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Freed spirit

Cuban defector Rojas brings wisdom, patience to Sox bullpen

It's hard to pinpoint when the players caught on that Red Sox bullpen coach Euclides Rojas was more than they thought. Maybe it was when he threw batting practice and, feeling a little mischievous, dusted hitters with his nasty curveball. Or maybe it was when he was out in the bullpen, studying the mechanics of an opposing pitcher, and after just one inning would quietly diagnose the flaws of the man on the mound.

Perhaps it was simply the calmness with which he's handled each challenge since he escaped to this country nearly 10 years ago.

You should have seen him Saturday night, as his team began unraveling, falling prey to beanballs, bullpen boxing, and bombastic bravado. Rojas was the picture of composure, providing the perspective so many of his players desperately needed.

He should be a lesson to them. Do they realize he was once the pitcher of choice for games of this magnitude? He used to be the closer for the Cuban National team, the most feared pitcher in his country. But that is not where his courage was nurtured. That comes from making the decision in 1994 to defect to this country, to usher his wife and toddler son onto a 15-foot boat and sail toward freedom.

That ordeal is behind him; gone, but never forgotten. It has made him who he is, although he rarely speaks of it. So imagine how chagrined some of these Red Sox feel for doubting this man, for originally believing he was some no-talent bait to put on the hook to sign Cuban ace pitcher Jose Contreras. The Yankees ended up landing that big fish, while Rojas was left to contend with a clubhouse full of skeptics who doubted his credentials.

"I thought they got him to get Contreras, to be honest," admitted Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe. "Here they were, trying to sign this guy from another country, and here was someone who knew him, who spoke his language. It made sense.

"But then I ran into my old pitching coach, Jeff Andrews, who had worked with `Euky' in Florida. He told me we had hired a really great guy who had an incredible story to tell, and who had a lot to offer baseballwise. I respect Jeff's opinion, so I figured, `Hey, we've got to give this guy a shot.' "

Baseball was Rojas's life in Cuba, but that was not the reason he came to America. He never dreamed of playing for the Red Sox or the Yankees; he dreamed only of having such opportunities.

"I came here looking for freedom," said Rojas. "It was scary what we did. It was such a huge, huge decision for me and my family. But if we came to America, at least I had the hope of a life for us.

"In Cuba, you are a slave. I have left many people behind there. But I know for us, this was the right thing."

There is no doubt Rojas could have pitched in the major leagues in his prime. He was one of the main reasons the Cuba team flourished in the '80s and early '90s, before an elbow injury marred his career.

"He was the greatest closer in the history of Cuban baseball," said Contreras last night. "The incredible part is most of the closers I've seen in this country base their success on velocity. Euclides was lucky, on his best day, if he could throw 90.

"He had this amazing curveball. He also had this special calmness about him that drove hitters crazy."

Contreras recalls being a child and watching Rojas pitch on television, tormenting batters.

"He had such a great curveball that no one could hit it, even when they knew it was coming," Contreras said. "And he'd play with them. Sometimes he'd take his time with his delivery. The next time, he'd speed it up. It drove me crazy just watching it on television."

Perilous journey Rojas visited the United States eight times during his career. He thought of defecting on each occasion. His friend, pitcher Rene Arocha, the first Cuban baseball player to bolt, left in 1991, but Rojas's wife Marta was pregnant, and he would not leave without her. And so he waited.

The time came on Aug. 19, 1994. Rojas was injured, and not traveling with his team. He and a small group of friends commandered a boat and placed three 55-gallon drums on board to stablize it. Thirteen people climbed aboard, including Rojas, Marta, and 2 1/2-year-old Euclides Jr. They left at 4 in the morning with minimal supplies, including a sheet that was reserved to shelter the women and four children. While his wife tried to calm the fears of their young child, Rojas grabbed an oar.

"We rowed for five days," Rojas said. "The worst part was the first night, when we escaped. It started to rain. The ocean became very rough. We almost capsized many times. We were lucky."

