I remember this episode on Jomboy (or maybe it was a Tweet) where former baseball player and now Podcast member Trevor Plouffe thought loud about if there were actually any bad baseball players that come from Cuba. Self-proclaimed D-Backs fan and Jomboy sidekick Jake somehow didn’t know the answer every Diamondbacks fan probably knows.
If Plouffe still would like to know if there were any bad baseball players from Cuba, he might want to dig deep in the list of Baseball Almanac of all major leaguers that were born in Cuba, although the list on Wikipedia of baseball players that defected from Cuba might perhaps be more interesting. And maybe less reliable. There is another list on BR Bullpen about Cuban defectors.
However it might be and which one we might find more reliable, it is obvious that many baseball players from Cuba have defected throughout the years. Although we know about at least one of the worst Cuban baseball players, most of the times we only remember the best. Like Aroldis Chapman, Raisel Iglesias, José Abreu...but they all share the hard choice of defection from their country and the hurdles to success afterwards.
Eddie Oropesa went through that process, of defection from his country and trying to find his way into the major leagues. He succeeded where many others failed, and as such his story is already one of success. But the baseball fan base in Arizona might not perceive his time in the desert that way.
“Edwin Jackson joined a small, exclusive club this evening, albeit one he’d rather not be part of. He became only the fifth pitcher in Diamondbacks history to allow ten earned runs in an outing, the first to do so since September 2004. [...] Trivia question: what’s particularly remarkable about the first pitcher to do it, Eddie Oropesa? [...] Eddie Oropesa was the first Diamondbacks pitcher to allow ten earned runs in an outing... But most remarkably, he did it as a relief pitcher: only one bullpen arm has matched that feat since, Jimmy Gobble for the Royals in 2008.” - Jim McLennan in a game recap on AZSnakePit on 04/28/2010 when the D-Backs lost 12-1 to the Rockies with Edwin Jackson giving up 10 runs.
Not your average defector.
Maybe Eddie Oropesa’s story is more remarkable than that of a José Abreu. I mean, according to his own phrasing, he wasn’t really much of a baseball talent and had to cope with politics to get where he wanted to be: outside of Cuba.
“When I finished sixth grade I went to “Escuela Vocacional”, in the beginning of the 80s. There I had to do a test and it was a big disappointment when they told me I was no good, literally. That made me feel really bad, for a kid it is hard to assume you are not suited to do what you love most, although my family helped me a lot to overcome it.” - Eddie Oropesa on being rejected for the secondary school’s baseball team (DBE translation from Spanish)
Despite not being able to play baseball, he remembers part of his time in secondary school as his best time in life, because he watched and lived baseball.
“Me and my group of friends used to escape from the school in uniform to go to the local baseball stadium. We had to jump the fence behind the school and get a bus to see and watch a game between the towers. I used to have many emotions when we would arrive at the park and we could hear the speaker announcing the batters through the audio, which would make us even more anxious to enter.” - Eddie Oropesa on his happiest time of his youth (DBE translation from Spanish)
But those nightly escapes would cost him dearly as, according to his own memories, someone betrayed them and he was forced to leave the school, also because his parents were considered “worms”: people that do not have a burning heart for the Cuban revolution. But Oropesa doesn’t lament his ejection, as he would end up in a different (high) school where he would get the opportunity again to play baseball.
It is here where he is able to perform again, and he progresses. As a young pitching prospect he is selected to play in the National league with the second team of Matanzas, Citricultores, which is a collection of young players and older ‘second rank’ players.
Eddie remembers the time as “very tough” as he had to compete not only against the best players of Cuba at a very young age (and still developing as a player), but also because of match fixing and his bad relationship with executives and coaches. In a game against the more accomplished team from Matanzas, Henequeneros, there is a turning point in the baseball career and determination of Oropesa, when the pitching coach after the 7th inning while up 2-0 tells him to give up a couple of runs to the opponent, because they “should win this game”.
