Euclides Rojas is in his fifth season as the Pirates' bullpen coach.
By J. Brady McCollough / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
HAVANA, Cuba — In the shadow of the Plaza de la Revolucion, where fallen heroes are kept alive in murals on government ministries and a star-shaped marble memorial stretches boldly toward the sky, a middle-aged man can be found mowing the outfield grass at a long-ignored ballpark.
You wouldn’t know it, watching him sweat through his blue shirt and white baseball pants in the afternoon heat, but Lazaro de la Torre was once an idol in Cuba, too.
During the 1980s and 1990s, nobody pitched more often than de la Torre, and he will be the first to tell you about it. He once made six starts in a week and won all of them, he says, and while ultimately they are just six of his 208 victories, they probably say the most about him. He is 57 now, his days hurling for the Cuban national team behind him, but he takes pride in still being able to throw close to 90 miles per hour and toss more than a thousand batting practice offerings in a day.
Euclides Rojas left Cuba in 1994
Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen coach Euclides Rojas discusses the oppression he and his family faced while living in Cuba. He escaped with his wife and young son in 1994.
De la Torre trains three teams at varying age levels here at Estadio 50 Aniversario, where he is much more than a coach. He is the field’s caretaker — its electrician, plumber, welder, bathroom cleaner … pretty much anything you could imagine. All it costs the government to employ one of the most dominant pitchers of the post-revolution era in this role is 600 Cuban pesos, or about $25, a month.
“I do this because I like it, so I’m happy,” de la Torre says in Spanish.
Looking into his soulful blue eyes, you don’t need a translator to pick up that de la Torre is telling the truth. But, with an American lens, it is still hard to fathom. Imagine Roger Clemens riding a John Deere at a rundown field in Texas, teaching little boys to throw a four-seamed fastball.
There is a reason for this unexpected visit to meet de la Torre: To see if a name from the past can jog a memory.
Yes, Euclides. He was the first closer in the history of the Cuban national team, a good friend and teammate.
“Euclides was intelligent,” de la Torre recalls. “To be a good reliever, you should have the nerves of a surgeon and the control of a robot. With these qualities, you can do what you want.”
They have not spoken in more than 20 years, since Rojas’ desire for freedom pushed him into the ocean on a makeshift raft with his wife and 2-year-old son. De la Torre does not know what became of Rojas — that he is now the bullpen coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates, teaching professional pitchers some of the same lessons he learned right here at the field of his childhood.
They are all teachers now, it seems, the Cuban greats who were raised in the glory days of Cuban baseball, when boys played on the street before they played on a diamond, when the national team was Fidel Castro’s obsession, his best tool to show his countrymen and the skeptics abroad that his communist state could be a cut above the rest when a particular subject had the right emphasis.
Rojas loved science and music, but he chose to study baseball in school because it came easiest. He loves mentoring the Pirates, trying to make the game easy for them, too.
He has never regretted the decision he made for his family, but he hasn’t let go of Cuba either. Every so often, Rojas will log into Google Earth to view satellite images of the island. Recently, one of the places he searched for was the Jose Antonio Echeverria Academy, where he learned baseball as a teenager.
“It’s destroyed,” Rojas, 47, said on a sunny June afternoon as he gazed into the grandeur of PNC Park. “It used to be a field like this, with smaller grass like this, red dirt, everything …”
The Havana he knows is gradually fading away. By the time the United States trade embargo with Cuba has been lifted and Rojas can return, will there be anything left?
"What is happening now [in Cuba] is that baseball is bleeding."
Even the most accurate satellite can’t take him inside the dreary room underneath the Echeverria field bleachers, where his youth coach, a former pitching legend who once had the ear of Castro, lives in squalor at the age of 80. It can’t show Rojas the sight of his best friends, who now coach the Industriales, considered the New York Yankees of Cuba, walking past a dead cat rotting outside the stadium and not acting a bit surprised.
From his computer screen, Rojas can’t see these visions of a national pastime in disrepair, these visions of what his life would have been.
