“Which color do you want?”
This is the question that changed my life. My friend held two pairs of batting gloves in his hands. One red, one green.
My heart was beating out of my chest. Security guards were everywhere. I tried to act casual, but I was sweating like crazy.
It was 1999. I was 16 years old, playing for the Cuban National Team. We had a qualifying game for the Pan-American Games in Venezuela, where my friend was living. I don’t even want to say his name, because he still has family in Cuba. When we arrived at the hotel, he came to see me and we had a regular chat, laughing and catching up.
Then when nobody else was around, he whispered to me, “Peña, if you want to leave Cuba, this is your chance. I’m willing to help you. I can get you to Costa Rica. But you have to be sure. There’s no turning back.”
It was my dream to play in the big leagues, but it wasn’t like I was some big star and had an MLB team waiting to sign me to a million dollar contract. I was just a chubby 16-year-old catcher from Havana who was a pretty decent ballplayer. If I got caught trying to defect, the consequences would be devastating. Not just for me, but for my whole family. I told him I had to think about it.
“Okay, but we don’t have much time,” he said. “Tomorrow morning I’m going to come to the hotel and bring you some batting gloves. I’ll have a red pair and a green pair. You choose which ones you want. Green means you really want to do it. Red means we forget all about it.”
This was all that was said. We couldn’t speak any more about it, because we were always being watched by officials from the team when we traveled to international tournaments. We couldn’t even go to the bathroom alone. I didn’t know what to do. I thought about calling my mother and father. I thought about talking to my teammates. But I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble, so I said nothing to anyone. That night, I didn’t sleep. I stared at the ceiling and thought about what life could be like in America as a big leaguer. But then I thought about life with my family in Cuba — my grandma, my grandpa, my home.
At seven the next morning, our team went down to the lobby for breakfast and there was my friend, handing out batting gloves. He walked up to me, completely calm.
“Hey Peña, which color do you want?”
At that moment, my heart was beating out of my chest.
He tossed them to me. I went to my room and thought … Green. What now?
When I went back downstairs, there was a sealed letter for me at the reception desk:
The window is open in the bathroom. Climb out and I’ll be waiting for you with a car.
I sat down for breakfast and saw all my teammates. Yunel Escobar. Kendrys Morales. My friends. Was I ever going to see them again? Was this really the right decision? The emotions going through my body were indescribable.
After a few minutes, I got up and approached the security guy.
“Hey, is there any way I could go to the bathroom?”
“Yeah, but I have to go with you.”
“Okay, but I need some privacy, you know what I’m saying?”
“Sorry, but I’m coming with you.”
We walked over to the bathroom and I turned to him and kind of laughed.
“I don’t think you’re going to want to be in there for this one. Come on, where am I gonna go?”
“Okay Peña, you got five minutes. Hurry up.”
The door closed behind me. The window was open.
This was real. This was really happening. I started breathing so hard I thought I might pass out. On the other side of that window might be anything. It might be my friend. It might be security. Or it might be nobody at all. It might be freedom, or it might be jail.
Then … I just went for it.
I flushed the toilet to make some noise and jumped up and grabbed the ledge. I was numb, man. I was thinking, Be there. Please, please, please God, be there.
I crawled through the small opening …
And I saw my friend behind the wheel of his car.
He gave me a sign that it was all clear. I hit the ground and started running. The door opened, I dove in, and we started driving away. I looked out the back window. Nobody was following us. The hotel got smaller and smaller and then it disappeared.
I get goosebumps just thinking about that moment.
I had nothing but the clothes on my back. No bag. No money. No passport. My family didn’t know where I was going. My friends didn’t know. And the worst part was that I didn’t know if I would see any of them ever again.
But I had a dream, and nothing was going to stop me. When the car got about an hour outside of Caracas, I started weeping. I was so happy, and so sad. So excited, and so scared.
But you know what? I was free.
Some people might be reading this thinking, Peña, are you crazy? How could you crawl out a window and leave everybody you love with not even a dollar in your pocket?
But you know what I call that window? It was my window of opportunity. You might laugh, but I’m serious. Let me tell you a story. When I was a little boy, I used to play baseball all day in the sun. But we didn’t have any Gatorade or anything like that. So I used to drink way too much guarapo — water with sugar cane in it. This is Cuban Gatorade. Every Cuban kid knows it. But all the sugar made me a little chubby, so my coach told me to either go on a diet or park my butt behind home plate and be a catcher.
I love my grandma’s food too much, so I chose to be a catcher.
Back then, equipment was extremely hard to come by in Cuba. I used to share a mask with five or six other catchers. The chest protector we shared was probably from 1959. But the biggest problem was that I only had one pair of shoes that were so old and beat up that my toe would poke out the front.
Then one day, a friend showed up with a pair of baseball cleats that he got a hold of somehow. They looked a little bit funny, though.
“Hey Peña, they’re your size,” he said. “But there’s only one problem, bro. They’re both left shoes.”
It was like Christmas for me. I didn’t care. Give me the two left shoes. At least I have real baseball cleats. I thought I was so cool, man. I wore these things everywhere so I could get used to it. I played a whole year in two left shoes. Whatever, I was never that fast anyway.
