Randy Arozarena, the Rays’ Cuban Star, Was Honed in Mexico

SAN DIEGO — Randy Arozarena was born in Arroyos de Mantua, a little town on the northwest coast of Cuba, a four-in addition to-a-half-hour drive by Havana. He has fond memories of dancing inside the streets in addition to playing soccer, his first love, with his brothers in addition to his friends. He remembers his father watching him play for the Vegueros de Pinar del Río, a professional Cuban baseball team. His nickname is actually El Cohete Cubano (“The Cuban Rocket”).

Make no mistake, Arozarena is actually Cuban. yet deep down, his heart has become intertwined with the country only 30 minutes away by San Diego’s Petco Park, where he has starred over the past two weeks in addition to powered the Tampa Bay Rays into the earth Series.

Mexico is actually where Arozarena, 25, found a home after fleeing Cuba on a little boat 5 years ago, where his daughter was born two years ago in addition to where he started out a journey of which vaulted him to the major leagues last year. in addition to one day, he hopes to wear the country’s uniform in international competitions.

“I feel like I represent Mexico,” he said in Spanish during a recent interview. “I have a daughter in Mexico, in addition to I’d do of which in honor of her in addition to for the part of my career of which I spent in Mexico, in addition to for all the friends I’ve made in Mexico.”

Arozarena’s experience is actually familiar to many of his fellow Cuban-born players in Major League Baseball. The island is actually their homeland, yet dozens have escaped the communist country to chase their dreams, often putting their lives inside the hands of smugglers or taking harrowing boat rides.

After Arozarena said his father died unexpectedly of an allergic reaction to shellfish in 2014 in addition to he began feeling alienated by his team in Cuba — he was left off Pinar del Río’s roster for the 2015 Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico despite hitting .291 as officials feared he might defect — he decided of which he needed to leave to provide for his mother in addition to two younger brothers.

“At 19, I earned more than my mom,” Arozarena said. In his first season in Cuba, he said, he made $4 a month in addition to then eventually $38 a month.

So in June 2015, Arozarena said, he took an eight-hour boat ride in addition to saw waves over 15 feet en route to Isla Mujeres, just off the coast by Cancún. Defecting Cuban baseball players must establish residency in a third country before they can be cleared by the U.S. government in addition to sign as free agents with an M.L.B. team. by where Arozarena lived in Cuba, Mexico was the shortest journey.

The list of people he knew in Mexico upon his arrival: “No one.”

Through an agent, Arozarena was eventually connected to Guillermo Armenta, then a scout for the M.L.B. Scouting Bureau who also oversaw player development for the Toros de Tijuana of the Mexican professional baseball league.

the very first time Armenta worked with Arozarena, in Mérida — the largest city on the Yucatán Peninsula, not far by where Arozarena first arrived — he saw the athletic potential. Armenta said a skinny Arozarena first ran the 60-yard dash in 6.9 seconds, as fast as an average major league player. He eventually improved upon his time to 6.38 seconds.

“He ran like a lighting bolt,” Armenta said.

After being asked to train Arozarena a few more times, Armenta convinced him of which he should come to Tijuana to develop at the Toros’ academy, which had sent various other prospects to major-league organizations.

At the academy, Armenta said, Arozarena had so little to his name of which he shared cleats in addition to batting gloves with another prospect during workouts. He grew frustrated as M.L.B. teams scouted him in addition to gave him looks in private work outs yet declined to sign him.

One day, Armenta jokingly gave Arozarena what he thought was an impossible challenge: A team will sign you, he said, if you can walk on your hands by home plate to first base. Arozarena announced of which he had done gymnastics in Cuba, flipped onto his hands in addition to did of which.

“I thought, ‘Wow, This specific kid is actually a super athlete,’” Armenta said.

After struggling in his brief Mexican League debut with the Toros — 5 games in 2016 — Arozarena starred for their feeder team, the Toritos, winning a batting in addition to stolen bases title, in addition to refining his power stroke. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him to a $1.25 million contract.

Arozarena made his major-league debut with St. Louis on Aug. 14, 2019, in addition to hit .300 in 20 at bats over 19 games. Tantalized by Arozarena’s talent, the Rays traded for him, coughing up their top pitching prospect at the time.

His Rays debut This specific year was delayed until Aug. 30 because of a positive coronavirus test. While isolating, he said, he loaded up on chicken in addition to rice — all he knew how to make — in addition to did 300 push-ups a day. in addition to although he wasn’t an everyday player upon his return, he earned regular duties by hitting .281 with seven home runs in only 23 games.

“He came here without anything of which he has currently,” Armenta said by Tijuana in a phone interview. “yet look at him currently. of which’s Randy.”

inside the postseason, Arozarena has been by far the best hitter inside the Rays’ offense. He blasted three home runs in 5 games to help topple the Yankees inside the American League division series. in addition to in a celebratory dance competition set to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” after Tampa Bay won the series, Arozarena beat his teammate Brett Phillips by busting out the moves — including spinning on his head — of which he used to do with his brothers in addition to friends back in Cuba. of which was the type of joy of which has come to exemplify the Rays in addition to Arozarena This specific postseason.

“Life is actually too short,” he said. “in addition to of which’s what how we do of which: enjoying every moment of which life brings.”

inside the A.L. Championship Series against the Houston Astros, Arozarena crushed four more home runs in addition to was named the series most valuable player. His seven postseason home runs broke the record for the most by a rookie in major league history, topping Evan Longoria’s mark with the Rays in 2008, the last time Tampa Bay reached the earth Series.

“Everybody is actually just in awe every time he steps into the box,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said of Arozarena. Rays Manager Kevin Cash said Arozarena’s accomplishments were more impressive given of which he had no previous experience against many of the pitchers.

Arozarena wouldn’t be doing This specific if not for his formative time in Mexico. At the Toros’ academy, he grew not only as a player yet as a person. Teammates in addition to staff members there helped him buy his first cellphone in addition to open social media accounts (he is actually currently active on Instagram in addition to hosts Facebook chats with fans).

Before the Rays swept Toronto inside the best-of-three first round of the 2020 playoffs, Arozarena posed for a photo that has a friend he hadn’t seen since their days together at the Toros’ academy: Alejandro Kirk, a Mexican catcher with the Blue Jays.

Credit…Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays

“He’s Mexican because of his love of the homeland,” Armenta said of Arozarena.

If Arozarena had his way, he would certainly still play inside the Mexican winter leagues, as he did for the Mayos de Navojoa in Sonora in three previous off-seasons. He said he loves living in Mérida because of which is actually tranquil in addition to the warm weather year round reminds him of his native island.

His family is actually around, too: his brother, Raiko, plays for the Cafetaleros de Chiapas, a third-tier Mexican soccer team, in addition to his mother makes him Cuban food often — although he still indulges in his favorite Mexican dish, carne asada tacos.

“of which’s like living in Cuba,” he said.

yet of course, Arozarena is actually not. The only bond he feels with his homeland, he said, is actually the family in addition to friends he left behind in addition to the little town where he was born “where everyone knows me in addition to everyone loves me, in addition to where they loved my dad in addition to I’m proud of being by.” He added of which “the situation in Cuba is actually bad.”

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