he is denied access to the island because of the 8-year-veto applied to those players who leave the country illegally, as he did.
Jose Dariel Abreu: First of all, I feel very grateful for this opportunity to visit my country. I was surprised; I never imagined I’d be back so soon. My main interest was seeing my kid; I hadn’t seen him since I’d left.
HT: What’s the relationship between Cubans like in the United States?
JDA: All of us four Cubans in Chicago have helped each other out since I arrived there. I don’t have the words to thank them. I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished so far, but I consider it the start of my career in the Major Leagues. God willing, I hope to be able to accomplish more. The most important thing is to be healthy to be able to do the things I want to do.”
HT: Would you be willing to play on Cuba’s national selection again?
JDA: Every Cuban living abroad is always willing to play on the selection, on behalf of our birth country. I keep abreast of what happens in Cuba and my home town of Cienfuegos, I follow the teams because I feel Cuban and see my compatriots trying to do everything wholeheartedly. I miss everything about Cienfuegos; I’m Cuban through and through. I wish I had the opportunity to see the people who made me a baseball player, stroll down the ocean drive in Cienfuegos and spend time with Peter (the disabled child I dedicated my homeruns to in Cienfuegos). We keep in touch. I am thinking of making a kind of donation in my province, but I don’t have any concrete plans right now, because that depends on things beyond my control.”
HT: Do you think this visit could help normalize relations with Cubans playing in the Major Leagues?
JDA: I believe this visit is a starting point for the many good things that could come along. Honestly, I don’t know whether I’ll be able to come regularly, but I hope I can.