How Mexico Became Home for Tampa Bay’s Cuban Star

How Mexico Became Home for Tampa Bay’s Cuban Star

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SAN DIEGO — Randy Arozarena was once born in Arroyos de Mantua, a small the city at the northwest coast of Cuba, a four-and-a-half-hour pressure from Havana. He has fond reminiscences of dancing within the streets and enjoying football, his past love, together with his brothers and his buddies. He recalls his father observing him play for the Vegueros de Pinar del Río, a qualified Cuban baseball staff. His nickname is El Cohete Cubano (“The Cuban Rocket”).

Make no mistake, Arozarena is Cuban. However deep down, his center has develop into intertwined with the rustic best 30 mins clear of San Diego’s Petco Park, the place he has starred over the last two weeks and powered the Tampa Bay Rays to inside of one win of the International Collection.

Mexico is the place Arozarena, 25, discovered a house after fleeing Cuba on a small boat 5 years in the past, the place his daughter was once born two years in the past and the place he began a adventure that vaulted him to the main leagues final 12 months. And sooner or later, he hopes to put on the rustic’s uniform in global competitions.

“I feel like I represent Mexico,” he stated in Spanish all through a contemporary interview. “I have a daughter in Mexico, and I’d do it in honor of her and for the part of my career that I spent in Mexico, and for all the friends I’ve made in Mexico.”

Arozarena’s enjoy is acquainted to a lot of his fellow Cuban-born avid gamers in Main League Baseball. The island is their fatherland, however dozens have escaped the communist nation to chase their desires, incessantly striking their lives within the arms of smugglers or taking harrowing boat rides.

After Arozarena stated his father died impulsively of an allergy to shellfish in 2014 and he started feeling alienated by means of his staff in Cuba — he was once left off Pinar del Río’s roster for the 2015 Caribbean Collection in Puerto Rico in spite of hitting .291 as officers feared he may defect — he made up our minds that he had to go away to offer for his mom and two more youthful brothers.

“At 19, I earned more than my mom,” Arozarena stated. In his first season in Cuba, he stated, he made $four a month after which sooner or later $38 a month.

So in June 2015, Arozarena stated, he took an eight-hour boat journey and noticed waves over 15 toes en path to Isla Mujeres, simply off the coast from Cancún. Defecting Cuban baseball avid gamers will have to determine residency in a 3rd nation ahead of they are able to be cleared by means of the U.S. executive and signal as unfastened brokers with an M.L.B. staff. From the place Arozarena lived in Cuba, Mexico was once the shortest adventure.

The listing of other folks he knew in Mexico upon his arrival: “No one.”

Thru an agent, Arozarena was once sooner or later attached to Guillermo Armenta, then a scout for the M.L.B. Scouting Bureau who additionally oversaw participant construction for the Toros de Tijuana of the Mexican skilled baseball league.

The primary time Armenta labored with Arozarena, in Mérida — the biggest town at the Yucatán Peninsula, now not a ways from the place Arozarena first arrived — he noticed the athletic possible. Armenta stated a thin Arozarena first ran the 60-yard sprint in 6.nine seconds, as rapid as a mean predominant league participant. He sooner or later stepped forward his time to six.38 seconds.

“He ran like a lighting bolt,” Armenta stated.

After being requested to coach Arozarena a couple of extra occasions, Armenta satisfied him that he must come to Tijuana to increase on the Toros’ academy, which had despatched different potentialities to major-league organizations.

On the academy, Armenta stated, Arozarena had so little to his identify that he shared cleats and batting gloves with any other prospect all through workout routines. He grew pissed off as M.L.B. groups scouted him and gave him appears to be like in non-public paintings outs however declined to signal him.

Someday, Armenta jokingly gave Arozarena what he idea was once an unattainable problem: A staff will signal you, he stated, if you’ll be able to stroll in your arms from house plate to first base. Arozarena introduced that he had completed gymnastics in Cuba, flipped onto his arms and did it.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this kid is a super athlete,’” Armenta stated.

After suffering in his temporary Mexican League debut with the Toros — 5 video games in 2016 — Arozarena starred for his or her feeder staff, the Toritos, successful a batting and stolen bases identify, and refining his energy stroke. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him to a $1.25 million contract.

Arozarena made his major-league debut with St. Louis on Aug. 14, 2019, and hit .300 in 20 at bats over 19 video games. Tantalized by means of Arozarena’s skill, the Rays traded for him, coughing up their most sensible pitching prospect on the time.

His Rays debut this 12 months was once behind schedule till Aug. 30 on account of a good coronavirus take a look at. Whilst keeping apart, he stated, he loaded up on rooster and rice — all he knew the best way to make — and did 300 And despite the fact that he wasn’t an on a regular basis participant upon his go back, he earned common tasks by means of hitting .281 with seven house runs in best 23 video games.

“He came here without anything that he has now,” Armenta stated from Tijuana in a telephone interview. “But look at him now. That’s Randy.”

Within the postseason, Arozarena has been by means of a ways the most productive hitter within the Rays’ offense. He blasted 3 house runs in 5 video games to lend a hand topple the Yankees in the American League division series. And in a celebratory dance competition set to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” after Tampa Bay won the series, Arozarena beat his teammate Brett Phillips by busting out the moves — including spinning on his head — that he used to do with his brothers and friends back in Cuba. It was the type of joy that has come to exemplify the Rays and Arozarena this postseason.

“Life is too short,” he said. “And that’s what how we do it: enjoying every moment that life brings.”

In the A.L. Championship Series against the Houston Astros, Arozarena has crushed three more home runs. His six postseason home runs tied the record for the most by a rookie in major league history, matching Evan Longoria’s mark with the Rays in 2008, the last time Tampa Bay had advanced this far.

“Everybody is just in awe every time he steps into the box,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said of Arozarena. Rays Manager Kevin Cash said Arozarena’s accomplishments were more impressive given that he had no previous experience against many of the pitchers.

Arozarena wouldn’t be doing this if not for his formative time in Mexico. At the Toros’ academy, he grew not only as a player but as a person. Teammates and staff members there helped him buy his first cellphone and open social media accounts (he is now active on Instagram and hosts Facebook chats with fans).

Before the Rays swept Toronto in the best-of-three first round of the 2020 playoffs, Arozarena posed for a photo with a pal he hadn’t observed since their days in combination on the Toros’ academy: Alejandro Kirk, a Mexican catcher with the Blue Jays.

Credit score…Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays

“He’s Mexican because of his love of the homeland,” Armenta stated of Arozarena.

If Arozarena had his means, he would nonetheless play within the Mexican wintry weather leagues, as he did for the Mayos de Navojoa in Sonora in 3 earlier off-seasons. He stated he loves dwelling in Mérida as a result of it’s tranquil and the nice and cozy climate 12 months around reminds him of his local island.

His circle of relatives is round, too: his brother, Raiko, performs for the Cafetaleros de Chiapas, a third-tier Mexican football staff, and his mom makes him Cuban meals incessantly — despite the fact that he nonetheless indulges in his favourite Mexican dish, carne asada tacos.

“It’s like living in Cuba,” he stated.

However in fact, Arozarena isn’t. The one bond he feels together with his fatherland, he stated, is the friends and family he left at the back of and the little the city the place he was once born “where everyone knows me and everyone loves me, and where they loved my dad and I’m proud of being from.” He added that “the situation in Cuba is bad.”

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