An older sister waits
He lives in black and white, in a large photograph hanging on a wall behind the counter of a government ration shop in Havana’s Vedado district. His sister works here, weighing and dispensing rice, and when Caridad Ordonez Rodriguez thinks of her little brother, he appears to her like this, youthful, on the mound, proudly pitching a baseball for Cuba, before August 19, 1994, before 10:35 p.m., before the tide took Euclides Rojas out to sea.
“Nobody can erase his work as a player in Cuban baseball,” Caridad, 61, says.
“When I say I’m his niece, people still remember,” her daughter, Vivian, 44, adds.
Caridad, a warm woman with dark brown eyes, was the last member of the family to see Euclides that day, and she and another sister who resides outside Havana are the last of his nuclear family that remains. Because she is 14 years older than Euclides, she treated him as a son as much as a brother.
Couldn’t he come back just once? They have had to accept Euclides’ stubborn vow that he will only return with a U.S. passport as the American citizen he is now.
“He is Cuban,” Caridad says, ”but I must respect his opinion.”
“But it is wrong,” Vivian says. “He is Cuban, and will not come as a Cuban? We must never give up our citizenship.”
The topic brings up raw emotions. Caridad has tried four times to get a visa from the United States Interest Section to see him at his South Florida home, but each time she has been flagged as a possible immigrant and denied. So she clings to the interactions she can have, like Euclides calling on her birthday this year and singing, strumming his guitar an ocean away.
Sharing a mother’s passion
For the sons of post-revolutionary Cuba, baseball was a birthright afforded to all. For the fourth son of Paula Onelia Rodriguez, the game would be the key to his mother’s heart.
Raising her seven children in a one-room, tin-roof hut buried in a drab alleyway just a block from the Plaza de la Revolucion, joy had to be wrung from the simple things. She worked hard, washing and ironing clothes for neighbors, and there was little time or money for hobbies. Good thing it only cost 1 peso to attend an Industriales game.
“All of Havana says they have blue blood,” Vivian says, “not because they are rich, but because of the color of the uniform of the Industriales.”
Rojas’ blood turned blue quickly. His father, Euclides, was a maintenance worker at the Estadio Latinoamericano, the big stadium where the team played. The elder Euclides was not actively involved in his son’s life, but that did not stop Paula from taking her son to the ballpark.
“My mom was a real baseball fan,” Rojas says. “I remember, I was 4, 5, 6 years old, she took us to Latin American Stadium, and we would just run in the outfield, in the stands. She was always watching baseball, or listening to the game on the little radio in her ear.”
In many countries, for a poor boy like Euclides, baseball would have been a way out, the prospect of fame and riches too tantalizing to ignore. In Castro’s Cuba, there may not have been a way out, but there was much to be gained through sport. It came to represent the values preached by the revolution — playing for the love of the game, so to speak. Castro had outlawed professional sports, introducing the popular amateur league, the National Series, in which the ballplayers were paid the same measly salary as everyone else. In that way, they were the perfect examples of what a good Cuban should be — gifted, yet not materialistic.
The best players from the National Series moved on to the national team, representing the country in international competitions. Cuba had always loved baseball — the early fervor for the American game in the late 1800s was said to have been a challenge to the Spanish love of bullfighting — and now they could prove to the world that they had mastered it.
As Euclides grew up, the Cubans won gold in all three Pan American Games held in the 1970s and swept five consecutive IBAF World Cups. Their aura was unmistakable.
Every Cuban boy could pursue any sport he desired, but only the talented ones advanced out of their neighborhoods. There was something about this Euclides Rojas. He had nothing, even less than his peers who had nothing, but a passion moved inside of him when he played baseball, and in a 10-year-old boy, that could be developed.
A mentor keeps busy
The man who taught Euclides Rojas to throw a curveball will talk about his former pupil on one condition.
“No politics, only baseball,” Ihosvany Gallego says.
