Defector's hopes on hold

Asylum: The Cuban pitching coach who defected in May can stay in the United States, but his professional future in this country is in limbo.

August 07, 1999|By SCOTT HIGHAM | SCOTT HIGHAM,SUN STAFF

HIALEAH, Fla. -- When pitching coach Rigoberto Betancourt Herrera bolted from the Cuban baseball team in Baltimore in May, he thought he'd be basking in the glow of American capitalism by now, teaching hot prospects for the Boston Red Sox to toss blazing fastballs and wicked sliders.

Instead, the man once considered the Sandy Koufax of Cuba is holed up in a cinder-block rancher in a run-down neighborhood on the edge of Miami, tossing back shots of Cafe Cubano, watching television and smoking non-filter Competidoras to pass the time.

For Betancourt, who left his wife and four children for a chance to work in America's big leagues, defecting has been about as tough to take as a waist-high fastball.

"If I were working, I'd be the happiest man in the world," said Betancourt, 55, a short southpaw who looks like a cross between Ricardo Montalban and Jerry Vale. "Now, I'm worried. I don't have any doubts about my decision. But I have doubts about working in this country."

When Betancourt skipped the flight to Cuba after the Orioles' 12-6 loss on May 4 at Camden Yards, his defection drew international attention. Fidel Castro lost a prominent coach known as "The Little Giant of the Mound." Spanish-language TV stations in Miami turned him into an overnight news celebrity.

Success seemed sure to follow.

Joe Cubas, the sports agent responsible for luring promising players from Cuba to the majors, introduced Betancourt to the Boston Red Sox. Within weeks of slipping out of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel and hiding from Cuban security agents beneath a row of bushes for six hours in downtown Baltimore, Betancourt said the Red Sox interviewed him for a job, coaching minor leaguers at their training camp in Fort Myers.

But that was more than two months ago. While U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officers have granted Betancourt political asylum, they have not given him permission to work. By the time the paperwork comes through later this year, the season could be over, stalling Betancourt's dream of working for a major league team and bringing his family to Florida for a better life.

Under INS rules, Betancourt has to wait until October to apply for a work permit, and it could take a few more months before permission is granted. Betancourt said he's worried that a job with the Red Sox could be gone by then. Kent Qualls, the team's director of player development, said nothing is guaranteed until Betancourt receives INS approval.

"Until he gets his working papers, there's nothing to talk about," Qualls said.

Like most successful baseball players, Betancourt began his career as a boy, playing in the streets of Havana in the 1940s and '50s, a time when Meyer Lansky, fancy Cadillacs and Frank Sinatra defined the city.

After Castro came to power in 1959, the nation underwent a baseball renaissance. The game was Castro's passion, and it became Cuba's. A league was formed, with each province fielding a team. The best players represented the nation in games and exhibitions around the world.

Betancourt became one of those players. With a 90-mph fastball and low breaking ball that confounded hitters, Betancourt was a pitcher to be feared. Standing 5 feet, 6 inches, he became known as the "Little Giant," a pitcher who could ring up as many as 18 strikeouts a game.

He got his first break in 1964, when he pitched for a military team. He was later named to the national teams that played during the Central American-Caribbean games in Puerto Rico in 1966 and the Pan American games in Winnipeg in 1967.

Each time he left Cuba, Betancourt said, he was approached by U.S. scouts. He said he refused a $100,000 offer from the Phillies.

"At the time, Cuba was different from what it is today," he said. "I also had my father and my mother and my brother. So, I decided to remain in my country and stay next to my family."

Now, from his room, Betancourt retrieved a manila envelope and slid out a stack of torn and taped-up newspaper clippings chronicling his glory days on the mound. One from 1967 says he set a new Cuban record with 126 strikeouts, breaking the mark he set the year before, when he fanned 103.

In 1968, Betancourt had surgery and sat out the season. He came back, pitching a no-hitter in 1970, but the zip was gone. Suddenly, hitters could see his fastball, and they began to chip away at the stature of the "Little Giant."

In 1975, Betancourt retired, coaching first for a sports school and later for every provincial team in Cuba.

Last April, Betancourt was invited to go to Baltimore for the match between the Orioles and Cuba. He was thrilled at the prospect, but his excitement had nothing to do with baseball.

Hours before he left, he told his wife, Marta, that he was not coming back. She tearfully accepted his decision to defect, and he pledged to bring her and the children to America.

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