New home, new lives for Boise Hawks' Cuban defectors

Yasiel Balaguert, Carlos Martinez making impact during first year in Boise.

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comJune 26, 2013 

In their first season with the Boise Hawks and three years after leaving home, Cubans Yasiel Balaguert, left, and Carlos Martinez have impressed — Balaguert leads the Northwest League with 13 RBIs and Martinez has two wins in relief. “They bring another spark to the game,” catcher Rony Rodriguez said.

DARIN OSWALD — doswald@idahostatesman.com

— As the lights of Cuba disappeared behind him, and he could barely see the stranger who was captaining the small, two-engine boat, Carlos Martinez started to worry.

It was three years ago, and Martinez spent 17 hours on that boat in the Caribbean Sea, trying to defect from Cuba to the Dominican Republic.

On one side, there was a chance to play baseball for a living. On the other, if he were to be caught, he faced possible arrest and the probable end of his playing career.

"Big problems - and I didn't know how to swim,'' the 22-year-old Martinez said through his Boise Hawks teammate, catcher Rony Rodriguez, who translated.

Martinez's defection was successful, as was that of his friend, Yasiel Balaguert, who did so by leaving his team hotel in Mexico during a baseball tournament in 2010.

Both were signed by the Chicago Cubs on Dec. 30, 2011. Today, they are relishing their first seasons with the Hawks and excelling early.

"After going through everything, knowing you have to leave your country behind, to be signed, have on this uniform and play in front of a good crowd, it finally feels real,'' Balaguert, 20, said through Boise pitching coach David Rosario.

As fellow countryman Yasiel Puig creates international headlines and crushes major-league pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Balaguert and Martinez have kept a close eye on Puig's rise this baseball season, providing them with inspiration along the way.

Maybe the inspiration comes from Puig's early stats for the Dodgers: .422 batting average, seven home runs in his first 20 games.

Or maybe it's the contract he signed last year: $42 million over seven years.

"It's so great to see, because he's a friend of ours. We stay in touch,'' Balaguert said. "Hopefully we'll get the chance to shine like that and put our names with other great Cuban players.''

So far, Puig hasn't been the only Yasiel making an impact on his team with a strong build, a strong outfield arm and a strong bat - the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Balaguert is hitting .231, but has a Northwest League-high 13 RBIs, while no one else on the team has more than five.

Martinez (6-4, 230) has made three relief appearances and owns a 2-0 record with a 1.59 ERA in 5‚ innings.

"They've done a great job,'' Hawks manager Gary Van Tol said. "They love to play the game, and I'm sure with their story and situation, where they come from and where they're at now, they wake up every day feeling pretty fortunate. And that just filters into the clubhouse.''

With that passion for the game, Balaguert and Martinez have quickly adapted to the Hawks' clubhouse, often seen not just joking around with each other, but their teammates as well. The Cubs have stressed the Spanish-speaking players to speak English as much as possible, and have tutors at each stop to help. At times, teammates like Rodriguez, whose parents defected from Cuba to Miami before he was born, offer a helping hand.

"They're great teammates,'' Rodriguez said. "They went through a lot, and we understand what they went through, and we're always trying to make it easy on them, translating for them or whatever they need. I want to help them.''

In 1991, Van Tol got a taste of what young ballplayers like his pair of Cubans must go through to play professionally in the United States, along with where they came from.

After his Canadian team lost in the Pan-Am Games in Havana, Van Tol explored the surrounding area, rather than sulk in the hotel.

"It's beautiful, but it's under Communist rule - you know, those kids basically risk their lives to get here,'' Van Tol said. "We're pretty lucky.''

The Hawks' clubhouse has its own family feel, but leaving Cuba meant leaving family behind - Balaguert, who signed for a $400,000 bonus, has been able to bring his parents to Miami, but he hasn't seen his sister since he left.

Martinez signed for $250,000; his parents remain in Cuba, though he has a sister who lives in Miami. He said when Father's Day came around June 16, it wasn't easy - he hasn't seen his father in three years - but he made his Hawks debut that day in Eugene, getting the win.

"I definitely miss my parents, of course, but they love that I'm here,'' Martinez said. "That's the price a lot of us have to pay to be here.''

With Martinez "anchoring the middle of our bullpen,'' as Van Tol said, and Balaguert as an outfielder "with a bright, bright future,'' the Cubans are taking their first steps toward their ultimate goal: major-league success, like Puig.

"It feels like we're living our dream,'' Balaguert said. "It's amazing.''

Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_Southorn

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