To enter Gallego’s dwelling, located below the decaying Echeverria Academy stadium, you must carefully walk a wooden plank that serves as a staircase. Once inside, his political leanings — and the reason for his hesitation — become clear. Posters of revolutionary Che Guevara dot the walls.
Gallego, 80, began teaching baseball here in 1960, with the revolution in full swing and his own sterling career just beginning. He still owns the National Series record for ERA in a season — 0.37 in 1971-72 with the Industriales. He once pitched to Castro, who on occasion would stop by and talk to the players after games until the early hours of the morning. Castro wanted to know what he could do to help the players.
“Fidel liked baseball and that helped the development of the game,” Gallego says. “But he was not a good hitter.”
Gallego wears a sleeveless white St. Louis Cardinals jersey he brought back from Ecuador, where he also acquired some much-needed equipment for the 7- and 8-year-olds he tutors three times a week. His frame is sinewy, his biceps bulging mostly because of apparent malnourishment. He does not live alone: He has two parrots, a couple ducks and stray cats.
In his spare time, Gallego updates this facility where he once trained future stars like Euclides. He sees what you see — kids playing soccer on the streets instead of baseball — but he is undaunted. He has fashioned some rope for a batting cage so that players can hit down here when it’s raining. He continues to train pitchers twice a week.
“I still pitch, and I don’t hurt anything, and I’m 80 years old,” he says, gratefully.
Ihosvany Gallego taught Euclides Rojas how to pitch. (Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette)
Gallego has not spoken to Euclides since he left. He followed the young man’s career closely, evaluating his performance with the Industriales and national team and passing along tips, but Euclides made his choice.
Closing in on stardom
The first curveball Euclides Rojas ever threw was fueled by anger.
He was about 14 at the time, and Gallego had not yet allowed him to pitch because he wanted to save the boy’s arm. Euclides was an adequate second baseman and shortstop, and he usually followed his orders. But one day, Gallego said something that he didn’t like, and Euclides fired a ball toward a tree in frustration. It split the bark every which way.
“I saw that the ball made a strange movement and thought, ‘You can work with it,’” Gallego says.
When Euclides turned 15, Gallego began to teach him a screwball, a slider and a sinker. He did not throw as hard as other boys, but he had the command and the confidence to deliver in tight situations. It took just one year of him pitching around Havana for national officials to take notice, and in 1983, at only 16 years old, Rojas was chosen to join the Industriales.
His mother was so proud.
“We sat behind the dugout and knew all the players,” his niece, Vivian, recalls. “The whole family went to the stadium to support them.”
Caridad lived close to the stadium, and whenever Euclides would stop by on his bicycle, she would prepare omelets, bread and lemonade. He would need plenty of nutrition, because at 17, his pitching coach decided it was time to get more use out of him.
“He told me, ‘You’re going to be the closer of the team. You can pitch today, you can pitch tomorrow. It looks like you have a rubber arm,’” Euclides says.
The concept of a closer was new in Cuba, where pitchers were judged on their ability to start and finish a game. Being removed from the mound, no matter the number of pitches thrown, meant one had failed his team. And here was this teenager suddenly being brought in night after night to lock up the victory.
But, it stuck. And in 1985-86, the Industriales were playing for the National Series trophy, looking for their first title in 13 seasons. Euclides’ family watched from the stands of Estadio Latinoamericano as he recorded the final out, sending Havana into delirium.
"All of Havana says they have blue blood, not because they are rich, but because of the color of the uniform of the Industriales."
The next year, Euclides was picked for the national team, where he would make history as its first closer.
All the while, Euclides had been enrolled at the University of Havana, pursuing a degree in physical education with a specialty in baseball. He worked tirelessly on his thesis, a 300-page report on the mental side of pitching.
“I have always been a student,” Euclides says.
He would become the first in the family to graduate from college. Of course, his mother lived for the games. She did not miss one, sometimes watching in black and white on her small Soviet-made TV, and she rarely went anywhere without the Team Cuba vest Euclides gave her.
