First, a little about Herrera. At the age of 24, Yoslan Herrera was a success in the Cuban “amateur” leagues, where he had a career pitching record of 18-7, with a 3.27 ERA. But his baseball career had hit a ceiling, because under the Castro dictatorship, superior Cuban athletes are prohibited from playing outside their country. Herrera told a Pittsburgh reporter last weekend that a few glimpses of video of American baseball had persuaded him that he wanted more than anything to test his talents against major league competition.
So three years ago, on July 13, 2005, Herrera paid someone everything he had in the world for a place on a small boat with a rickety motor headed for Florida. (The Castro government confiscates the property of defectors anyway.) He found himself risking his life with eighteen other persons, including two children.
Thousands of Cubans have lost their lives in similar attempts to escape Fidel Castro’s “socialist paradise,” so this was no pleasure cruise. But Herrera and his fellow emigrees enjoyed good weather, and although they had no food, their water held out for the two days it took for them to reach Florida. Herrera averted his eyes from the shark-infested waters of the Caribbean. Fortunately, the freedom-seeking Cubans were not intercepted by Cuban officials, and they reached land before they were spotted by American officials who would have returned them to Cuba. Herrera hasn’t seen his parents since then and isn’t likely to anytime soon, barring radical changes in Cuban government policy.
In December 2006, scouts for the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Herrera to a major-league contract and paid him a bonus of over $2 million. He pitched for the Pirates’ Double-A affiliate Altoona in 2007 and for the first two months of this year. His fastball improved under professional tutelage, but no one knew whether he would ever become a successful major league pitcher like fellow Cuban exiles Orlando Hernandez (“El Duque”) or Jose Contreras, who had also risked the sharks for a chance to play against the best.
But last Saturday the Pirates, with their rotation in a mess, called him up to start at PNC Park against the St. Louis Cardinals before a sell-out crowd of 38,000. In the first inning, Herrera made the first out himself on a grounder to first, then struck out Albert Pujols (Albert Pujols!) and Rick Ankiel. In the second, he got out of a bases-loaded jam by starting a 1-2-3 double play.
The Cardinals had better luck against Herrera the second time around the lineup, and he didn’t get through the fifth inning. The Pirates trailed 10-4 in the eighth. But as if to reassure Herrera that anything is indeed possible in America, the Pirates scored two in the home half of the eighth and four more in the ninth, then won the game 12-11 in the bottom of the tenth with a walk-off home home from Jason Michaels. Herrera had been the starting pitcher in the most dramatic baseball game the Pirates had played this year.
Herrera may never be a star and he may never have another $2 million payday, but he’s going to get at least one more start next weekend, after the All-Star break. I couldn’t understand him in his interview — he doesn’t know much English besides baseball talk — but he sure sounded happy to be in America. It was “a big joy,” he said in Spanish, to record his first major league strikeout against Albert Pujols.
Then there’s Alec Baldwin, also blessed with exceptional abilities, not to mention looks. He was born into a working-class family, but his God-given talents got him into acting school, then into TV and onto the big screen, where he has become a star in films like The Hunt for Red October and The Departed. He was even nominated for a Tony for a role in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Unfortunately, Baldwin also suffers from diarrhea of the mouth, chronic messy episodes of which have made it clear that no one in America is more ungrateful than he for the opportunities that our nation has given him. Not content to disagree with our elected officials, as is his right, he despises our country when democracy does not produce the same results that an Alec Baldwin dictatorship might. Unhappy about the impending impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, Baldwin longed for simpler times, with the charitable thought that “if we were in another country, we would stone Henry Hyde to death and we would go to their homes and kill their wives and their children.”
Unhappy with the first term of George W. Bush, Alec Baldwin claimed that Bush’s election had harmed democracy as much the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Of course, Baldwin’s notions of “democracy” may be different from yours or mine, as he openly admires Fidel Castro, who has seen to it that no democratic election has taken place in Cuba in nearly 50 years.
In 2004, petulant over polls showing that Americans were likely to re-elect Bush, he said that if Bush won, it would be time to leave the country. (Some thought he’d go to Canada, but the betting odds were on Cuba.) Baldwin to Cuba for Yoslan Herrera would have been a good trade for the American team; America would still have been sufficiently diverse without Alec Baldwin. But the actor proved more talk than action, and he is with us still.
Some people take great risks to live where they’ll have an opportunity to use their talents to the fullest. Other people despise the nation that has nurtured their talents and helped them to become rich and famous.
Update (July 24, 2008): In his second start for the Pirates, on Saturday, July 19, Yoslan Herrera was shelled by the Colorado Rockies, giving up seven runs and getting only five outs. Desperate for pitching, however, the Pirates sent him out for a third start on July 24. This time Herrera was sharp, shutting out the San Diego Padres through six innings, striking out four, and lowering his ERA from 19.50 to 9.75. The Pirates won 9-1, and the Cuban exile was the winning pitcher.
Further update: October 19, 2008. Herrera’s other starts for the Pirates in 2008 went badly. He was sent down to the minors and was not recalled with other prospects after his minor league season ended. It doesn’t seem likely that he’ll make the Pirates next spring.
Meanwhile, the ever-bitter Alec Baldwin has written a book, just published this month, I think. It’s about how unpleasant it is to get divorced in America, a interest stimulated by Baldwin’s own rancorous divorce from Kim Basinger and accompanying child custody dispute. Baldwin blames Basinger and her lawyers and the judges for ruining his relationship with his daughter, even though it was Baldwin who left a cellphone message for the child last year calling her a “rude, thoughtless little pig”. We think we’ll give Baldwin’s book a pass.