Baseball / Sports

After difficult journey to U.S., Orioles prospect Dariel Alvarez on path to majors

What do you do when the small speedboat you're using to escape illegally from Cuba runs out of fuel partway through the Gulf of Mexico?

The vessel rocks uncomfortably atop large waves. You haven't eaten in days. You know what could happen if you're caught. You fear the worst.

"The first thought was, 'Wow, I went through so much just to die on the edge,' " Dariel Alvarez, 25, recalled recently in Spanish. "I was scared to come so far and fall short."

Two years later, the Triple-A Norfolk outfielder is one of the Orioles' rising position prospects, combining a steady glove in the outfield with an electrifying plate presence.

There's a lot Alvarez refuses to discuss about defecting from Camaguey, Cuba, to Mexico in 2012 to pursue his dream of playing in the major leagues. Ask how much he paid to desert the island nation, or who was waiting for him in Mexico, and he replies: "If I tell you, I'll lie."

But he will talk about the journey that led him to Norfolk and to being under consideration for a September call-up to the Orioles.

After leaving his house in the dead of night, Alvarez and eight others fought their way through thick forest to a remote beach, where they hid in the bushes, whispering prayers, as they awaited their transport.

When it finally arrived, their relief was fleeting, because they still faced a two-day trip to a destination that Alvarez had never seen. Along the way came an unexpected refueling stop in the perilous ocean swells. Getting spotted meant an expedited return to Cuba, followed by time in prison.

"People know who I am, since I play baseball, and it's the national sport," Alvarez said. "If they catch you, it's like you're being a traitor to your homeland. ... They don't understand why you're leaving: for your family and for your dreams."

But they radioed another boat for gasoline, and after stockpiling enough for the remainder of the journey, continued west. At about 1 a.m., Alvarez estimates, he set foot in his new country.

"We had gone 53 years under the same regime, but that wasn't the problem for me," he said. "You always strive for more. You want more. In Cuba, that didn't exist."

Alvarez defected understanding that, if stopped in international water, he would be suspended from playing the sport he loves in Cuba. He left realizing he might never see his family again.

There were plenty of trying moments.

Alvarez escaped from Cuba without saying goodbye to several friends. And after the boat finally arrived in Mexico, he struggled to obtain an unblocking license that would allow him to work out for major league teams, meaning he went more than a year without playing competitive baseball.

Because of United States sanctions, Cuban athletes must be approved as unblocked nationals with the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in order to work for an American company.

While attempting to be cleared by demonstrating permanent residency in Mexico, Alvarez learned his grandmother had passed away in Cuba.

"The only thing I could do was call," Alvarez said. "I couldn't go to Cuba. I couldn't do anything."

Alvarez said the Cuban government won't allow him back into the country until 2021.

"I wish the time would pass faster," he said. "Right now, what I wish for the most is to be able to hug my mom."

On difficult days, Alvarez turns to other Cuban defectors, whom he considers his brothers. He has spoken to the Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, the Chicago White Sox's Jose Abreu and Dayan Viciedo, and Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin, who all have lived variations of the same story.

"They're examples to follow," Alvarez said. "They're Cuban, they came here, they triumphed. That's what we all want. Come here, succeed, and leave our names in this country representing Cuba."

This year, Alvarez's goal of joining his friends in the major leagues has come into focus.

In late June, when he was with Double-A Bowie, the outfielder received an invitation to the All-Star Futures Game in Minneapolis. Baysox manager Gary Kendall, who delivered the news, said the outfielder didn't quite understand the significance, so he had to spend extra time explaining.

Twenty-eight All-Star Futures Game alumni were on the rosters in baseball's All-Star Game this season. Last year, there were 37.

"This game doesn't need anyone; we're lucky to have the game," Kendall said. "You have to cherish it, and Dariel does that. He respects the game of baseball."

Four days after the Futures Game, the Orioles promoted Alvarez to Norfolk.

As Orioles director of player operations Brian Graham explains, Alvarez presents an intriguing blend of raw power to complement speed and instincts.

Alvarez had 14 home runs while only striking out 35 times in 359 at-bats for Bowie earlier this year, evidence of his strength and bat control. Defensively, he exhibits an above-average first step that helps him cover ground in the outfield. And when he can't get to a ball in the air, he uses his cannon of a right arm that once had him recruited as a pitcher.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter believes Triple-A pitchers will find holes in Alvarez's swing, and that some adjustments will be necessary. In 27 games since joining the Tides, Alvarez is batting .270 (30-for-111) with no home runs nine RBIs and 12 runs scored. But that doesn't dampen Showalter's expectations for Alvarez.

"We think he has the best arm of everyone in the organization," Showalter said. "It looks like he has a good chance to make an impact in the big leagues."

Alvarez's future wasn't always that bright.

Along with his difficulty in getting the right to try out for teams, scouts didn't view Alvarez as a high-caliber prospect. He signed with the Orioles for $800,000 in 2013, similar to the $778,500 the club offered to fellow Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia but paling in comparison to the $12 million bonus given to Puig by the Dodgers.

Still, it was an improvement from baseball in Cuba, where Alvarez said he made just $12 a month.

"1/8The money3/8 surprised me a little," he said about his deal with the Orioles, "but not that much, because there have been others who have made more, and I support them. Honestly, I would have taken whatever they would have offered me, because I wanted to play baseball."

And once in the organization, he rocketed through the Gulf Coast League and High-A ball, settling in with the Baysox within a year of signing.

Alvarez met his girlfriend, Patricia Canedo, in the U.S., and they're expecting a baby boy in September. Canedo, who Alvarez said immigrated from Cuba legally, is working toward obtaining American citizenship. Once that happens, the Cuban government might permit Alvarez's family to visit.

That would allow Alvarez's mother to meet her only grandson.

"The only thing left to make me the happiest man in the world is to have my family by my side," he said.

Alvarez hopes Cuba will ease punishments on athletes who defect, and there is evidence change is coming.

Recent laws have made it easier for Cuban ballplayers to compete elsewhere, though they still have an obligation to the Cuban league and have to return a significant portion of their income to the country's government.

Despite that, Alvarez proudly supports Cuba. On game days, the outfielder wears a "Yo Amo Cuba" sleeveless T-shirt. But then he takes it off to don an American baseball uniform -- the reason he left the country he loves.

"It's a complicated story," Alvarez said with a laugh.

(c)2014 The Baltimore Sun

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