Brayan Pena's story is one of hope, wonder and intrigue
Norwich — Robert Frost made it all sound so peaceful, too. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, the line goes from "The Road Not Taken," a poem about the choices we make.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
Except that Brayan Pena's "yellow wood" was a window in the bathroom of a Venezuelan hotel. On the other side: freedom. At least if the Cuban government wasn't watching. If they were watching that definitive day now 18 years ago, well, let's just say Brayan Pena wouldn't be managing the Connecticut Tigers today.
Yes, the man in charge of the Class A short season derivative of the Detroit Tigers is a Cuban defector. His story, full of hope, wonder and intrigue, should give us pause, too. Maybe next time the soapbox spielers of radio, television, coffee shops and gin mills begin talking out of their tailpipes, griping about this, that and the other thing, they can refer to Brayan Pena. And then perhaps realize that America really is the most screwed up country out there, except for all the others.
Pena grew up in Cuba with nothing — his first pair of baseball cleats were both for the left foot and he didn't care. He also grew up with everything: the love of a strong family. He wanted to be a pro baseball player in America. Not an option in the motherland.
And so, one day playing for the Cuban National Team at the Pan-Am games in Venezuela, a friend of his offered the impromptu opportunity of a lifetime. The friend, knowing the pervasive watch of the Cuban government, told Pena that the next day, he'd ask whether Pena wanted a green batting glove or a red one. Green meant he would defect. Red meant he would stay.
There was no time to talk to anyone else. No time to consult. No time to think, really.
Pena chose green, knowing he would leave everything — family, belongings — behind. They would go to Costa Rica, unsure when (or if) he'd see his mom, dad or grandma ever again.
The plan: The bathroom window in the hotel lobby would be left open. Climb through it to freedom.
Problem: Cuban officials even accompanied the players to the bathroom.
Pena had to make up a story. He told them all that they really didn't want to be in the bathroom with him for what was about to happen. They gave him five minutes alone. That's all he needed.
He got out and ran toward the car with his friend. The car left without incident.
Brayan Pena was free.
It would be neat and clean to say he went on to a 12-year big league career and has lived happily ever after.
"I wanted to be a manager," Pena was saying Thursday at Dodd Stadium, "because my mom and dad were teachers. After they lost their jobs after my defection, I felt like if I wasn't going to be a baseball player, I would go down their path to make them proud. The Cuban government took their jobs away after I made my decision."
Pena didn't talk to his parents for six months. He never knew if a Major League team would sign him. It was six years before he ever saw them again.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
And there were lonely nights for Pena, whose road actually taken was the dice roll of a lifetime.
"Baseball helped," he said. "I was playing for the Braves organization and they helped me to grind. It helped with the loneliness. I defected at 16. I was very young. But I knew what was in my heart. We talked every night. That kept me going."
Pena "talked" to his parents every night in his heart, sustaining Hebrews 11:1: "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."
Faith rewarded bore many everlasting tentacles for Pena, who learned in 2015 that baseball would be making a goodwill trip to Cuba. Turns out Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. Pena and countrymen Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig and Alexi Ramirez danced on the plane as it was about to land, upon seeing their homeland for the first time in 16 years.
He even got to see his grandma — Grandma Rosa — again.
Now the Penas are American citizens.
"My mom and dad are living in the states, American citizens," he said. "We are very proud and excited to be part of this great country. This country gave us freedom and the freedom for me to pursue my dream. Words can't describe how humble and honored I am to call myself an American citizen. It's a blessing to be here."
We'd all do well to heed Brayan Pena's words, too. Especially those of us whose roads taken — and not taken — never came close to so much danger and uncertainty.
There is, indeed, nothing more powerful than faith.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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