San Rafael's Maikel Jova Put Life On Line For Baseball
When San Rafael Pacifics outfielder Maikel Jova was abruptly awakened by the phone ringing in his hotel room, the unfamiliar voice on the other end had some unexpected news for him: A base hit that night would tie the North American League record 30-game hitting streak.
"I don't even think he knew, you can't tell if he has five hits or none because he's always having so much fun playing," teammate Steve Detwiler said. "He has a great approach and it was impossible to get him out."
Hits in Jova's next eight games made 37 games the new standard. He hit .388/.406/.550 with eight doubles, six home runs and 38 RBIs during the streak.
Lady Luck did not attend Jova's attempt to push his streak to 38 games. He hit three screaming line drives directly at defenders to end the longest hitting streak in professional baseball since 2009.
"I smoked those balls but they made great plays," Jova said. "But I'm really happy with my hitting streak. I just feel fortunate to play the game I love."
Baseball is not only the game Jova loves, it's the game he risked his life to play—twice.
"His story, his struggle, is one that movies are made out of," Pacifics manager Mike Marshall said.
As the son of Pedro Jova, an all-star shortstop in Cuba who Rod Dedeaux once compared to Ozzie Smith, Maikel's aptitude made him one of Cuba's best players at a young age as he starred for the Junior Olympic team.
With smooth actions, explosive speed, and a strong arm, Jova's defensive ability complemented his potent bat with natural power youngsters rarely possess.
Maikel was a devoted student of the game as his fathered skippered Villa Clara to a record three straight Serie Nacional championships.
Pedro managed many of Cuba's best players and as some defected to the US, such as Livan Hernandez and Rolando Arrojo, the government became suspicious. After Arrojo defected, four Villa Clara players and Pedro received lifetime suspensions amid rumors of the player's defection and "for speaking on the phone with traitors of Cuba (Arrojo)," according to government statements. The government also banned 16-year-old Maikel.
"When they said you can't play anymore I went crazy," Jova said. "Baseball was my life; I don't know what they expected me to do."
Whatever It Takes
Stripped of their livelihoods, the players took action in March 1998. Nine men searching for freedom and an opportunity to play in the majors boarded an eight-foot raft destined for Florida on a one-day trip.
But wayward winds pushed the raft off course and they spent 10 days fighting for their lives until drifting to the Bahamas. Unsuccessful attempts to obtain asylum sent Jova back to Cuba two days before Nicaragua's president announced the country would accept Cuban refugees detained in Nassau.
Under constant government surveillance upon their return, the players became pariahs, banned from baseball, school, working or traveling.
Undeterred by the fact that 40 percent of Cuban rafters perish at sea, Maikel and nine others set sail again on Castro's birthday. With only bread and water on the 500-mile trip to Nicaragua, Maikel became severely dehydrated. The others provided for him until landing in Nicaragua four days later.
Free at last, Maikel went to Costa Rica to showcase his talents.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Jova signed with the Blue Jays for $150,000 and made his stateside debut in 2001. In 2002, he showed promise with a .290/.302/.391 line with five homers and 20 doubles as a 21-year-old with low Class A Charleston.
"He had tremendous tools, average to above-average across the board," said Auburn manager Rolando Pino, Jova's manager in 2001. "A big, strong, physical kid with a really good arm, showed good bat speed and his raw power might've been 60."
After three Double-A seasons, Jova was promoted to the majors' doorstep.
"When I got to Triple-A, I thought I am so close," Jova said. "My mind was so focused; all I wanted to do was make the majors."
But Jova's minor league career ended in 2006, when he was cut by the Blue Jays.
"When he got released, he was so sad because that was his dream when he left Cuba," teammate Henry Calderon said. "He felt like he didn't want to play, but now you see what he can do."
Jova, 31, has become an indy league star, hitting .320/.348/.440 over six seasons.
He plays winter ball every season to support his family in Cuba, sending them a portion of every paycheck, although he hasn't seen them since 1998. That will change this September, when Jova will be permitted to return to Cuba after winning a government-sanctioned lottery.
"I've been waiting 14 years to see my family, since the day I left," Jova said. "I am so happy; I can't wait to stay with my family all day."
As the Pacifics enter the playoffs, baseball is no longer Jova's top priority.
"He's had all these bad things happen to him, but I can't explain how excited he is to come back to the country where he was born," Calderon said. "Seeing his family is the most valuable thing that has happened to him in his life."