wildthingsplayers

Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

Wild Things players Reydel Medina, left, and Jesus Balaguer were born six months apart in Havana, Cuba. Each left their homeland to pursue their dream of playing professional baseball in the United States.

Every player in the independent Frontier League, it seems, has a story to tell. Those stories usually fall into one of three categories: The player was overlooked by scouts, or was unjustly released by a major league organization or had his career derailed by an injury. They are interesting stories but many are similar. Only the names and teams are different.

Then there is Wild Things first baseman Reydel Medina. His story is different.

Significantly different.

His coming-of-age story is a powerful one that makes those outside the baseball community shake their head in stunned disbelief. What Medina did, and went through, to chase his dream of playing professional baseball in the United States was more than most people would be willing to undertake or risk just for the opportunity to play a kids game.

Much of what you need to know about the 25-year-old Medina, who was born in Havana, the capital city of Cuba, can be summed up in a few sentences:

  • He left behind his family in Cuba without saying goodbye.

  • He spent his 18th birthday in a Mexican jail.

  • He attempted to defect from Cuba “seven, maybe eight” times.

• His father handed over money to agents – human traffickers, really – who promised them safe travel to another country in return for a cut of any contract the younger Medina would get from a major league organization.

  • He narrowly avoided capture in Haiti because of a boat captain’s quick thinking.

  • He’s still playing baseball, about 1,200 miles from his homeland.

Defecting

Medina’s baseball talents were spotted at an early age in Cuba, a baseball-crazy Communist country. Medina was a member of Cuba’s 16-and-under national team that played in the World Championships in Taiwan in 2010. It was there that Medina, a left-handed hitting first baseman and outfielder with power and speed, batted .444 (12-for-27) with one home run, two triples and four doubles. It was a performance that caught the attention of the investors – agents who smuggle ballplayers out of Cuba. They thought Medina could be signed for a significant amount of money – probably six figures – by a major league organization, if he could leave Cuba.

At the time, smuggling baseball players out of Cuba was a lucrative, albeit illegal, enterprise. The Chicago White Sox signed Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu for a then-record $68 million. Many other Cubans have fled the island country for lucrative deals in the United States. Among them are the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, the New York Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes and Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. Unsealed court documents revealed that Abreu paid his smugglers $5.8 million for help in leaving Cuba.

Medina’s initial escape plan called for him and his father, Reynaldo, who had a government-sponsored job in Cuba, to take a boat, along with other Cuban defectors, to Mexico. There they would renounce their Cuban citizenship, establish residency and the younger Medina would be permitted to sign with any major league team as an international free agent. Players who are United States citizens do not have the same freedom because they are put in an annual draft.

Medina discussed the plan with his family. His mother, Norma Romero, somewhat reluctantly, gave her blessing.

“It was really hard, but in order to reach my dreams, I had to do it,” Medina said.

On Medina’s first attempt at defection, under the cover of darkness, a boat took Medina, his father and others across the Gulf of Mexico to the resort town of Cancun, Mexico, where they boarded a bus for the port city of Veracruz. There, Mexican authorities examined their paperwork and discovered they were fake. The smugglers who had arranged the escape made one major mistake. They failed to send along an escort skilled in negotiations.

The Medinas were sent to jail. They had no idea how long they would be detained.

“It was never explained to me,” Medina said. “They probably wanted more money.”

The smugglers got money to the jail’s guards, who made sure Medina had enough food. On his 18th birthday – Valentine’s Day 2011 – Medina said a nurse at the jail gave him a chocolate cake.

The Medinas were held for six months before being deported June 25, 2011, and sent back to Cuba. Reynaldo Medina’s defection attempt cost him his job and the family’s cars were repossessed.

Medina was on schedule to graduate from what is the equivalent of high school, but when officials learned of his defection attempt, he was not allowed to return to school. The government didn’t want him sharing details of his attempt to defect with other students.

“The principal handed me a diploma and told me to go away,” Medina recalled.

His spot on the national baseball team also was gone.

Considered a flight risk, Medina had to sign government papers every Friday, just to prove that he was still in Cuba. The family lived on money sent to them by the smugglers, who still believed they could cash in off Medina’s baseball potential.

Medina made “three or four more” attempts with family to flee Cuba but each time government officials were tipped off and “they would close the beach so nobody could board a boat,” Medina explained.