A field finds its savior
As a player, Lazaro de la Torre was known for being outspoken. He believes he was forced to retire because of it. But when the government needed the baseball field located right in its backyard to be fixed up in 2009, in preparation for the big 50th anniversary celebration of the revolution, it knew where to turn.
Old Desa Stadium had fallen into remarkable ruin. Dog fights were often staged here. The grass was a meter high. It was an embarrassment. De la Torre went to work, and soon it was presentable enough to be named Estadio 50 Aniversario. He has not stopped working since.
De la Torre says his players are fortunate. A friend from the two years he played in Japan donated $137,000 to help him purchase everything from balls, bats and bases to full uniforms.
“I’m worried about the future of baseball,” de la Torre says, “because football [soccer] is on the rise. In the past there were more quality players. In the country there are many places that do not have adequate tools to play, so if the blockade is lifted, there will be more possibilities.”
De la Torre says he does not regret staying in Cuba instead of defecting like so many of his brethren. He visited the United States three times with the national team, and it did not alter his Cuban convictions.
“Money does not fool these eyes,” de la Torre says. “Friendship is more important than money.”
Too many questions
When Euclides Rojas walked on U.S. soil with Team Cuba for the first time, he was scared. His whole life, he had been told Americans were not good people, that they were arrogant, that they would slip a drug inside of a soda and kidnap you.
“I could see with my eyes that everything was a lie,” Rojas says.
That was the danger of international play for the government: Some of their most valued citizens were being let out of the cocoon, and no amount of supervision could block their eyes and plug their ears. On one trip to Seattle, Euclides made friends with a man from Chinese Taipei, and when the man mailed him, the government opened the envelope and proceeded to question Euclides.
He was making only 200 Cuban pesos a month (today, about $10), but that wasn’t even what bothered him.
“I realized that I was living in Cuba like a slave,” Rojas says, “not as a free man.”
In 1991, Team Cuba was playing in Miami. Rojas’ close friend and national team roommate, Rene Arocha, told him of his plans to walk out of their hotel and defect in hopes of being signed by a major league team. Arocha, who would be the first in a wave of defectors, gave Euclides some personal belongings that he wanted him to give to his wife in Cuba, which put Rojas in a difficult position. When officials came to him for questioning — and there was no doubt that they would — how could he deny knowledge of it?
“They said he betrayed the Cuban revolution,” Rojas says, “and you are as guilty as him.”
The government suspended Rojas, forcing him to miss the 1992 Barcelona Games, the first Olympic baseball tournament. The Cubans, featuring many of his friends, would take gold.
Rojas, still viewed as a national hero, would have to be phased out from the limelight. After his suspension was lifted, he pitched again for the Industriales, but he was told that he would also have to pitch in the provincial (minor) league during the offseason. There, pitching in Desa Stadium for the Plaza de la Revolucion team in front of few fans, he had to start three games per week with no pitch count.
“They did it on purpose to hurt my arm,” Rojas says.
His right elbow finally gave out, sidelining him for a year. It was hard not to wonder if he would ever get back what had been taken from him. He was nearing his late 20s, with a wife and baby boy. What kind of life could he expect now for their little Euclides?
Euclides Rojas and his wife, Marta, with their son, Euclides, Jr., after he was born Dec. 23, 1991. (Rojas family photo)
Rojas’ mother could feel her son’s pain. She told him that if he ever got the chance to escape, as much as it would devastate her, he had her blessing. So Euclides Rojas began saving money for wood.
A loyal friend keeps on
Miguel Chinea takes you to the spot where he said goodbye. Here, just east of the tunnel that connects Old Havana with the castle that guards the bay, is the Playa del Chivo, or Beach of the Goat.
Miguel stands on the edge of the highway, staring at the dark brown sand of the unkempt shoreline and the vast blue of the Florida Straits.
“Pichi is my best friend,” Miguel says, calling Euclides by his childhood nickname.
Miguel grew up in the same barrio as Euclides. They were inseparable, until that night when he pushed Pichi’s raft into the water.
They did not speak for 10 to 15 years. Miguel can’t remember exactly how long. Today, he lives a block from the alley where they became friends and works nearby in a small government shop, selling packaged foods and drinks.