Every Cuban knows someone who has defected successfully, someone who was detained and sent back, and someone who departed on a small makeshift vessel, never to be heard from again. Rojas was aware of the pitfalls: overcrowding, sickness, sun stroke, hunger, rough seas, and sharks.

"But we saw no sharks," Rojas said. "We saw dolphins. It was wonderful for the children. I tell you, we were lucky."

On the fifth day of their journey, with their rations dwindling and spirits flagging, the group was intercepted by the US Coast Guard 23 miles off Florida and taken to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Rojas knew this was a probable, even likely scenario, but he was not prepared for the horrific conditions awaiting him and his family at the detainment center.

"They picked up something like 32,000 of us in a few weeks," he said. "They just weren't prepared for the number of people they would be dealing with. They didn't have enough food, clothes. They didn't have enough room to put all of us there."

Rojas and his family languished at Guantanamo Bay for six months. He underwent an emergency appendectomy and lost 30 pounds. Arocha, pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, volunteered to be his sponsor. Jose Canseco visited Rojas and his family, bringing supplies and promises of hope.

Back in the game Once Rojas was granted asylum, he tried to revive his career. He was drafted in the 30th round by the Florida Marlins, and made it to Triple A before finally giving in to arm problems. Florida hired him as a minor league coach. When Contreras defected, Rojas was one of the first to invite him to his home. He quickly developed a reputation as a learned, patient, humble baseball man.

"I knew all about him," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He was an ace closer in Cuba, and made it all the way to Triple A over here, with a bad arm. I talked to Contreras about him. He said he was a really intimidating pitcher who didn't throw that hard but pounded strikeouts. He had a great splitter. He was a legend over there."

Epstein offered Rojas a job as director of Latin American pitching, but the Pittsburgh Pirates also offered a deal. The former closer savored his first taste of free enterprise. Last winter, Boston finally coaxed Rojas aboard as bullpen coach.

"I kept hearing he was the best human being in baseball," Epstein said. "I will admit, his ties to Contreras were appealing, too, but they were by no means the determining factor."

Rojas slipped on his Sox uniform. Two months, then three passed. The Boston relievers were getting battered, but Rojas had not changed his flatline approach. As three months melted into four, Euky quietly won over his team, with his professionalism, his knowledge, and his kindness.

"He's the kind of guy who, when you ask him about a certain pitch, his advice is right on," Lowe said. "I heard he had a great breaking ball when he pitched. That makes perfect sense. He's a great person to pick his brain."

"He's one of us," said catcher Doug Mirabelli. "And he knows pitchers. He can sit there and dissect what they're doing wrong almost immediately. When our pitchers are receptive, he can straighten them out, like that. He and [bullpen catcher] Dana LeVangie are the two best coaches we have."

"Only we know" The Red Sox players know all about Rojas's ordeal, but they rarely talk with him about it.

"I asked him once," said Mirabelli, "and he was kind of short about it. He doesn't like to talk about it."

"Jeff Andrews said I should sit down with him and get the whole story," said Lowe. "I thought about doing it in spring training. But, I don't know, I guess I feel little uncomfortable about doing that."

Rojas does not wear his story as a badge of honor. It was simply a matter of providing himself and his family with a life of choices. He is 36 years old, and he became an American citizen in 2000. It was one of the proudest days of his young life. Contreras, who defected while his national team was playing in Mexico, said people who have lived with the gift of freedom their entire lives can't possibly comprehend what they've endured.

"Only we know," said Contreras. "Only those of us who defected understand what that decision is like. It is so difficult to know what to do, and how to do it. You have your family to worry about, and the people you must leave behind. It is very hard to explain. It is so hard."

Euclides Rojas threw batting practice last night before Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. He retreated to the bullpen, and watched the baseball action that so many of us have labeled a do-or-die situation.

Please forgive Euky if he doesn't see it that way. It's only baseball. The freedom to watch and enjoy this pastime that he loves is what's worth living and dying for -- not the game itself.

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