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Cubans don't cross water on foot

By Tracy Ringolsby
January 21, 1996

DENVER--The feeding frenzy began shortly before Christmas.

Righthanders Livan Hernandez, 20, and Osvaldo Fernandez, 29, the latest of the Cuban defectors to look for riches in pro baseball, were declared eligible for any team to sign.

And clubs were lining up. They were ready to wine and dine and sign the both of them. Money seemingly was no object.

It doesn't make much sense. But something about the mystique of the unknown seems to add to the lure.

Put the word Cuban in front of a player's name, and teams are ready to add zeroes behind the dollar sign on their contracts. Hernandez was looking for something in excess of $2 million and some reports had him wanting as much as $3 million. Fernandez, even at his advanced age, had a seven-figure signing bonus in mind, too.

An American amateur would be scoffed at for trying to extort such money. The current record bonus for a U.S. draft pick is $1.6 million, given by the Marlins to third baseman Josh Booty in 1994.

For some reason, though, teams don't seem shy about meeting the demands of Fernandez or Hernandez.

Agent Joe Cubas, who helped Hernandez defect when the Cuban national team was in Millington, Tenn., and helped Fernandez get away during a tournament in Monterrey, Mexico, took both of them to the Dominican Republic to establish residency.

That way they were able to avoid both a lottery, like the one in which the Cardinals landed Rene Arocha, and the draft, which is how the Athletics signed Ariel Prieto. Hernandez and Fernandez could sell themselves to the highest bidder. It didn't take long for fellows from a Communist country to grasp free-market economics.

And It Worked

Major league organizations wasted no time starting to grovel. The standards by which they make financial judgments in pursuit of home-grown talent suddenly disappeared.

Because these players are Cuban, it is as if they have magic powers. Scouts no longer use the same evaluation guidelines. The message, though, should start to sink in. While they may be good-looking pitchers, but they’re not necessarily destined for Cooperstown.

Yes, the Cubans have dominated international play. But they’ve done it with veteran teams, with mature players who have spent years playing together. The teams they beat from the United States are made up of young athletes, generally from the college level, not yet even mid-line professional players.

It's a different world in the big leagues.

And most of the Cubans have played so much, odds are that what you see is what you get. They are not raw prospects to be refined.

Barbaro Garbey, a member of the Freedom Flotilla with impressive Cuban credentials, was a journeyman big leaguer at best. Arocha, who had hearts fluttering back in July 1991 when St. Louis won his rights, was dumped from the Cardinals roster in December. He went 18-17, 3.87 in three big league seasons, a solid pitcher but not one who could lead a staff to a championship.

Prieto was supposed to be so refined that he could step right into the rotation of a contender and help it win. The Athletics not only used their first-round draft choice on him but also gave him a $1.3 million signing bonus. The reward? He went 2-6, 4.97. The A's faded from contention into last place in the American League West in the second half.

It's not that Arocha wasn't useful. It's not that Prieto might not prove a decent addition. But for all the buildup, they weren't pitchers around which teams built success.

But they were Cubans. They were previously untouchable by big league teams.

There's a haunting feeling that the same could be said of Hernandez and Fernandez, whose list of suitors, according to Cubas, includes the Marlins, Blue Jays, Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Braves.

The Fish Story

The pressure is on the Marlins, who badly want to have a Latin star, preferably a Cuban. It would help them build a fan base in Miami's sizable Cuban community.

The idea is nice. The novelty, though, wears off quickly.

Ask first baseman Orestes Destrade, a Miami Cuban. The Marlins lured him from Japan, where he was the home run king. When it became apparent that Destrade was ordinary against big league pitching, he actually found himself judged more harshly than his teammates. The Cuban community felt betrayed.

The folks who run the Marlins should realize this better than anyone. When essentially the same group of people ran the Expos, they faced similar pressure to find a French Canadian. Lefthander Denis Boucher was a hot topic in those days.

It wasn't until after the new regime took charge in Montreal that Boucher finally became an Expo. His debut was a big event. Television crews waited outside his suburban Montreal home to record his every waking moment of that day. The Expos had their biggest crowd of the 1993 season.

After a few mediocre starts, though, the French Canadians lost interest. The novelty wore off. The reality set in.

It's a scenario that might play itself out with a Latin touch by the time the feeding frenzy for Hernandez and Fernandez dies down.

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