I told him I wanted to win, because it was a great opportunity for me to get to the National team. In that moment he showed me that if I would not give the game to them, they would destroy my life. They would have taken me out of baseball, the university and I wouldn’t be here. I couldn’t jeopardize the outcome of this game and the classification of the top team of the province because of my winning appetite. - Eddie Oropesa on being confronted on deliberately losing a game and set aside his aspirations (DBE translation from Spanish)
For every player in his early twenties, that would be a tough situation to handle right there and right then. Oropesa immediately makes up his mind and decides to take one step back now and make a couple of steps forward later. He relates that he threw two strikes to the next batter and then deliberately an amount of very bad pitches to walk two guys and being taken off.
“After that I never played with the same love again, this was marked in my mind forever. From then on, I just decided to focus on me and develop myself as a pitcher to get to the Cuban national team and leave at the very first voyage.” - Eddie Oropesa on his determination to leave Cuba (DBE translation from Spanish)
Oropesa did not have to wait very long for his opportunity. The two teams of Matanzas would fuse into one and the Cuban pitched well enough to become a fixed name in the rotation.
The phone call.
In 1993 Oropesa is requested to join a Cuban national team, the college world team, that will participate in a tournament in Buffalo, USA. He was almost removed from the team because he was sick in the training camp, but is allowed to board the plane after showing enough skills in an exhibition match.
His plan was to escape in Miami during a stop where a cousin and aunt would pick him up after calling them, for which he learns their telephone number by heart. But he isn’t able to sneak out in Miami and has to board the plane to Buffalo. When he arrives in Buffalo he finds out there are more hurdles than just the eye of the Cuban government.
“I had no idea on how to make a phone call. I was just a country kid that had spoken through the phone just a couple of times in my entire life. I stopped near a public phone and I asked a team mate if he could help me out, that they were going to send me money.” - Eddie Oropesa on ordinary problems a young kid from Cuba could face when wanting to defect (DBE translation and adaptation from Spanish)
Things don’t go as planned. When his cousin drives to Buffalo to pick him up, he is not able to drive the car into the hotel parking because of not having credentials. The next day his cousin appears in a game against Korea to discuss a new plan, but Oropesa is nervous and desperated. He decides to go for an improvised and risky run out of the stadium.
“I took of my slippers, screamed some obscene stuff about the Cuban government and ran. People started shouting and I jumped the fence and I didn’t stop running until throwing myself through the window of my cousin’s car. Because of all the nerves we took the wrong exit towards Canada instead of going to New Jersey where we had to take the plane.” - Eddie Oropesa on his risky escape (DBE translation from Spanish)
Although Oropesa was now free, his family back in Cuba had to endure tough times. His pregnant wife didn’t know anything about his plans and got agitated and had to be taken to hospital because of several bleedings that could jeopardize the health of the unborn baby. While arriving at the hospital the first doctor refused to help her because of her defected husband. Oropesa’s entire family eventually had to relocate to a different town because of their reputation and his defection, before eventually finding a way to pay for their move out of the country altogether.
Free in the US?
Oropesa was a nobody in the USA, but his renowned escape got the attention of another defector, René Arocha, who puts him in contact with his agent. Despite some early contacts with the Cincinnati Reds, Oropesa starts playing in the independent baseball league before becoming eligible in the 1994 MLB draft.
He is selected in the 14th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers and has a good start in 2014 in A+ at 22 years of age. The following years aren’t bad but not great either, but what Oropesa stings most is that he doesn’t get any invitations to Spring Trainings, according to him due to signing as a replacement pitcher in the 1995 MLB strike.
“They asked me if I would sign as a replacement player and I said no. But my family asked for more money to be able to get out of Cuba. Disaster once again struck in my life. I would get a bonus and I would get more money in the minor leagues. But they said that those that would sign would never again play organised baseball. [...] I was marked for life. It didn’t matter how good I would play in the minors, I would not get an invite to Spring Training.” - Eddie Oropesa on his time in the minors (DBE translation and adaptation from Spanish)
Oropesa remembers his time in the minors in the Dodgers’ and Giants’ organizations as frustrating. He pitches a while in Taiwan for “good money”, but things turn around a bit when he meets pitching coach Gus Gregson while playing for Águilas in the Dominican Winter League. Gregson recommends Eddie Oropesa to the Philadelphia Phillies where he gets an invitation to Spring Training.
To much of his own surprise he makes the team out of Spring Training 2001.
