Cuba coach defects as team leaves

Retired star pitcher stays behind after game vs. Orioles

Wanders downtown streets

Diplomats collect 6 former players who missed plane

May 05, 1999|By Mark Matthews, Joe Mathews and Peter Hermann | Mark Matthews, Joe Mathews and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A Cuban baseball pitching coach, after a night spent wandering downtown streets, walked into the Central District police station and asked for political asylum yesterday, just hours after his country's team left Baltimore with a historic 12-6 victory over the Orioles.

Six other Cubans, all former ballplayers, missed the chartered plane taking a 335-member delegation back to Havana, but U.S. officials said they had no indication that they wanted to defect.

Cuban officials said the six had overslept at their Baltimore hotel, spent the day visiting Washington and would probably leave today.

But last night, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Maryland district director, Ben Ferro, confirmed that other Cubans may be missing from the delegation.

"There may be others out there, and we are making ourselves ... continuously available," he said.

The apparent defection of Rigoberto Betancourt Herrera, 54, added a Cold War twist to the festive two-game series, which opened with an Oriole win over Cuba in Havana five weeks ago.

Betancourt, a retired left-handed pitcher nicknamed "The Little Giant of the Mound," told police it took him eight hours to maneuver the eight blocks between the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel and the police station.

Police say they don't know where the silver-haired man was before he arrived at 10 a.m., wearing a light jacket, brown pants and his blue Cuban delegation credentials around his neck.

Police called Spanish-speaking Officer Matthew Corell in from patrol, and Betancourt immediately asked him for asylum.

"He specifically said he did not want go back to Cuba," said Lt. Wesley M. Ormrod. "He wanted to stay here."

Betancourt told Baltimore police that he has an uncle who lives in Miami and that he left a former wife and children in Cuba.

Police called INS officials, who arrived 90 minutes later to handle the asylum claim. In the meantime, Ormrod escorted Betancourt to a back office where he had a Coke and a box of cookies. He autographed his blue credential and gave it to Lt. Antonio Rodriguez as a memento.

INS officials would not say yesterday where Betancourt would spend the night.

The defection was not a surprise. For weeks before Monday night's game at Camden Yards, speculation had focused on the superstars among the Cuban players, who could command multimillion-dollar contracts in American baseball's major leagues.

The Baltimore office of the INS was primed, posting agents around the city to receive asylum-seekers. Cuban officials complained that Joe Cubas, the well-known Miami-based agent for Cuban baseball talent, was parked outside the Sheraton Inner Harbor at 4 a.m. yesterday in a white stretch limousine.

Jorge A. Acosta, a member of the Cuban exile group Agenda: Cuba, said he and Cubas sneaked into the hotel Sunday night and met with three players, including pitcher Jose Contreras.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who had said earlier that defections would sully the exchange, said yesterday, "We felt we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. We used baseball as a medium of friendship between the two countries."

Some anti-Castro members of Congress suspected that a fear of defections prompted leaders of the Cuban delegation to leave Baltimore abruptly. Officially scheduled to leave at 3 p.m., players, coaches, youngsters, workers and government officials were rousted from their hotel before 4 a.m. and bused to Baltimore-Washington International Airport for a flight that left at 6: 07 a.m.

"It was stunning," said Donna Marano, a conventioneer from Pittsburgh staying on the Sheraton's heavily secured 12th floor. "All of a sudden, they were gone."

Betancourt pitched in the Cuban major leagues from 1965 to 1975 and represented the national team three times in international competition.

In Havana, baseball fan Luis Rodriguez described Betancourt as "a good pitcher." He paused for sarcastic effect. "In his time. But he is not the best around."

Noel Asencio, another Cuban, said, "We have many good players in Cuba, so we don't feel it when one leaves because there are many more."

Last week, Betancourt told a Cuban news agency, "It is a huge recognition and an emotional gift" to be invited to the game.

Betancourt was not exactly a Cuban national treasure, said Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, a Yale University literature professor and author of a new book, "The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball."

But, "given that Fidel Castro takes it upon himself to make this team be his team, it's a major embarrassment to him," he said.

The professor said most Cubans are not likely to realize the Orioles are one of the worst teams in baseball right now.

"The Orioles were playing like whipped dogs. They're barely a major league team," Gonzalez said, noting that Castro gave an epic speech yesterday extolling the Cubans' triumph. "If it wasn't so tragic, it'd be comic."

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