DENVER—Mariners lefthander Roenis Elias had a dream. He wasn’t going to let it slip away.
Four years removed from his defection from Cuba, Elias has pitched his way into the Mariners rotation. A non-roster invitee to spring training, he took advantage of injuries to projected starters Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma.
“This was my goal,” Elias said. “I knew I could pitch in the big leagues.”
It didn’t come easy.
At the age of 21, Elias had yet to even establish himself on the baseball scene in his native Cuba, but the lure of a chance to play in the big leagues was more than he could resist. On a crowded craft with a couple dozen others—including five baseball players—Elias defected from his homeland, leaving behind his parents, a brother and two sisters.
“It’s been four years since I saw them,” he said. “I feel alone and depressed at times. I think about them, but once I (defected), there’s no going back. I go with the flow.”
After 30 hours at sea, knowing they would be returned to Cuba and sent to prison if they were caught, Elias and his companions landed on the shores of Mexico.
“As soon as I stepped foot in Mexico, my goal was the major leagues,” he said.
Elias was in a new land. He had new freedoms. But there was no certainty in his life. Elias and the five other baseball players waited in a hotel room in Cancun to receive the necessary paperwork to allow them to enter Mexico, eventually making the trip to Monterrey, where they resumed their big league dreams.
“I thank God I met my wife and we had our child there,” Elias said of the experience in Mexico. “That’s the only good thing that came to me in Mexico.”
Elias found himself on a Mexican minor league team, struggling to get by. The following winter, he got into a workout program that prepared him for an eventual tryout for major league scouts in May 2011. The tryout drew scouts from more than a dozen big league organizations, primarily because of interest in outfielder Leonys Martin, who eventually signed with the Rangers.
“We worked every morning,” Elias said. “We worked hard. We had to be ready for the tryout. Everything depended on it.”
Mariners scout Ted Heid liked what he saw in Elias. He sold his bosses on signing the lean lefty, and two months later, Elias made his professional debut for the organization in the Rookie-level Arizona League.
Elias pitched OK in the minors—posting a 22-19, 3.61 record over three seasons—but he was never considered among the team’s top prospects. At Double-A Jackson last year, he posted a 6-11, 3.18 record in 22 starts, with 121 strikeouts and 50 walks in 130 innings.
Elias received a non-roster invitation this spring, and he sent in an emphatic RSVP. In six appearances (three starts), he was 3-0, 2.38.
Making Most Of Chance
Elias has only added to his resume since arriving in the majors. In his third big league start at Texas, he earned his first victory after holding the Rangers to just one run in 62⁄3 innings, lowering his ERA to 2.16.
“The situation was not good in Cuba,” Elias said. “I told myself if the opportunity (to defect) came, I was going to go.”
As with most Cuban defectors, Elias does not go into details about the events surrounding his defection. Yet unlike most of the Cubans who defect with the idea of playing in the big leagues, Elias did not have an eye-opening resume in his native Cuba. He played two years. Elias was a reliever one year and a starting pitcher with so-so results, the second year. And he was never given the exposure of playing on the national team and appearing in international competition.
Elias was not deterred, though.
“I had faith in God and myself,” he said. “I knew what I was capable of doing.”
Elias wanted an opportunity. He finally was given one by the Mariners.