By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 1999; Page D10
Had the Orioles and Cubans played three years earlier, before Arrojo defected to the United States, he probably would have been on the mound for his countrymen instead of preparing for his second season with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Still, despite the miles, the former ace of the Cuban national team said he had the odd sensation that for one day he was back in his native Cuba playing again.
"A lot of things were brought to my mind watching that first game," Arrojo said through his translator, Devil Rays coach Orlando Gomez. "Lots of good things. I felt like I was part of that team, too. A large percentage of the guys on that team were on the national team when I was there."
He expects to have some of those same feelings Monday night when he'll be watching his Devil Rays play Detroit but thinking of the Orioles hosting the Cubans at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Arrojo said he'll sneak into the clubhouse for a peek at a television to see how his friends are doing.
If some were shocked that the Cubans came so close to beating the Orioles, Arrojo was not. Arrojo, who helped his country win the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics, knew the Cubans were good. And he knew the Cubans expected to win.
The Cubans almost won even though some of their best players were unavailable because they were playing in the Cuban World Series. After the game, Cuban President Fidel Castro joked to the Orioles: "Next time, we'll have our full team."
Despite the possibility of defections, Castro is expected to send his entire national squad, including acrobatic young shortstop German Mesa -- the Cuban Ozzie Smith -- and second baseman Yobal Duenas.
"In Cuba, people come to see Mesa play shortstop," Arrojo said. "He's the best I've ever seen. He's probably the best anyone has ever seen."
Arrojo ticks off other stars. He calls infielder Antonio Pacheco "the captain of the captains. He's very serious. He has dedicated his life to baseball." Of Linares, once considered the best player in the world not in the major leagues, Arrojo said: "He's an exceptional player. He never wastes an at-bat. He has a real good idea of what he's going to do."
Major league scouts have long considered Cuba a gold mine of talent, and that reputation has been enhanced in recent seasons as Arrojo, Livan Hernandez and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez were quickly promoted to the big leagues shortly after their defections.
"It would take some time to make the adjustments, but they should all be able to play -- every member of the national team," Arrojo said. "In maybe two years, they'd all be in the big leagues. It's the working habits they have to get accustomed to -- that and getting used to the lifestyle of living here."
He seems puzzled when a reporter asks if the Cubans believed the quality of their play had surprised the Orioles.
"I feel a lot of people already know the quality of baseball being played in Cuba," he said. "I'm sure they thought they were going to win the game. That's the way they approach a game."
Arrojo grew up in central Cuba in the small city of San Juan de los Years. His father was a sugar cane worker, and Rolando played baseball almost from the time he could walk, idolizing Cuban stars Aquin Asrev and Julio Romero.
"They showed me how to pitch," he said. "Asrev threw two no-hitters in a row. Romero was the best pitcher in Cuba. They're the ones that showed me the mechanics of pitching. They showed me how to pitch from every angle."
Asked if "El Duque" Hernandez was a bigger star than he was, Arrojo smiles.
"We were the top two," he said. "We fought for the lead in winning percentage, ERA, everything. Every year. When we pitched against each other, the stadium would go crazy."
Arrojo earned the equivalent of $11 a month while playing professionally in Cuba. He lived in a three-bedroom home with eight relatives and rode a bicycle to the stadium.
During trips abroad, Arrojo remembers sitting in hotel rooms watching big league teams on television and thinking: "We can be there. There'd be a game on in every hotel room."
After Arrojo and his wife, Mayda, a doctor, had their second child, he decided to defect. He left the Cuban national team during a trip to Albany, Ga., in 1996, then spent nine months in Costa Rica to establish residency. His wife and two children fled Cuba on a raft.
Castro called Arrojo a traitor for defecting, and Arrojo worried that his family members were being tortured or harassed. When the Devil Rays made the first payment on a $7 million signing bonus, Arrojo began making plans to get the remainder of his family out of Cuba. Last season during a trip to New York, Arrojo left the Devil Rays to greet his mother and his brother and his family when they arrived in south Florida.
Gomez said the adjustment was difficult for Arrojo in the beginning, especially as he wrestled with a new language. "He'd try to say something, and people would laugh at him," Gomez said. "He thought they were laughing at him, but it wasn't like that. Now, he has his friends on the team and in the clubhouse, and he has made the adjustment to the American lifestyle. He has his family here, and that was a relief. He also knows he can pitch in the big leagues."
Perhaps the pitching was the easiest part of his transition. The Devil Rays outbid the Yankees and other teams for him, then inserted him into their starting rotation from the first day of their existence. Arrojo, 30, responded by winning 14 games -- the most by a Cuban pitcher since Luis Tiant won 21 times in 1976. He was named to the American League all-star team and finished second to Oakland's Ben Grieve in AL rookie of the year balloting.
Now, after two years in the United States, Arrojo seems happy. He has learned to drive and recently rewarded himself with a 1999 Mercedes. He has settled his family, including his brother and mother, into the same St. Petersburg neighborhood.
And even after almost three years, he marvels at what he calls "your freedom . . . the ability to express yourself, to say whatever you want. Liberty was so different. The more I live here, the more I learn about life here. I miss the friendships in Cuba. I miss the guys I used to play baseball with in the streets and in the parks. But do I want to go back? No."
The Arrojo File
Defected from Cuba: July 9, 1996
Career Record: 15-15
Career ERA: 3.87
Seasons in Majors: Two
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company