DUNEDIN — Baseball was Kenny Rodriguez's passport to freedom.
As a member of Cuba's national baseball team, Rodriguez could leave batters standing at the plate with his changeup pitch.
Now a member of the minor league Dunedin Blue Jays, Rodriguez has parlayed his athletic skills into a better life.
It was a plan he began hatching years ago.
Rodriguez, now 23, played at the highest levels of Cuban baseball for four years. He was one of two Cuban pitchers selected to go to Japan and play with the Tokyo Giants during the summer.
Playing on Cuba's national team was prestigious, but it was also a financial hardship because he wasn't paid. Rodriguez's father worked as a mechanic, and his mother was a teacher. Both are considered middle class jobs, but no one in his family has ever owned a car.
Rodriguez knew that if he ever wanted to change his financial situation, he had to leave Cuba.
He had long thought about defecting. He planned to attempt it during a 2005 baseball tournament in Holland but wasn't confident he could pull it off in the European country.
In July 2006, Cuba's national team traveled to Ecuador for a weeklong tournament. In the middle of the week, the team got a day off. The manager decided to take the players shopping.
Rodriguez knew this was his chance. He faked an illness and stayed behind.
The manager was skeptical.
"He didn't believe me so much," Rodriguez said. "I convinced him."
As soon as the team left, Rodriguez packed his things and caught a taxi to the mall. Then he waited in a movie theater for a friend he knew in the country to get home from work.
He watched three movies, back to back. Rodriguez can't remember the names of the first two because he was so afraid that someone would find him. The third movie was 2 Fast 2 Furious.
"I lay low for about a month," Rodriguez said.
After a month, Rodriguez made his way to Lima, Peru, where he remained with friends and worked as a bartender.
He continued to play baseball, but not at the same level. He obtained a Major League Baseball agent and became a resident of Peru.
In July 2007, Rodriguez was picked up by the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
Jeff Roemer, Dunedin Blue Jays' Latin American operations assistant, said that becoming a resident of Peru was a better route for Rodriguez than coming straight to the United States.
"If he would have come to the U.S. and tried to set up residency, he would have been subjected to the draft," said Roemer, who also serves as a Spanish language translator for the Latin players. "As an international player, he was a free agent, which gives international players more flexibility."
Rodriguez has a P1 entertainment visa, which allows foreign nationals who are athletes, artists and entertainers to enter the country for a specific event, competition or performance.
Rodriguez arrived in Dunedin in February. It was his first time in the United States. He said he was "very relieved."
Pitching with the Dunedin Blue Jays is a major accomplishment for Rodriguez, though his ultimate goal is to make it to the major leagues. He talks to his parents and his 9-year-old sister in Havana twice a week.
Rodriguez is unsure whether he'll ever be able to return home. He said most Cuban defectors wait about five years before trying to re-enter. But even then, entry depends on the individual border guard on duty at the time.
Rodriguez plans to return to Peru at season's end. He said his English is not strong enough to remain in the country, although eventually he'd like to return.
When he's not pitching, he's videotaping the other pitchers during games or charting their strikes and walks.
When he misses food from his homeland, he heads to Dunedin's Mojo Grill.
Asked whether the possibility of never seeing his family again has been worth it, Rodriguez simply said: "Definitely."
Now Rodriguez is fulfilling another dream, something no one in his family has ever done.
After taking the Florida driver's exam, he plans to purchase a car. He'll be the first in his family to own one. He'll send his family a picture of himself standing in front of the black Nissan he's already picked out.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-4174.