“I wasn’t accustomed to the pressure of journalists and I remember that in the final week all of them were asking me over and over if I had made the team. I couldn’t cope with that tension and didn’t sleep for days. On the final day I had to see Bowa (manager) and the General Manager and I thought they would cut me, but no, I had made the team. I couldn’t believe it, after all this time and so many deceptions I finally did it. I started crying like a child.” - Eddie Oropesa on making the major leagues (DBE translation and adaptation from Spanish)
The lefty makes his debut on April 2nd in a scoreless inning against the Marlins, in Miami, a day with many emotions for Oropesa and his family, all living in Miami now. For Philadelphia he becomes the most used lefty reliever that season, although mainly in low leverage situations, but finishes with a 4.74 ERA despite going scoreless in 25 of 30 appearances.
The Phillies decide to part ways with Oropesa at the end of the 2001 season, probably due to his command problems. He has an 8.1 BB/9 with the Phillies, a bad omen for those that believe that walks are a problem. According to a man with brain that wrote his Wikipedia page, this might be due to his awkward delivery: a high leg kick and wind up when facing righties, while having a lower leg kick and lower arm slot while facing lefties.
The Arizona Diamondbacks sign Oropesa in 2002. He makes the team out of Spring Training, albeit not necessarily as a lefty specialist as Bob Brenley would explain: “they both [Mike Myers and Eddie Oropesa, DBE] have such an unorthodox delivery that hitters, right-handed or left-handed, aren’t used to seeing. They both have tremendous movement on their pitches.”
During the months of April and May he is often used in middle relief but from time to time shows his inability of throwing strikes. By the end of May he is demoted to Tucson after giving up 8 total runs in 5 consecutive games.
He makes it back to the team at the end of August until that terrible appearance that was referenced in one of the first quotes in this article, a 19-1 loss to Los Angeles Dodgers, where the team that drafted Oropesa feasted on him with 10 runs in 1.2 innings of relief.
The Cuban returns for the 2003 season to Arizona. Although he is shuffled up and down between Phoenix and Tucson, he pretty much appears all season for the Diamondbacks. Surely he would have been a great fit on the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks, and maybe one of the better performers (who knows), but team and pitcher part ways and he signs with the Padres.
In San Diego he becomes the first pitcher to get a win at the new Petco Park, but other than that his 2004 major league season already ends in May, with a 12.00 ERA. After that he tries to return to the major leagues with the Cubs and Orioles, but ends up pitching in The Netherlands. After the 2007 season he pretty much ends his playing career and does several coaching jobs.
Recently Oropesa has become a lobbyist of admitting a team of “free” Cuban players in the World Baseball Classic. On the other hand he is also trying to convince the MLB and MLBPA of the importance of creating a specific program for Cuban players that enter professional baseball. His experiences of working with several major league teams on their Cuban players has shown the importance of such a program.
One of the players he worked with in the past is former Diamondback Yoan López, and we get a glimpse of how that might have been when Oropesa recollects his memories of working with Yasiel Puig.
“If someone marked me, that would be Yasiel Puig. He is the classic example of the character distortion one takes with him from Cuba. First of all, the education system, that is like a small prison, and if you don’t learn how to defend yourself, they don’t respect you. In the MLB they then treat you like a king, and they get spoiled. And with those multimillionaire contracts a weak mind like Puig’s might make one think you are God. When they called me to work with Puig, I had already seen his behaviour and I told the Dodgers that I thought he wasn’t going to listen to me. I explained the organisation’s president Steve Carnes the problems and lack of education Puig was carrying with him. I told them that I had never seen anyone behave like Puig did in an AA clubhouse and that he wasn’t going to be different in the MLB. Now he is 31 years old and out of the MLB despite the talent he has and despite the advice I gave him.” - Eddie Oropesa on working with Yasiel Puig while he was a Dodger (DBE translation and adaptation from Spanish)
Maybe that makes the accomplishment of Eddie Oropesa even bigger.
NOTE: there is quite some information on Edilberto Oropesa on the internet, but most of the information I used for this article is from this unique source (linked in the quotes) that is a very extensive and terrific interview in Spanish with the former Diamondbacks’ pitcher and was just too good to not use it for this article.