PHOENIX, Ariz.–Cuban defector Amaury Cazana-Marti has attracted a lot of attention in his first year as a pro.
There is his circuitous route–first to get out of Cuba and then to finally land with the Cardinals organization as an 18th-round pick in June, with a brief stop in independent ball along the way.
Then there are the tools. Cazana-Marti showed above-average power in his debut, slugging .494 in 85 at-bats at high Class A Palm Beach. Though he tapered off after a promotion to Double-A Springfield, in part due to an ankle injury, he still wound up hitting 10 homers in his first exposure to affiliated ball in the U.S.
“He’s got some pop, but I don’t know how much–he’s tough to get a read on,” an executive from a National League club said. “Solid-average runner, nice compact approach at the plate, pretty polished hitter, average defender.”
Shy, respectful and very quiet, Cazana-Marti and his agent, Michelle Deaguirre, sat down to talk baseball and life during Cazana-Marti’s Arizona Fall League stint. He was off to a 14-for-45 start until being hit by a pitch Oct. 30, forcing him to the sidelines for a week. Deaguirre, who also brought over Cuban defectors Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras, acted as Cazana-Marti’s translator as we discussed his defection, his first year in the States, and the solitude of being away from his friends and family who he might never see again.
Baseball America: So I guess the first question should be, aside from all the other culture shock you’ve gone through, what do you think of our fine fast food here in the States?
Amaury Cazana-Marti: It’s been very difficult because I was so used to eating more healthy, I never ate greasy food or fried foods before. Here, I don’t have much of a choice–especially on bus trips. It’s all McDonald’s, Burger King and I don’t like that at all. But it’s either eat it or be hungry. Sometimes I’ll get lucky and find a good salad or a place with good Mexican food, but it’s very hard. The food has been one of the biggest things to get used to.
BA: What do you miss most about Cuba?
ACM: My family. I am very, very close to my family. I miss my mom and dad, my kids and all my friends there. All the big days–holidays, birthdays–are very hard to get through. We would always spend those days together. All my teammates have friends and family here, but I don’t have anybody. I also miss the little things about Cuba–the air, the ocean. It’s my home and I miss it very much.
BA: There was a story written about you during the season while you were in (Double-A) Springfield, but when it approached your actual leaving the country, you seemed to shut off and didn’t have anything to say. I understand talking about what you went through is very hard, but giving people insight into that might help them better understand who you are. Do you want to talk about the ordeal you went through to get out of Cuba now?
ACM: I haven’t wanted to talk about it for a long time, just because it’s such a painful and scary memory. I had to say goodbye to my family and then go into hiding for a time before I could secure a boat to get out of the country. Someone in Cuba told me it was easiest to go through Mexico, so I found a person who was willing to take me. The boat wasn’t big at all, no bigger than (points to tables in the restaurant) four or five of these. It took a long time–a little over 24 hours in the water–to get to Cancun. The experience was so sad and frightening, that I don’t want to talk about it. But the water was rough, and you think about sharks and all these things that threaten your life, you think about all the people who do this and never make it. It felt like we would never make it often that night and day, so I am very lucky to be sitting here today.
BA: You mentioned kids. How many kids do you have?
ACM: A boy and girl, my son is five and my daughter is three. I play baseball for them and for their future.
BA: When you’re in the clubhouse, when you’re in the hotel after games, when you’re in your apartment, do you feel isolated at all?
ACM: Since I got here, with the language barrier, it’s tough to talk to people. The communication factor doesn’t allow me to express myself very well right now. So I think the best way to communicate with everyone is to do a really good job on the field to make my teammates proud of me. If I do well in the field, I hope they will want to be friends with me.
BA: Has anyone in Palm Beach or Springfield really gone out of their way to make you feel welcome? Someone you would consider a friend?
ACM: Nick Stavinoha (a Cardinals outfielder who also is in the AFL) has been very good for me. He’s teaching me English a lot, and he knows a little Spanish too. He doesn’t have to do this, but he has become one of my only friends here in the United States.
BA: The only other players who can relate to what you’ve gone through are other defectors. No player from any other country is facing the thought of never seeing their family again, and you picked up and left everything for your dream–at an advanced age, which makes your window of opportunity that much smaller. And it’s not like you received a lot of money to sign, being an 18th-rounder. Are there times you regret the decision to leave?
ACM: I don’t regret coming here because in Cuba, I used to provide for my family but I made very little money. I know my window is very, very little–almost closed–but knowing that I can provide for my family much better . . . that I have at least the opportunity to do that, makes me want to succeed. A lot of these other players, they know the system, they know everything about how things work, and they have the time and a lot more money, which I don’t have. I know I have to be better than everybody else because I don’t have the time that a lot of these other players have.
(Editor’s note: The Cardinals were approached by several clubs in the Dominican and Mexico inquiring about Cazana-Marti’s availability for winter ball after the Fall League ends. But because of visa restrictions as a Cuban defector, he isn’t yet able to leave the country. He will spend the remainder of the winter in Palm Beach, working out every day until spring training begins in March.)