There’s no story wrought with stress. No hours-long treks at night through thick mangroves in wetlands. Jorge Martinez didn’t meet up with a boat on the shores of Cuba and make the mad 100-mile dash to the coast of Florida when he defected from his home country to the United States last July.
"I just got on the plane," Martinez said during an interview last month when recalling his trip from Cuba to Miami.
This statement might leave some people scratching their heads. For years we’ve almost become accustomed to hearing of the perilous journeys Cuban baseball players take to escape the authoritarian regime of their homeland to come to the United States with hopes to accomplish their dreams of playing in the majors. Nineteen Cuban born players were on major league rosters on Opening Day in April, according to statistics gathered by baseballamerica.com editor Matt Eddy. It’s likely the majority of them, if not all, have wild stories of how they came to the U.S.
One of those 19 was Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig. His tale of escape was written about by ESPN The Magazine's Scott Eden in April, detailing Puig’s 2012 defection from Cuba to Mexico and the dangers, drugs and money associated with a Cuban defector who has taken Major League Baseball by storm since his big league debut 12 months ago.
Martinez, though, simply boarded a plane with his wife and flew from Cuba to Miami on July 5. A 6-foot, 220-pound right-hander, Martinez has since played winter ball in Puerto Rico and is currently pitching professionally for the York (Pa.) Revolution in the independent Atlantic League. He is eligible to be taken in MLB’s upcoming first-year player draft.
In an effort to discourage the treacherous methods of migration from Cuba to the U.S., the United States Department of Homeland Security in 2007 established the Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program, allowing Cuban defectors who are now lawful U.S. citizens the opportunity to expedite their remaining family from Cuba through safe and legal channels.
Martinez’s father-in-law, who defected from Cuba 15 years ago and is now an official U.S. citizen living in Miami, was able to get his daughter and Martinez approved for Public Interest Visas to come to the U.S. through the reunification program.
"Got right on the airplane," Martinez said during an interview through a translator at York’s stadium last month. "There was no problem because of my relationship with my wife’s dad. I just got on the plane."
Late round selection?
If Martinez, who has been a starting pitcher his entire career, is drafted by a big league club in June, it’ll likely be late on the third and final day of the draft. Why? Well, for starters he’s 30-years-old. Martinez does throw a curveball, slider and breaking ball but his fastball only tops out at 89 miles per hour. And, at times, his command on his fastball can be erratic. Oh, and he has four different arm slots through which he delivers pitches instead of one, over-the-top throwing motion.
Then again, maybe age is just a number. He’s already proving he can hang with triple-A level batters in the Atlantic League. And maybe with the tools he’s currently learning from professional coaches in the U.S. he can improve his fastball command. Maybe he can gain the strength needed to get his fastball into the 90s by being taught a legitimate off-the-field nutrition and fitness program, something he hasn’t really had much of to this point in his career.
"He loves McDonalds. He loves fried chicken," York Revolution outfielder Johan Limonta said of Martinez. "I tell him ‘You cannot eat that every single day.’"
Martinez and Limonta grew up playing against each other as little leaguers in Cuba. Limonta was drafted late in 2006 by the Seattle Mariners roughly a year after defecting from Cuba and went on to play 150 games for Seattle’s triple-A Tacoma affiliate in 2011 and 2012. At York’s spring training in April, Limonta and Martinez saw each other for the first time in nearly 10 years. Limonta, who earned his U.S. citizenship in 2012, has since taken Martinez under his wing. Martinez is staying at Limonta’s apartment in York and Limonta, who has learned to speak fluent english, sometimes serves as Martinez’s translator for Revolution manager Mark Mason.
"I try to help him (Martinez) like ‘Don’t worry about the other things. Just worry about baseball,’" Limonta said. "‘You don’t understand how other things work. Just listen. I’ll tell you what people say. It’s not like you’re going to learn everything that they tell you to do. But if you listen and take what you need and the thing you don’t need you can take it away. But if you listen, it’s the only way you’re gonna learn.’"
Room to grow:
Martinez has proven to be a quick learner in the first month of action this season with the York Revolution. Take his adjustment to pitch selection, for instance. Through trial and error, Martinez has realized that some of the pitches he got away with in Cuba, where he played professionally the previous eight years, won’t work in the Atlantic League, which is mostly comprised of veteran triple-A level players and several former major leaguers.
"Sometimes when you’re in a batters box and a guy throws a pitch they can tell ‘That’s gonna be a ball,’" Revolution manager Mark Mason said when relaying what he’s seen out of Martinez. "Sometimes with young guys when you get them with two strikes they’ll go out of the zone and chase (a pitch). And that doesn’t happen all that much in this league. I would like to see maybe a fastball there or something where we’re gonna make the guy swing the bat."
In his first two games (one start) this season with the Revolution, Martinez got tagged for seven runs (five earned) in 4.1 combined innings. However, in his next four games, the last two being starts, he has held opponents to just three earned runs in 12.1 total innings (an ERA of 2.25).
A starter in Cuba, Martinez began the year with York as a reliever but has moved his way into the starting rotation recently when former big league pitchers Anthony Lerew (Angels) and Mike McClendon (Rockies) were plucked off York’s roster and signed to minor league deals.
In all, Martinez has struck out 13 and walked five in 16.2 innings of work through May 26 for the Revolution. Those numbers only help his case to get drafted. As do those he put up over the winter in Puerto Rico, where he posted a 2.17 ERA in nine regular season starts and later pitched in the postseason with Mayaguez, going 1-0 with a 3.29 ERA in five starts, allowing just one run in seven innings in a no-decision in the the team’s championship-clinching game.
If selected, Martinez would become the first player ever to be drafted off the York Revolution roster. It’s hard to say if he would become the first player ever to be drafted out of the 17-year-old Atlantic League since only about half of the league’s eight clubs actually keep track of such information and those few have already responded saying they’ve had no such player fit that bill.
All for his daughter
Of course, Martinez would have a greater potential of being drafted if he was much younger.
But Martinez said he’s held off on trying to defect from Cuba in the past because he wanted to be around for his daughter, who is now eight-years-old and living back in Cuba with her birth mother.
"It never really crossed my mind to come to the United States (sooner)," Martinez said. "My mind has always been on baseball. And when the opportunity finally came to me (to come to the United States) I thought about it and acted quickly on it to come here."
Although Atlantic League players typically make anywhere from a thousand to a few thousand dollars a month, Martinez said he’s sending most of his money back to his daughter and hopes to one day reach the majors to support her even more financially.
"That’s the reason I came here is to support my family, especially my daughter," he said. "My daughter is the most important thing to me in my life."
Special thanks to York College student Fermin Bello Jr. for serving as the translator for the Martinez interview.