Leslie Anderson is on the brink of a new achievement, but he had to leave everything he knew to pursue it.
But he is at peace, his daily routine like almost any other father who works a later shift.
He usually is woken early by his 6-month-old daughter, Kimerlin, and spends the morning with her, his wife, Yamisleidys, and 7-year-old daughter, Karolin.
The family lives comfortably together in Durham during the summer, playing at a local park or indulging in a plate of traditional Cuban arroz con gris before heading to watch dad play baseball for the Durham Bulls at night. Life is blissful. The Andersons are acquainting themselves with a recent blessing: the liberty to pursue their dreams.
Anderson, after all, is a Cuban defector.
There are 16 Cuban defectors who have played in the major leagues this season. Anderson wants to be the next.
Before arriving in the United States in April 2010, Anderson was a star in his native city of Camaguey. He represented Cuba at the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009. And Anderson was glorified for his success in the nation’s most popular sport.
Like all Cuban students, he started playing sports at school, beginning at 8 years old. Anderson, a first-generation Cuban of Jamaican descent, naturally took up baseball but said he wasn’t anywhere near the best player during his after-school programs.
“I wasn’t the best, I wasn’t the worst. I just hadn’t exploded yet,” he said in Spanish about his playing days from ages 12-14. “I lacked the experience and the game was boring to me.”
At 17, everything began to change. Anderson realized he had the ability and opportunity to represent Cuba on a national level if he improved. From there, talent and hard work took over.
“The game began to call my name,” he said.
Before long, Anderson was competing against other countries in international events. He helped Cuba win the 2005 Baseball World Cup, then joined future major leaguers Alexei Ramirez and Yunesky Maya in Cuba’s runner-up finish in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. He played again with Maya, future Oakland A’s outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, and future Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman on Cuba’s 2009 WBC team.
Anderson was one of Cuba’s elite players but yearned for a bigger stage.
“I felt like I had reached a ceiling there,” he said. “It was time to see if I could move on to the big leagues, like my teammates from Cuba.”
Saying good-bye to Cuba
While still in Cuba, he was inspired by the examples of Ramirez, Kendrys Morales and Jose Contreras, among others, who defected and reached the major leagues.
Cuba doesn’t make it easy. The government has removed players from the national team it suspects might be planning to defect. It dismissed Anderson after the 2009 WBC.
He wasn’t deterred. Several months later, he defected. Many details remain a secret.
The decision to leave behind everything in Cuba – his mother and stepfather, his friends and relatives, Yamisleidys and Karolin, and his fame – was as painful as it was necessary.
“It was my dream,” Anderson said, “from the motivation of my countrymen.”
When asked about how he escaped, Anderson tightened up.
“I would really prefer that we don’t speak about that,” he said, staring into the distance.
Eventually, he said he escaped via boat to the nearest Mexican city, Cancun. He won’t say who was with him or whether there was a cost.
“It was a risk,” he said. “It’s something that was illegal, but I did it for a dream. It was a very difficult moment.”
By September 2009, a 27-year-old Anderson was in Mexico, playing pick-up games and training with 16- to 18-year-old teams, anything to stay ready if the phone rang. Yamisleidys and Karolin also escaped from Cuba and joined him during November.
The Tampa Bay Rays were familiar with Anderson. Director of international operations Carlos Alfonso had researched Anderson online and consulted with sources who saw him in Cuba. During February 2010, Alfonso flew to Cancun to evaluate Anderson.
“There were a couple of things that stuck out to us: his high batting average and ability to hit left-handed pitching,” Alfonso said.
In his official scouting report sent to Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, Alfonso wrote that Anderson resembled an NFL halfback, while noting an impressive ability to throw right-handed and left-handed. The Rays often look for players who can play multiple positions, and Anderson fit, having played the outfield and first base.
During April 2010, the Rays offered Anderson a four-year, $1.7 million contract.
“At first, I couldn’t believe it – that they wanted to sign me,” he said. “Thanks be to God for this opportunity! I still don’t believe it.”
Some might think Cuba would celebrate Anderson’s decision to chase his dream and effort to represent his country in the major leagues.
The government sees it differently.
“They refer to ballplayers like us as traitors,” said Anderson, who added he still takes pride in representing his home country. “Traitors for pursuing our dreams.”
By defecting and forfeiting citizenship, Cuban athletes are banned from re-entering Cuba. Anderson doesn’t know if he’ll ever see his parents or friends again, but he is learning to call the United States his second home.
“Thanks be to God, I can still speak with them,” he said. “But this is the country that’s giving me the opportunity to play baseball and do what I want to do.”
Only in America
Signing Anderson was just a small financial gamble, but there were questions. He was 28, old by prospect standards. Could he adapt to faster pitching and a different style of play? Were his legs going to impede his ability to improve defensively at first base and the outfield? Could he handle the culture change and language barrier? Anderson didn’t speak any English.
More than two years later, he continues to answer these questions. Now 30, Leslie is third on the Durham Bulls with a .315 average and was the club’s only player selected to the 2012 Triple-A All-Star game. His manager, Charlie Montoyo, is fluent in Spanish and English, which helps ease Anderson’s communication issues and allows him to feel more at home.
Anderson clearly appreciates all that the United States has to offer. He bought a house in Tampa, Fla., can travel where he chooses, and admits he has become a regular at Subway.
“It was a process of adapting to the system – a system very different than what I’m used to,” he said. “It was a quick change and it’s significantly different. There’s just so much liberty here.”
His increasing comfort level shows at the ballpark, too.
“His defense has gotten way better,” Montoyo said. “Usually when somebody gets to 29 or 30, you are what you are and usually don’t get any better. But he’s played very well this year overall – he’s done everything we’ve asked of him.”
“What’s good is that he’s starting to drive the ball more,” added Mitch Lukevics, the Rays’ director of minor league operations. “It’s good to see from a corner-type player that the power production has improved. And that bodes well.”
His English, however, needs work. He listens to English audio CDs and occasionally practices speaking with teammates.
“Just the basics – greetings and salutations,” he said in Spanish. “It’s just that it’s tough for me and I sometimes fear making mistakes. The guys on the team always joke with me about it though, good-heartedly, and we all laugh.”
His ability to communicate doesn’t concern Montoyo.
“If he hits, nobody cares,” Montoyo said, with a smile. “If he hits, they’ll find someone who can translate. If he doesn’t, they’ll find someone to translate that he needs to go down (to Durham) again.”