SEIDEL: Tigers’ Pena defected to USA for baseball, and for freedom


MCT Columnist

Brayan Pena looked out the window, waiting for a secret sign.

It was 1999, and Pena was 16. He was a member of the Cuban national baseball team, which was playing in a tournament in Venezuela.

Pena wanted to defect to the United States to play professional baseball, and this was his best chance.

Pena looked out the window for a sign from his friend, who he declines to name, still fearing for his safety.

If his friend waved a red batting glove, there was a problem and it was not safe to defect. If he waved a green batting glove, it was a go.

Pena spotted his friend, who waved a green glove.

“My heart started — boom, boom!” he said. “It’s on. There’s no turning back.”

That night, he couldn’t sleep. The risk was enormous. If he would have been caught, Pena said he expected to be sent back to Cuba to live under house arrest and his baseball career would have been over.

“Some of my friends, they got caught, on the raft, or trying to plan something,” he said. “They suspended them for their baseball career. They are not allowed to go to any sport complex.”

The next morning, Pena walked through the hotel lobby again. He had been waiting for this moment for months, trying to prepare himself and gather courage.

The team had gathered for breakfast. He asked one of his coaches to use the bathroom. “It was a coach/security guy,” Pena said. “He says, ‘OK, I need to go with you.’ “

“Man, I need some privacy,” Pena remembers saying. “I need to go to the bathroom.”

So the security guard stayed outside the bathroom.

The window was left open — this was part of the plan set up by his friend — and Pena climbed through the window and rushed to his escape vehicle, a red Toyota Corolla.

Pena didn’t take anything with him. No clothes. No pictures. Nothing.

“My heart was pounding so hard,” he said.

He was afraid, racing into the unknown, unsure whether he would see his family again.

Pena was taken by car to a small beach town, where he hid for several months.

He watched TV, played video games and ate a lot of ice cream.

“I left all my family behind,” Pena said. “I was afraid something would happen to them back in Cuba. It’s something that we, as men, have to do some time.”

Pena, a catcher, stood in the Tigers’ clubhouse Wednesday morning, telling a group of reporters about his defection.

He was bright, engaging and articulate; and it is clear he loves living in the United States.

When he talks about America — about being thankful to live in freedom — the words sound sincere and profound, coming from a guy who risked so much to come here.

“Baseball is great, don’t get me wrong,” Pena said. “It’s what I do. But America is bigger than baseball for me and my family. That’s why I never take anything for granted. I enjoy so much being here.”

Five years ago, Pena became an American citizen, which he calls “the highlight of my life.”

After playing for the Atlanta Braves for four years and the Kansas City Royals for the past four, Pena signed with the Tigers during the off-season to replace Gerald Laird and back up Alex Avila.

“I wanted to play for a great manager and a great organization, a great team and great teammates,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for me.”

Pena is not a great hitter — he has a .248 career average — but he is solid veteran with experience.

“He keeps innings going,” manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s a good kid, he’s a hard worker, and he’s got a good personality. He’s a perfect fit.”

Pena’s family is now in Miami — he was able to bring his mom and dad and his four brothers to the U.S.

He is married with two children, and he can’t wait to tell his kids his story, about seeing that green glove and climbing through a window into the unknown.

“You know what,” Pena said he plans to tell his kids. “Dad went through this for you guys.”


Posted by Tribune News Services

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