- Adam Rubin, ESPNNewYork.com
- 0 Shares
Raul Valdes failed five times to defect from Cuba before finally landing ashore in the Dominican Republic on New Year's Day 2003.
The left-handed pitcher spent the next seven years trying to reach the major leagues. His brother Jorge has spent a nearly identical time period in jail in Cuba for helping ballplayers defect from the country.
"He's still in prison," said Valdes, whose major league debut came Sunday at age 32, with two scoreless innings for the New York Mets in relief of Johan Santana. "It's been close to eight years, and he has to complete 10 years."
Speaking in Spanish, and with Mets outfielder Angel Pagan serving as a translator, Valdes recounted his tumultuous path to Citi Field after the Mets' 5-2 loss to the Washington Nationals, which completed the team's season-opening home stand.
Valdes spent a few weeks in jail himself for failed defection attempts, and survived five days on a roughly 20-foot boat before ultimately landing in the Dominican Republic on his sixth try.
Originally signed by the Chicago Cubs, Valdes had a 5.94 ERA primarily as a starting pitcher with Triple-A Iowa in 2005 and was released the following spring training. Valdes found himself in the independent Can-Am League, including with the New Jersey Jackals. He then pitched for the Mets in the minor leagues in 2007, reaching Double-A Binghamton.
This spring training, on loan from Tabasco in the Mexican League, Valdes joined the Mets' big league camp late. With the Mets searching for left-handed relief help, Valdes impressed manager Jerry Manuel during the final two weeks of Grapefruit League play. Still, incumbent right-hander Sean Green narrowly beat out Valdes for the final slot in the opening day bullpen and he reported to Triple-A Buffalo.
Ken Oberkfell, the Mets' Triple-A manager, actually had been influential in bringing the left-hander back to the organization. Valdes pitched for Oberkfell this winter with Escogido, the Dominican Republic's entrant in the Caribbean Series, which ultimately won the championship. When Mets officials asked his opinion of Valdes, the manager provided a glowing endorsement.
"He's very deceptive," Oberkfell said. "He looks like one of those guys who is not overpowering, but he throws strikes and locates well. I just liked the way he went about his business. He just got outs."
After spending the season's first week with Oberkfell in Buffalo, Valdes was promoted Sunday when Green landed on the disabled list with a rib cage muscle strain. Yet when he stepped on a mound in a major league game for the first time, Valdes insisted he did not reflect on his journey.
"I was very concentrated on the job I had to get done," said Valdes, who allowed two hits and struck out two in two scoreless innings. "I'll have time later to think about that."
As for his path to the majors, Valdes said: "I went to independent ball because I had to stay active. I was still fighting for what I wanted. I was very confident someone was going to give me a chance to play with a team in the majors.
"The toughest part of escaping from my country is just leaving my family behind. It's actually been seven years I haven't seen my family. That's really the roughest and toughest part about all this."
Still, Valdes added: "It's been worth it to leave my family behind. Now that I'm here, I can support my family economically. That was the reason why I left Cuba."
His family in Cuba had no idea Sunday's debut was occurring. Valdes is able to communicate with them via phone and the Internet, as well as transfer money through Miami to them.
"They don't know," Valdes said. "But they'll know very soon."
It took Valdes six tries to leave Cuba, seven years to get to the big leagues