Monday, May 22, 2006

Cuban Defector Called up to the Bigs

The New York Mets have called up right-handed pitcher Alay Soler to the majors. Below is a brief history of Mr. Soler, a description of his ordeal and his recent reunion with his wife and son from the New York Daily News.

Lots of heart & Soler
After years apart, Met hopeful reunited with family


CARROLLTON, Va. - Sixty feet from Alay Soler's back doorstep - six inches shy of the distance from which he usually hurls his mid-90s fastball - the 26-year-old Cuban-born pitcher walks down a private wooden dock to his elevated 27-foot power boat. The James River ripples below Soler's feet, brushing against the sand and rocks surrounding his back yard. A brand new silver Chevrolet Avalanche pickup with black trim sits in the driveway. A white picket fence separates the front property line from winding Rainbow Road.
Inside Soler's brick two-story home, his wife Ana Laura sits in a comfy leather sofa and looks out at her husband tinkering on the boat in the chilly February afternoon. Marc Anthony is playing on a sleek audio system. The couple's 23-month-old son Alain is fast asleep upstairs.

The perfect American Dream in every sense.

But flash back to 12 days ago and things were not as peaceful or certain.

Alay had still never laid eyes on his son. He had not held his wife in two years.

Then Ana Laura arrived from Cuba at Newport News/Williamsburg (Va.) Airport.

"It was very early morning when I left my home. The baby was asleep in my arms," Ana Laura says in Spanish, as a sudden burst of emotion catches her by surprise. "I had talked to Alay before and he said to me, 'Don't ever look back. Only look forward.' It's a still a dream."

Little Alain knew his dad only from photos and videos, but immediately shouted, "Papa" and ran toward the 6-2 Soler at the airport terminal.

"Imagine it," Soler says in Spanish when asked to recount the scene. "Just imagine it."

The entire Soler story is hard to imagine sometimes. Since November 2003, when he defected from Cuba to the Dominican Republic in a harrowing boat ride, Soler has been extorted by a sports agent, was nearly stranded in the D.R. with a faulty passport and later signed a three-year, $2.8 million deal with the Mets during the summer of 2004. But last October, Soler was still living in Santo Domingo, wondering if he would ever get to touch U.S. soil.

"I didn't hear from him for 48 hours. I was very scared," Ana Laura says. "Till finally he called me when he was in the Dominican. But those two days were very scary."

As dangerous as the experience was, Soler is reluctant to discuss his defection. "I never focus on the past. Live for now," Soler says, while driving across the James River and glancing out at the vast expanse. "There's no other way."

It is 10:30 a.m. at Newport News' Babies "R" Us store and the burly, 250-pound Soler - a possible starter in the Mets' rotation this season - is comparing a Tumble Time Tigger to a "Shout" Elmo doll.

"Te gusta? Te gusta, Papi?" Soler asks, holding up both toys before his son who is chilling in a stroller. Soler eventually opts for the Elmo and tosses it into a massive shopping cart.

"He wants everything," Ana Laura says of Alain.

The Solers appear to buy almost everything, as the cash register rings up $450 in purchases - everything from infant shirts and pants to formula bottles, a rocking horse, a blanket and a battery-operated frog that speaks English and Spanish.

"No more Babies 'R' Us," Soler sighs as the couple loads up their truck.

"The guy has the biggest heart. Alay is like a brother to me," says Joe Rosario, Soler's agent. "There's just a lot of bad people in the world and unfortunately Alay got stuck with one of those people."

There is strong evidence that Soler's escape from his homeland was facilitated by Joe Cubas, a Cuban-American agent who has represented other defectors such as Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez. Cubas was Soler's agent when Soler arrived in the D.R., and later when Soler inked the Mets' deal. And that's when the partnership soured. Cubas asked for a 15% take - exorbitant by MLB standards since most agents get 5% - and then withheld Soler's passport when the righthander balked at the demand.

Soler reported Cubas to the MLB Players Association, who in turn barred Cubas from ever representing its members again. A union investigation also revealed that the Dominican passport Cubas had provided for Soler was faulty.

"It turns out that the passport in question was not up to snuff anyway, but that's not the issue here," union chief operating officer Gene Orza told The Daily News last August. "The issue is you have an agent withholding a passport from a player and that is unacceptable."

Rosario learned of Soler's dilemma and rushed to his aid. By October, Soler had a valid passport, a work visa to enter the United States with and was allowed to bring his family into the U.S., as well. In late October, Soler went to New York for a physical and Rosario accompanied his client. The pair made sure to squeeze in a visit to Shea.

"He stood on the mound and looked all around," says Rosario. "Then he said it was too damn cold and that we should go."

Soler may be back in chilly Flushing before long. The righty, who has an uncanny resemblance to his "idol" Roger Clemens, tore up the recent Puerto Rican winter league when he pitched for Ponce. He was 3-2 with a 2.37 ERA and 25 strikeouts through eight games. He was 2-1 in the postseason. He will be at the Mets' spring training camp this week to compete for a rotation spot.

"It would be amazing if he didn't make the team," Rosario says.

Soler has three types of sliders, a sinker, changeup and of course the "reta," or fastball. A visitor offers to catch one of the fastballs with a regular glove and Rosario laughs. "You kidding? Ninety-six, bro. That thing will break your hand."

The visitor settles for a catch and even Ana Laura joins in. Alay compliments his wife's arm and the two laugh when one throw nearly ends up in the James River. Ana Laura then runs inside to check on the baby, who has been asleep for nearly two hours.

"I want to build a pool here," Soler says, stretching his hand across the backyard. "And a batting cage over there. A gymnasium near the driveway. It's peaceful here. Very peaceful."

No comments: