Desire for freedom took Pena to majors
FEB 21, 2013 10:45a ET
Defecting is always risky. But at the age of 16, Pena mapped out a plot with a friend that he will not name to this day, for fear of retaliation from the oppressive government that knows nothing of democracy.
“Freedom is bigger than baseball,” Pena, 31, said. “Freedom is bigger than anything. You leave behind everything in Cuba for freedom, but I did not hesitate.”
Some baseball players opt to escape while touring the U.S. with the Cuban national team. Others, like former Tigers outfielder Barbaro Garbey, take the treacherous route by sea on a flotilla. Pena said he was “scared” to escape in a boat.
Pena, who will start at catcher in the Tigers' Grapefruit League opener Friday, chose to make his move at a baseball tournament in Caracas, Venezuela. He told nobody -- not even his parents -- of the plan.
“I had a friend who thought I would have an opportunity to play in the big leagues,” said Pena, who came up with the Braves in 2005 and spent the last four years as a backup with the Kansas City Royals. “I did not see any future for me in Cuba and decided to defect.
“I had to leave behind my mom, dad and family. But I trusted God and my instincts. I did it for me and the future of my family.”
Pena said the Cuban baseball team was housed on the seventh floor of a Caracas hotel in order to hinder any escape attempts. But meals were served on the ground floor level, and so he would make his move there. If his friend outside the hotel held up a green bat from his car, the coast was clear. If he held up a red glove, the attempt would be aborted.
On the day of the green bat, Pena asked to go to the bathroom during a meal.
“The security guy told me he would have to go in with me,” Pena said. “I said, ‘Man, I need some privacy.’ So, he let me go in alone. I opened the window and went out through it. I was scared, man. My heart was beating like crazy.”
But he made it to his friend in the get-away car, and was taken to an undisclosed location.
“I hid in a house for five months,” Pena said. “I never left. My picture was in the paper and on TV. If you are caught, you go back to Cuba.”
That would not be good.
“No, no,” Pena said. “That would be worse than not good. That would be bad, real bad. That is why I didn’t tell my family -- so there would be no repercussions against them. I slept on the patio and it was like being under house arrest. But one day my agent came and explained to me that Costa Rica had given me political asylum. And it went smooth.”
He signed with the Braves in Orlando on Nov. 2, 2000, and was sent to the Instructional League. Pena was on his way to the majors and also had an off-the-field development plan.
“No. 1, I wanted to learn English,” said Pena, who is fluent in his new language. “No. 2, I wanted to become a citizen. And I became a U.S. citizen five years ago. No. 3, I wanted to help my community and pay back for what I have been given. “
He works with Latin American children in the Miami and Orlando areas, and coaches at baseball camps across the state in the offseason.
Pena, who signed a one-year contract worth nearly $1 million as a free agent, is excited about joining the 2012 American League champions. He and his wife, Javier, recently moved to Kissimmee with their children, Brayan, 3, and Lina, 8 months. Pena also was able to get his parents, Carmen and Pedro, to Miami.
“I am blessed,” Pena said. “I am so blessed, I tell you. I am so thankful. I try to be the best man I can be, like my dad showed me. I want to live a life that does not let him down.”
Detroit’s first game is a short drive up Interstate 4 to Disney World’s Champion Stadium. Being on the fresh-cut grass of a baseball field on the grounds of the “Happiest Place on Earth” is right up Pena’s alley.
Pena never stops smiling and is that proverbial ray of sunshine.
“America is bigger than even this game,” Pena said. “I take nothing for granted.”
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