Recently, Euclides’ wife, Marta, returned to Cuba for the first time to see her sister who was sick. Pichi could not come, but Marta did bring Miguel a baseball from this year’s Opening Day at PNC Park that Euclides signed with a message:
“For my brother Miguel and family, God bless you. April 13, 2015”
Leaving for freedom
The preparation took about a year, and those close to Euclides Rojas knew what was coming. But when the moment was right, when the oil tanks and the 4x4 blocks of wood and the small boat with the beat-up motor had somehow formed a raft stretching 15 feet, a raft that would hold nine adults and four children, he did not tell his mother that it was time to go.
He shared a tearful goodbye with his older sister, Caridad, and instructed Miguel to meet him at the beach.
Euclides and Marta brought only the clothes they wore, a photo album of their life in Cuba and Euclides’ diploma from the University of Havana.
“We made the decision to give our son a chance to live like a real man,” Euclides says.
As the raft floated into the great unknown, Miguel remained on the beach. He watched for flashes of light from the lamp on the raft, signals that everything was OK. Eventually, his friend disappeared into the darkness.
Hope was alive on that raft. Not even the motor burning out five hours into the trip could dim it. The five men would take turns rowing while the four women each held a child. They ate cheese and crackers and tried to conserve fresh water. The group had always known the risks, and the sight of empty rafts floating in the ocean confirmed them.
No, they were not alone out there. In the days after their voyage began, there were riots and anti-government protests all over Cuba, and Castro announced that “whoever wanted to leave could go.” A mass exodus of Cubans, more than 35,000 of them, would follow Euclides Rojas over the next month.
After five days, the raft had traveled 23 miles from the Florida Keys. There, they became some of the first Cuban refugees in that exodus discovered by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“There’s a lot of Cuban people who haven’t made it,” Rojas says. “As we’re talking right now, I’m sure there are people in the ocean, doing the same thing.”
Euclides, Marta and their son were taken to Guantanamo Bay, a U.S. naval station located on the far east end of Cuba. There, they would live with thousands of other Cubans in military tents planted on a golf course until a sponsor could be found for them in the U.S.
Euclides listed his friend and former teammate, Rene Arocha, who had been signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, as his sponsor.
Back home, the family waited for news. In churches, lists were being posted with the names of those who made it to Guantanamo. Twenty days passed.
“My mother was very sad and very depressed,” Caridad says.
Soon, Caridad would see her brother’s name, and she could finally tell Paula Onelia Rodriguez that her son and his young family were safe.
Six months into their stay in Guantanamo, they boarded a plane headed for Homestead, Fla., where Arocha was waiting for them.
“After six months sleeping in those military beds, coming to the United States and seeing a friend, knowing that we were going to be taken care of … a lot of emotions,” Rojas says.
Euclides had arrived in America with nothing but a bad arm and a lifetime of pitching knowledge. He had no idea if he would ever be able to make a life in baseball, and frankly, he didn’t care.
Assessing the damage
The National Series does not begin for months, but the Industriales are training most days here at the Ciudad Deportiva, the large sports park where Havana’s top athletes have honed their skills for decades.
The Industriales have not won the championship since 2010, and that means it is time for change. When Javier Mendez was hired to be the team’s manager this spring, he knew he immediately became the most talked about man in Havana.
Expectations are high, but it won’t be an easy fix. Nothing is easy about Cuban baseball today.
Javier Mendez, manager of the Industriales
“What is happening now is that baseball is bleeding,” says Mendez, who played 22 seasons and is considered one of the best Cuban center fielders of all time. “When many talented players decide to go play in other leagues, particularly because of economic issues, it affects baseball and entertainment.”
Mendez and Euclides Rojas were close friends and shared an apartment near this stadium. They recently have reestablished their connection, and Euclides was generous enough to send Mendez a package of rubber exercise bands to help the Industriales with their stretching. What Mendez would rather have is Rojas as his pitching coach, but he knows that can’t happen.
