Sunday, March 26, 2000

Fernandez takes basepaths to freedom

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — Osvaldo Fernandez may not make the Reds' pitching staff this year.

        Fernandez, a 31-year-old right-hander, did not pitch in 1998 or '99. He is still building his arm strength after two elbow surgeries. He started the spring well but struggled in his last start, putting himself on the bubble.

        But if he doesn't make the team, he'll be free to sign with any other club. Most American ball players look at free agency as a birth right. Fernandez is just getting used to the “free” part of the equation.

        Fernandez is Cuban. He was one of the stars of the vaunted Cuban national team that annually beats up on U.S. teams in international competition. Fernandez was 22-0 against the rest of world. He was the ace of gold medal-winning team at the 1992 Summer Games.

        But Fernandez tired of life in Cuba. The team would be playing before packed stadiums, but the players were surviving on $100 spending money on a two-week tour.

        “Cuba is very bad,” Fernandez said in broken English. “No TV, no radio, very poor.”

        Joe Cubas, the agent who has helped many of the top Cuban players defect, began to work on Fernandez, who decided to make his move in July 1995. The Cuban national team was playing an exhibition in Millington, Tenn.

        “I got in a van with Joe Cubas,” he said. “Straight to Miami.”

        Fernandez obtained a Dominican entry visa. By early 1996, Fernandez entered the United States. The San Francisco Giants signed him after he was courted by seven other teams. Fernandez was in the rotation virtually from the start of year. He pitched OK, but his personal life affected his baseball life. Fernandez had left his wife and daughter behind in Cuba.

        “Very hard,” he said.

        He was reunited with his family in August 1996. He was 1-0 with a 1.16 ERA in three starts after that.

        In 1997, Fernandez was on his way to becoming a solid big-league starter. He was 3-1 with a 2.56 ERA in April. But then his elbow problems began. He would have two surgeries and go two seasons without pitching.

        The Reds signed him Feb.15 as a non-roster free agent.

        A long shot. One of 25 arms vying for two spots.

        “We didn't know what he could do,” Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said.

        Fernandez is now one of four competing for two spots. He has been fine physically, but a two-year layoff is a lot to overcome. “He had to test himself physically to find out where he's at,” pitching coach Don Gullett said.

        Fernandez is glad for a shot.

        No matter what happens, he's glad he got in that van in '95.

        “Family is very happy here,” he said. “Not happy in Cuba.”


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