Sometimes, it's more than just a game

ON BASEBALL

May 12, 2002|By PETER SCHMUCK

Just when you want to get cynical about professional athletes, something happens like this. Cuban defectors Hansel Izquierdo, Michael Tejera and Vladimir Nunez pitched in the Florida Marlins' 1-0 shutout over the San Diego Padres on Thursday night at Pro Player Stadium - a victory that propelled the Marlins into first place in the National League East.

Then they cried.

Together.

"It's a very special moment. I really cannot find the words to tell you how I feel right now," Izquierdo told the Miami Herald. "It meant more because they helped me. Winning the game with the help of Michael and Vladimir ... it's just a blessing. I thank God for everything."

It's easy to forget the hardships that every first-generation Cuban player has had to endure to pitch in the major leagues. Each defector leaves close family members behind and must overcome a language barrier and significant culture shock while trying to earn a living in the highly competitive world of professional baseball.

Nunez defected in 1995 and originally signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Izquierdo and Tejera defected as teen-agers and pitched for a Miami high school before both were drafted by the Marlins.

Izquierdo was released by the Marlins in 1997 and played in the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians organizations before returning as a minor-league free agent in 2000.

"Sometimes when I'm driving to the game, I just can't believe that all three of us are on the same team pitching in the majors," Nunez said. "It's a dream come true. Michael came back from surgery and Hansel was released from two teams and came back here to pitch, and we all ended up on the same team."

So what if it was just one seemingly insignificant game early in the season. Major-league baseball has become a truly international pastime and an underground symbol of freedom to thousands of Cubans, many of whom listened to the game on the radio or closed their shutters to watch a replay on illegal TV Marti.

Griffey's complaint

Injured superstar Ken Griffey has calmed down some since a Cincinnati television station released results of a poll that showed fans weren't all that eager to have him back in the lineup when he recovers from a knee injury, but his feelings are still hurt.

"If I was playing and I wasn't doing anything, I could see that," Griffey said Wednesday. "But for me not to be able to defend myself and go out and play and prove to people that I can play, that makes it tough."

The poll asked fans of the overachieving Reds which outfielder should be benched when Griffey comes off the disabled list. They chose Griffey, and it wasn't the first time he had reason to regret his decision to force the Seattle Mariners to trade him to the Reds before the 2000 season.

His homecoming has been bittersweet, to say the least, but the Reds are eager to have him back in the lineup to help them hold onto the National League Central lead. He could return from a torn patellar tendon in two or three weeks.

"When Junior gets back to playing the way he can play, those same [fans] who are bashing him now will be giving him standing ovations," Reds general manager Jim Bowden said. "He will finish his career here. We want him to help get us back to the World Series. We want him to break Henry Aaron's and maybe Barry Bonds' home run record here. We've got a short right field in Great American Ball Park for him and Adam Dunn."

Fire sale in Detroit

Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift insists the club will not be a big player during the midseason trading period that leads up to the July 31 waiver deadline, but he might want to reconsider.

Talk in Detroit has the club dumping anybody and everybody to reconfigure the Tigers' roster, which means starting pitcher Jeff Weaver, reliever Matt Anderson and outfielder Bobby Higginson could be moved.

If the Orioles are still playing respectably in July, it might be cheaper to get a pitcher the quality of Weaver in a trade than to try to sign one in the winter. Same goes for Higginson, the kind of big hitter the Orioles certainly will be looking for in the next free-agent market.

Perspective check

Marlins manager Jeff Torborg and outfielder Preston Wilson were engaged in a heated argument with umpire Tim Timmons the other night when the debate was interrupted by Kate Smith.

Actually, the argument was interrupted by Smith's famous rendition of "God Bless America," which seemed to put a disputed rundown play into proper perspective.

"First time I ever had `God Bless America' stop an argument on the field," Torborg said. "As the song was playing, I said to him [Wilson], `You know, this play's not very important, is it?' He said, `No, it isn't.'"

Wilson bade Timmons a polite farewell and trotted out to his position.

Stability in Oakland

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