Friday, July 21, 2006

Cuban defector Marti is St. Louis Cardinals mystery man

The story of Cuban defector Amaury Marti became one of the most difficult and rewarding articles I've ever written.

I'm always interested to talk with people like Marti who are willing to risk everything to come to America. When I walked into Palm Beach's clubhouse four hours before the Cardinals Florida State League game, a smiling Marti eagerly put down his lunch to give his first interview as a professional baseball player.

The St. Louis Cardinals’ prospect glowed when talking about baseball, but didn’t realize just how interested I was in his escape from Cuba. At first he gave only cursory details about his time in Cuba and his escape.

When it came to talking about the harrowing 21-hour boat trip out of Cuba, a visibly upset Marti couldn't talk anymore. Through translator and teammate Jaime Garcia, I asked Marti if he wanted to take a short break. He said he might be ready to talk about the ordeal in a month or so.

We moved on to other subjects, but I quickly realized Marti was too shaken by the memories of the escape to concentrate on any of my questions.

I left the Cardinals clubhouse feeling as bad as I've ever felt after an interview. My intention was to celebrate Marti's trip to freedom. I should have, but didn't expect the tale to be so painful for Marti to tell.

After spending parts of the next three days in the Cardinals clubhouse, Marti and I eventually talked baseball. I never mentioned the defection again, and he didn't bring it up. Some day I hope to sit down again with him and hear the rest of story.

Many other characters emerged in this tale. Shreveport's Bob Flori is probably still angry he didn't get more money from the sale of Marti's contract. Former Elmira manager Greg Keagle spent the spring of 2006 as SUNY-Albany's pitching coach, but left in the summer to join the automobile industry. Marti's agent, Michelle Deaguirre, has been chased out of hotels by Cuban baseball security guards.

St. Louis Cardinals prospect Jaime Garcia also showed poise uncommon in a 19-year-old. Garcia volunteered to act as translator and didn't mind the role even on the day he was scheduled to pitch. A few weeks later, Garcia was in Pittsburgh as a Cardinals representative in the Futures Game. If Garcia keeps that demeanor on the mound, and in the starts I've seen he has, Garcia has a bright future ahead.

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