Finally, in the early fall of 2011, Medina made the difficult decision to flee Cuba and leave his family behind. He hid about $4,000 so that his family would have money to live on in his absence. When he arrived in another country, he planned to contact his family via cell phone and inform them where he stashed the money.

On a Friday, Medina signed his government-required paperwork, returned home and informed his family that he planned to spend the evening with his girlfriend. What he actually did was go to a safe house to meet up with other defectors. In the early morning hours, they boarded a boat bound for Haiti.

The ride was anything but smooth. Remnants of Hurricane Irene made for rough seas. The next morning, the boat arrived in Haiti. A Haitian Coast Guard helicopter hovered above the boat, which was suspected to be part of a drug smuggling operation. As the Coast Guard summoned a fleet of police ships to inspect the boat, Medina and the other defectors hid. The Coast Guard relented when the boat’s captain said he was working with a doctor in the Dominican Republic and bringing medical supplies for hurricane victims.

Medina and the others sailed to the Dominican Republic. Once there, Medina had to make one more trip back to Haiti to get proper paperwork to establish residency then return to the Dominican Republic.

“The only time I thought this might be more trouble than it was worth was when I was in the Dominican,” Medina said. “That’s when I was by myself, all alone.”

Getting a chance

After playing in the Dominican Prospect League – another player in the league was current Wild Things right fielder Hector Roa – and training in the country for about two years, Medina signed a minor-league contract in 2013 with the Cincinnati Reds that included a $400,000 signing bonus. It has been reported that about $220,000 of that went to the people who got Medina out of Cuba, but Thursday he said they took about “30 or 40 percent.” He is no longer indebted to them.

“They’re just trying to take money from you. They’re really not trying to help you,” Medina said. “An agent in the United States takes what? Five percent?”

Medina, who now resides in Miami, spent four years in the Reds’ farm system with his highest level being Class AA, where he played 10 games late last season. The Reds released him at the end of spring training this year and he was signed by the Wild Things, for whom he has been an impact player.

Washington entered Saturday tied for first place in the Frontier League’s East Division. Medina is batting .274 with five home runs and 39 RBI, despite missing 13 games in the middle of the season with a quad strain.

Medina says he stays in contact with his family in Cuba through cell phone or the Internet.

“They can go to a wi-fi center in Cuba and communicate with me but sometimes the internet connection there is not always good,” he said.

Medina said that because of the looser travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba, he can now freely return to Cuba. He hopes to visit his family in January.

Two Cubans

Medina is one of two Cuban-born players on the Wild Things’ roster. The other is relief pitcher Jesus Balaguer. Both players were born in Havana, six months apart, but lived in different parts of the city and didn’t know each other.

Balaguer’s story shows how much travel restrictions in Cuba have changed since Medina’s defection. At one time rated a top-20 prospect in Cuba, Balaguer waited until 2015 to leave.

“The rules had changed by then,” he explained. “I was able to get a passport. I went to Columbia and then to Mexico.”

Balaguer was signed by the Houston Astros last year and played in their farm system at three different levels. He began 2018 at Class A Buies Creek but was released in July and signed with the Wild Things. Balaguer has struck out 20 batters in 10 innings as a setup reliever to closer Zach Strecker.

The exodus of Cuban players, Balaguer says, is because the state-controlled salaries for baseball players there is so poor.

“They make $40 a month,” he said. “Thirty-eight after the government takes its share. Everything you do in Cuba is to help your family. That’s why players leave.”

Medina said that when he was a national team player, he received a stipend of $5 each month.

Roa, who served as translator for this story, did not appear to be shocked by what he heard. He’s familiar with the tribulations. Roa attended school in New Jersey through ninth grade before moving to the Dominican Republic to live with his father, who was training baseball prospects there.

“Every tryout I went to while in the Dominican, it had three or four Cubans,” he said. “Everybody has the same story, just different problems. I’ve seen the struggle. I’m used to it. My father had a similar struggle. If you don’t know baseball, then maybe you’re surprised. But there are lot of people who have been saved by baseball.”

Sports Editor

Since 1986, Chris Dugan has been covering local sports for the Observer-Reporter, and named sports editor in 2006. Before joining the O-R, he was sports editor at the Democrat-Messenger, and a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

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