Cuban defector finds lifeline in Rays

The Rays say Leslie Anderson, connecting vs. Japan at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, can supply gap power and good defense.

Getty Images (2009)

The Rays say Leslie Anderson, connecting vs. Japan at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, can supply gap power and good defense.

PORT CHARLOTTE

His eyes settle on the photograph and, for several seconds, the ballplayer does not speak. Leslie Anderson is staring at a life he left behind, and you wonder whether he is contemplating relief or regret.

In the picture, he is surrounded by his teammates on the Cuban national team. They had just returned after losing to Japan in the finals of the 2006 World Baseball Classic and were greeted at the airport by Fidel Castro himself.

It almost appears as if El Jefe is angry with Anderson. That his finger, perhaps, is pointed in warning.

No, Anderson explains, as he hands the photo back to you. Castro was telling him and his teammates that they should hold their heads high. That they had played for Cuba at the highest level, and it is impossible for any team to win every game.

Sometimes, when there is pain in a loss, then home can be the best place to heal.

Until that moment when you decide to never come home again.

Years later, on a mid-April day, Anderson is sitting in a conference room at the Rays spring training headquarters. It has been seven months since he fled Cuba, and several weeks since he was signed by Tampa Bay to a four-year, $1.7 million contract.

Two days earlier, he ordered his first hamburger in English at a Beef O'Brady's. The night before, he had been reunited with his fiancee and daughter after a seven-month separation.

And now Anderson is trying to explain himself.

Explain what it means to chase a dream that is forbidden by the powers that be. Explain the danger, and the cost involved. Explain the lengths that a Cuban ballplayer will risk to play in the major leagues.

"It is very hard," Anderson says through an interpreter. "I was very proud to represent my country in international competitions … but whatever field you are in, you want to measure yourself against the best. Playing in the majors is like getting your doctorate in baseball."

For Anderson, 28, the final exam is expected later this season. One of Cuba's top stars in recent years, Anderson has spent the past six months in Cancun, Mexico, waiting to untangle the bureaucracy of U.S. officials and MLB rules.

Now he is working his way back into shape in extended spring training. The Rays have him enrolled in a language and life skills program, and will probably start him at Double-A Montgomery when they decide he is comfortable.

If all goes well, he could be at Tropicana Field by the end of summer. It is difficult to extrapolate statistics from one country to the next, but Anderson is considered a patient hitter with gap power and good defensive skills as a corner outfielder. He also played centerfield and first base, but may not have the speed or power to pull off either position in the big leagues.

There have been glimpses of Anderson's potential in international competitions, and his agent held a workout for MLB scouts in Cancun earlier this year, but the evaluation of a Cuban player is still woefully incomplete.

"You see them in as many workouts as you can, you gather little bits of information wherever you can, but after that it's really just a roll of the dice," Rays senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker said. "We're hoping this guy is a well-rounded outfielder with good size and a good left-handed stroke. He's a good contact hitter with some power, although I don't think the expectation is he'll be a big home run hitter.

"The way our franchise operates, we have to depend on international scouting. We're not going to compete with the big money teams for players, so we have to take these kind of risks. It's still a sizable sum of money in real dollars, but it's much less of a financial risk than trying to sign players in this country."

As for Anderson, there was risk even considering this possibility.

A first-generation Cuban after his grandparents had immigrated from Jamaica, Anderson was plucked from his Camaguey neighborhood at age 12 and placed in a special school for athletes. He has been on various junior and senior level national teams since the late 1990s, and was one of the more recognizable players in Cuba's regular-season league.

Still, like many Cuban players, Anderson dreamed of coming to the states. Since Rene Arocha walked away from the Cuban national team while at Miami International Airport in 1991, Cuban players have routinely sought similar escape routes.

They have left hotels for late-night meetings with scouts and agents during international trips, and they have floated away on rafts bound for the coast of Florida. And with each Cuban player who finds success, another figures he is just as worthy.

"For a place with no major-league games on TV, no games on the radio, no USA Today, not a lot of Internet access, the players still go out of their way to keep up with Cuban players in Major League Baseball," said Anderson's agent, Jaime Torres. "They are very much aware of what is happening out there."

Cuban officials are also aware of the outgoing tide. The suspicion is they monitor phone calls and messages to players on the national team. They closely watch players who have relatives here. And, at the first indication that a player may harbor dreams of the big leagues, he is usually kicked off the national team.

Anderson says this is the fate that befell him. After one of his teammates fled, Anderson said the suspicions shifted in his direction and he was dropped from the national team following the 2009 World Cup. In a way, the government's action was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If he was no longer on the national team, Anderson said he no longer had reason to stay in Cuba.

He will not talk about how he escaped. He will not say whether his fiancee, Yamisleidy Sosa, and their 5-year-old daughter, Karolin, left at the same time before finding refuge with family in North Carolina. Torres says he does not know Anderson's story, and has not asked. The Rays also say they are in the dark.

And, honestly, there is no reason for Anderson to talk about it. It could only put associates in the cross hairs of the government, or compromise an escape route that Cuba has not yet discovered. He also has his family to consider.

"I miss my mother. My stepfather. My sister and my friends," Anderson says through the interpreter. "It was a difficult step, but I had to make it. I wanted to play baseball, and I wanted to play in the big leagues."

These days, Anderson spends his mornings working out. Nights are spent watching the big-league team on television. In between, he is eager to learn English. He has spent a lifetime thinking about this opportunity, and does not want to waste a moment.

"It's hard to believe. It's like having a dream, and seeing that dream come true," Anderson said. "I have that opportunity.

"I am living my dream."

Cuban defector finds lifeline in Rays 04/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 8:19am]

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