ST. PETERSBURG — Growing up in Cuba, the older boy preferred playing soccer. The younger brother liked baseball. As teenagers, for somewhat random reasons, they switched.
Both became pretty good, navigating personal tragedy with the death of their father, Jesus, and the upheaval of fleeing Cuba for Mexico, to play professionally.
Even better, they are now doing so in the same town.
Randy Arozarena has already made it big, bashing his way through the 2020 postseason as a slugging outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays. Raiko Arozarena is trying, the wiry and athletic goalkeeper signing last month with the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the United Soccer League.
Both are excited for the unexpected opportunity to spend time together, to see each other play, and to share their successes.
“It’s been good to have him by my side,” Randy Arozarena said.
“A dream come true,” said Raiko.
In Mexico, their mother, Sandra Gonzalez, shares their joy.
“Seeing that they have been able to accomplish their goals as athletes despite so many sacrifices and limitations in their lives, it makes me so proud,” she said.
Even more so, Gonzalez said in comments relayed and translated by Aileen Villarreal of the ISE agency, which represents the Arozarenas, because of the example the brothers set for kids who aspire to do the same.
“My sons in their careers have had a lot of discipline since they were children,” Gonzalez said. “To be able to reach and accomplish what they have accomplished up to this point, the best part is that they believe in themselves and they continue to try to accomplish their goals every day.”
The Arozarena brothers live apart — Randy with his wife, Raiko in an apartment complex with other Rowdies — but see each other almost every day when the Rays are in town. Raiko makes it to Tropicana Field for most games, and Randy has stopped by Rowdies practices and last Saturday’s season opener.
They joke and jab, as brothers tend to do. But there is clearly mutual admiration.
Randy, 26, says Raiko is “my idol,” definitely more athletic and, if they switched jobs, would be better at baseball than Randy would be at soccer. (Though, no surprise, Randy claimed to be a pretty good goal scorer back in his soccer days. “More goals than home runs!” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro.)
Raiko, two years younger, showed his respect most tangibly by requesting Randy’s No. 56, saying via a Rowdies translator, “it’s a cool thing that two brothers are wearing the same number and playing at the professional level.” (He was also deferential enough to decline answering the question over who was the better athlete.)
Randy arrived in Tampa Bay in a January 2020 trade with St. Louis, a relative unknown to fans but the key reason the Rays were willing to swap a top pitching prospect, Matthew Liberatore.
After a solid showing in the original spring training, he was sidelined by COVID-19 when camps reopened in July and didn’t make his Rays debut until Aug. 30. The four homers he hit in his first 16 at-bats (and seven total in 23 games) were a hint of what was to come in the postseason, when he crushed a record 10 homers in 20 games and set or tied marks for hits (29), total bases (64), extra-base hits (14).
Raiko was watching when he could from Mexico, where he was playing for the Cafetaleros de Chiapas in his third pro season. He said he was most proud that his brother made it to the World Series, and most entertained by his stumbling run home during the dramatic finish to Game 4.
“I was nervous when he tripped,” Raiko said. “But thanks to God everything went well and he was safe at home.”
Around the same time, Arozarena’s agent, Abel Guerra, first floated the possibility of Raiko joining the Rowdies, who are owned by the Rays.
Though the Rowdies had starter Evan Louro coming back, they were willing to consider Raiko as a candidate to join Ian McGrane in a backup role and say he was signed based on merit, not nepotism.
“We’re very fortunate with the owners that we have that they would never put us in that situation,” Rowdies coach Neill Collins said. “We did our due diligence, and Raiko has got good experience. And to be honest, since he’s come through the door he’s exceeded expectations.
“So we feel very, very fortunate to have benefitted off a happy coincidence that his brother’s here. Now, really, it’s just about Raiko. And for me as a coach, it’s going to be really good to see how he develops, and us helping him do that.”
The whole thing, Raiko said, seems like a blur at times.
“I always sit back and think how fast all this went,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy, because I started playing soccer when I was 15, and now I’m 24 and it’s just been a fast process for me to be in the pros. I’m very, very happy, and I think back to what we have lived.”
And what’s ahead in this brother act.
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