My family thought this was the funniest thing ever. But you know what? I didn’t care how I looked. It protected my foot behind home plate. I was going to do whatever it took to get my opportunity to play baseball at the highest level I could.
When I was 10, my grandma Rosa told me, “Brayan, I know in my heart that you are going to do something special with baseball. You’re going to make us proud.”
To Americans, this might seem like no big deal. This kind of talk is in your blood here. But in Cuba, our window of opportunity is so small. To have my grandma believe that I was going to do great things meant the world to me.
And my grandma was right. It took me a year in Costa Rica trying out for scouts before I was drafted by the Atlanta Braves, and then five years in the minor leagues, but in 2005, my manager called me into his office and said, “Brayan Peña, tomorrow you go to Boston. You’re going to be a big league player.”
I ran out of that office and called my family in Cuba to tell them the news. We just cried and cried and cried. My grandma and my mom kept screaming, “Lo hiciste! Lo hiciste! Lo hiciste!”
(“You did it! You did it! You did it!”)
Listen, I know I’m never going to be a Hall of Famer. I may never win a World Series. But I could thank God every single day until the day I die for that phone call with my family, and it will still not even be close to enough thanks.
I was a big leaguer.
In the 11 years since that day, I have experienced so much. I met my wife, had children, brought my mom and dad to America, and I’ve even become an American citizen. I’ve played for the Braves, Royals, Tigers, Reds, and now the Cardinals.
But when you talk to Cuban players who have made it to America, there’s always a bit of pain behind the smiles. Because we cannot see our families in Cuba. We cannot go home. For 16 years I couldn’t hug my grandmother, and expected that I never would hug her again.
Then last season, the craziest thing happened. My friend Leonor Barua from the MLBPA came up to me and said, “Hey, I just want you to know, we’re talking with the Cuban government about a goodwill trip.” I thought it was just wishful thinking. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
But then at the winter meetings, Leonor came up to me with a big smile. “It’s happening. We just need a yes or a no. Do you want to go home?”
I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes.”
This is one of those moments in your life that feels like it has to be a movie. Even as the months passed by and I packed my suitcase, it didn’t feel real. Even as I got on the plane with José Abreu, Yasiel Puig, and Alexei Ramírez, it didn’t feel real. When the plane took off, it didn’t feel real.
I was sitting next to Abreu. He risked his life fleeing Cuba on a small boat and had not seen his young son in almost four years. He was quiet the whole flight.
All of a sudden, I could feel the wheels of the plane being lowered for landing. We looked out the window and saw …
Man, it’s hard to even talk about this.
We looked out the window and saw the green tops of the trees. We saw our home.
I looked at Abreu and said, “This is real, man. This is really real.”
Ramírez, he just started laughing and laughing.
Puig, he jumps out of his seat and starts dancing in the aisle.
The flight attendant literally had to come get us all under control.
“Hey! Guys! You have to put your seatbelts on!”
We’re like, “Sorry, sorry, sorry. We’re just so excited. We’re finally home.”
Those 10 minutes from the time the wheels came out to the time that we landed actually felt like two hours. When we stepped outside the airport into the sun, I saw the old 1960s Chevys and Cadillacs, and it was so special. On the drive from the airport to the hotel, I saw all the places we used to hang out as kids, all the baseball fields and parks.
But that was nothing compared to the moment when I was able to see my family.
For the first time in 16 years, I got to hug my grandma Rosa.
Thank you, God.
This trip meant so much to so many people, not just the players. She couldn’t believe that I was able to come back to Cuba in such a friendly and healthy atmosphere. I wish everybody reading this could experience the energy and the passion and the love running through everyone’s veins.
When we got to the Estadio Latinoamericano, where we held a youth baseball clinic, I got to see how much it meant to the children.
Latinoamericano is like the Yankee Stadium of Cuban baseball. This was the stadium I saw so many times on TV. I had dreamed about crouching behind that plate since I was 10 years old. Now I get to walk out there and teach these kids as an MLB player? Amazing. Just amazing.
The kids don’t have the fancy cleats and bats that kids in America have, but they love the game so much. They don’t let anything stop them. This one kid, I remember his name was Mario Gonzalez. He came up to me and said, “Brayan Peña! I just want to tell you that you, Raisel Iglesias, and Aroldis Chapman make the Cincinnati Reds a lot of fun to watch.”
I was like, What?! How do you know all this?! Here’s a 10-year-old kid in Cuba, who doesn’t have Internet, who has probably never left Havana, who knows all about the Cincinnati Reds.
Nothing can get in the way of a kid’s passion and love for something. They’ll find a way.
Listen, I am not a politician. I’m just a baseball player. But I do believe in my heart that this trip was the start of something special. I know there’s a lot of issues to work out between the American and Cuban governments and MLB, but we should all come together to find a way.
I do not know what the future holds. But the people making those decisions should think about Mario Gonzalez.
This is our window of opportunity. Maybe it is small. But why should that stop us?