There is a feeling in American baseball circles that an end to the blockade will produce a gold rush on Cuban players. That may be true in the beginning, but the reality is that if Major League Baseball wants to mine Cuba over time as it has the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, it will take a methodical rebuilding of the sport.
“They tell me everything has changed in Cuba because they don’t have the resources,” Euclides says. “They have the knowledge, but they can do nothing with it.”
After 20 years, a reunion
Euclides Rojas Jr. would not remember the journey that brought him to America. He would not remember his father happily working as a handyman at an insurance company in Miami for $6 an hour. He would not remember Euclides Sr. being drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 30th round of the 1995 draft, only to realize a year later that his arm was finished.
By the time Euclides Jr. was 5, his father was a minor league baseball coach with the Marlins, and his family had a house of its own.
“They arrived here with nothing,” Euclides Jr. says. “They wanted to actually live in America, not just survive. What we have today is because of how they approached life.”
Euclides Jr. knew what had been sacrificed for him. As a boy, he watched his father grieve the death of his mother and live with the pain of knowing he never got to say good-bye. He watched the way his dad and mother cared for their possessions.
“If I got a toy, I had to make sure that toy kept working, because it was valuable,” Euclides Jr. says.
“I realized that I was living in Cuba like a slave. Not as a free man.”
His father appreciated everything, but nothing more than his chance to coach baseball. The Marlins loved his attitude, and on the day he became a U.S. citizen in 2000, they had a Marine visit the field and present him with an American flag.
Marta and Euclides Jr. became U.S. citizens in 2002, and in 2004, with Euclides Sr. now working as the bullpen coach of the Boston Red Sox, the boy got to join his dad in the clubhouse after the franchise won its first World Series in 86 years.
“My dad is totally in love with the game,” Euclides Jr. says. “The same today as the first day he picked up a baseball.”
Today, with the Pirates, the game gets to love his father back. Euclides Sr. mentors one of the best staffs in baseball, and all he had to do to earn his pitchers’ trust was tell them a little bit of his tale, what he was willing to give up to be with them.
“He’s a baseball genius without a doubt,” Pirates reliever Jared Hughes says. “He does a great job of simplifying what’s going on so we can understand it. The level of communication with Euky is as good as it gets.”
Mostly, Euclides Rojas is happy because his son gets to pursue whatever makes him happy.
Euclides Jr. is 23 years old now, and he hopes to be admitted to medical school in the coming years.
Someday, the young man would like to visit the country of his birth, this mysterious place that only exists to him in the stories.
“It’s this distant idea,” Euclides Jr. says. “I’ve talked to some of my family on the phone in Cuba, I’ve seen pictures. It’s kind of like this illusory world that is there, but it’s not really tangible.”
Euclides Rojas and his wife, Marta, with their son, Euclides Jr., in 2011. (Rojas family photo)
It’s a world that is slipping away from his father, too. But, last November, for an all-too-brief moment, Cuba would feel real again to Euclides Rojas.
The scene was surreal: Javier Mendez, Euclides and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who famously defected from Cuba in 1997 on the way to major league riches, hanging out for hours at Rojas’ Miami home.
“When I saw him, it felt like time had not passed,” Mendez says.
“Like we saw each other the week before,” Euclides says.
Mendez had brought Rojas a bottle of Havana Club rum, and Rojas supplied his old friend with Johnny Walker Black Whisky. They drank and pulled on Cuban cigars and listened to Cuban music, putting the past behind them for the magnificent present.
“Euclides told me, ‘I do not care if you think differently from me. We love and respect each other as friends, and that is most important,’” Mendez says.
Their reunion happened before President Barack Obama’s December announcement that he would push for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years.
“This is the first time in my life,” Rojas says, “that I see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
That day, the three old friends watched a music video together. The song, by artist Ricardo Arjona, is called “Bridge.” Written about the torture of being separated from family and friends because of ideology, it brought their past 20 years perfectly into focus. The men could not stop the tears from falling as they listened to the words.
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