Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cuban defector overcomes struggles in pitching career

HighBeam Research

Title: Finally, a home game Family makes the difference for Cuban defector Izquierdo.(Sports Weekend)

Date: 6/22/2001; Publication: Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL); Author: Bush, Joe
Byline: Joe Bush Daily Herald Sports Writer
No matter where his baseball career takes him, Hansel Izquierdo will never be as far from home as he was between 1994 and 2000.
Izquierdo, promoted by Florida from Class A Kane County to high Class A Brevard County (Fla.) last Saturday, defected from Cuba when he was 17 years old.
Along with former Cougar lefty Michael Tejera (now at Class AA Portland), Izquierdo simply slipped away from the Cuban Junior National team while at an airport during the team's competitive tour of the United States.
Izquierdo didn't see any of his family again until last year, and their absence nearly cost Izquierdo his baseball career. Once he said "political asylum," there was no going back.
"I wish I could go to Cuba like the Dominicans, like Venezuelan guys, like Mexicans," Izquierdo says in his serviceable English. "It's a good thing, after the season, to go home and see everybody."
The Marlins released Izquierdo after two seasons. The White Sox let him go two seasons later, and the Cleveland Indians could tolerate him for not quite two months.
Lost in America, Izquierdo was hanging out with the wrong people in the wrong places, not doing the right things for his body and his major-league dream.
He signed with Sonoma County (Calif.) of the independent Western League last August, a couple weeks after the Indians sent him packing. Independent ball is where many ballplayers usually go just before starting a career in coaching or real estate.
In six pro seasons, the right-hander pitched just 12 innings above Class A ball. If he goes to Brevard County and repeats the 7- 1, 1.32 ERA he posted for the Cougars this spring, Izquierdo could earn a shot in Portland (Maine), and be teammates once again with Tejera.
Florida signed him again last November on the advice of Marlins rookie-league pitching coach Euclides Rojas, who has known Izquierdo since 1995.
"If there's a comeback player of the year in the minors, Hansel Izquierdo is the poster child," says Marlins minor-league director Rick Williams. "He has enough stuff to rebound his career."
The difference?
Rojas says much of it could be as simple as a cure for homesickness.
"It was because he was too young, and he had no family here," says Rojas. "It's hard for young guys. The influences he had were no good for him. I knew he had a good heart."
An uncle of Izquierdo's drove the getaway car from the airport that day in 1994, and housed Izquierdo as he finished high school. Florida drafted Tejera and Izquierdo out of Miami's Southwest High in the sixth and seventh rounds of the 1995 draft, respectively.
Izquierdo has lived on his own in Miami in the off-seasons since that draft, working as a pitching coach for 10-to-13 year-olds and one year as a security guard. In 1998, he played winter ball in Venezuela.
Somewhere among the loneliness and alienation and cultural disorientation, Izquierdo developed a bad attitude and worse habits.
"The biggest problem used to be Hansel himself," Williams says. "Hansel had some difficulty with structure and rules."
A seventh-round pick does not get the leeway afforded players selected in the first couple of rounds.
"Young people make mistakes," Izquierdo says. "I made a couple mistakes three, four years ago. When you make a mistake in a professional business, you got to wait for something to happen."
Izquierdo didn't have to wait long with each of the organizations that gave him a chance. In Sonoma County, the bottom of the pro baseball barrel, he scraped together a 9.69 ERA in 13 innings.
"I was worried, because I was trying to find my shape, trying to find myself," Izquierdo says. "Inside myself, I knew I would get it back."
The reunion with family members clearly was only half of what Izquierdo has been missing.
His father Tomas is still searching for an escape plan, but his mother Ana and 20-year-old brother Maurice are in Miami, where they have been all last season.
Covertly, they took a flight to Mexico, then to Miami, and live in Izquierdo's apartment. Izquierdo is overjoyed that they are a family again, and that backbone has been a major factor in his rebirth.
"That's what I was looking for, that help," he says. "There's nothing like family. It's a big thing. I've got my Mom here with me. Nobody like Mom."
Neither Ana nor Maurice could force Izquierdo to dedicate himself to get back in shape, however, nor could they toe the rubber and throw the pitches.
The guy Rojas saw this past offseason was not the guy the Marlins had released in 1997.
"I knew he was still hungry and working hard and still had the eye of the tiger," says Rojas, who also makes his offseason home in Miami. "Everything has been different. He's more responsible. He's more mature. He was more serious in his job."
Izquierdo befuddled Midwest League hitters with a slider, a sinker he learned from former Cardinals great Joaquin Andujar while with the White Sox, a fastball and a changeup.
"His fastball runs into right-handers, away from left-handers, and his slider, it runs away from right-handers and into left- handers," says Cougars catcher Dennis Anderson.
"The ball's going to be moving one way - you never know which way it's going to be going. So it makes it really tough to hit. You can't just guess. "
Izquierdo was the oldest Cougar, and came through in the clutch this spring. He's at a Class AA or AAA age, and showed Florida what it needed to see before it would send him to the tougher Florida State League.
"I learned a lot from Euclides - that you've got to take care of yourself, in the field and off the field," Izquierdo says. "I'm not a 19-, 20-year-old guy. I'm 24 right now.
"Everybody learns from mistakes, and everybody makes mistakes. The important thing is, after the mistakes, how you act, how you come back."
Now that Izquierdo is playing for a team half a state from Miami, instead of the other side of a communist gulf, he will have family in the stands for his games for the first time since he was 15.
"I came (to the U.S.) with that reason, to defect," Izquierdo says. "I told my mom and I told everybody I want to pitch, to make it in the major leagues. To play major leagues is to be freedom, too. So, you make a stand for a couple of reasons, not for only one reason."
COPYRIGHT 2001 Paddock Publications
This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan.  All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group.

This document provided by HighBeam Research at http://www.highbeam.com

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