- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

MIAMI Michael Tejera and Hansel Izquierdo grew up together on the same baseball fields in Cuba. They played together on the same teams and had the same dream to play major league baseball in America.
But they never discussed those dreams. They dared not.
"In Cuba, you cannot talk about the major leagues or coming here," Izquierdo said. "You'll have trouble if you talk about it, even to each other. The wrong people may be listening.
"But we used to think about it," he said. "Big time."
Vladimir Nunez used to think about it big time back in Cuba, perhaps when he was watching Tejera and Izquierdo play in the junior championships in Cuba. Little did any of them know that the day would come when they would realize that dream together, all on the same team in the Cuban-friendly community of South Florida.
Nunez, Tejera and Izquierdo are all part of the Florida Marlins pitching staff. They dress in the same clubhouse and talk about baseball and dreams without fear in the bullpen.
"It's been very special for me," Nunez said. "We help each other a lot. It's great to have all of us on the same team."
The culmination of the dream came May 9, when all three pitchers combined to help pitch a five-hit, 1-0 shutout over the San Diego Padres at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, giving the Marlins sole possession of first place in the National League East. Izquierdo, in his first major league start, went five innings. Tejera relieved him, followed by Braden Looper, and then Nunez, the closer, nailed down the win in the ninth.
"There are going to be a lot of people in Cuba happy about it, but a lot of people won't be able to talk about it," Nunez said. "They'll talk inside their house in the middle of the night so nobody can hear."
Marlins manager Jeff Torborg is delighted to talk about it.
"They have been big contributors to what we have been trying to do here," he said. "It's a plus that they are all so close to each other and have each other to rely on and feel comfortable with."
The story of Nunez, Tejera and Izquierdo likely has made its way back to the island by now. The path they took to get to Miami was "very special" and similar in one obvious way they all had to defect to escape Cuba.
Tejera and Izquierdo were teen-agers when they defected while changing planes at a stopover in Miami after the 1994 world championships in Canada.
"I decided right at the airport," Tejera said. "I wanted to be free."
Tejera, 25, was taken by the Marlins in the 1995 free agent draft and spent five seasons in their minor league system before a ruptured ligament in his left elbow sidelined him for the 2000 season. He came back last year to post a 9-8 record with a 3.57 ERA with Class AA Portland and made the major league club this year as a left-hander coming out of the bullpen.
Izquierdo, 25, also was taken by the Marlins in the 1995 free agent draft but was released after two minor league seasons and signed with the Chicago White Sox organization. He bounced around the White Sox and the Cleveland Indians organizations until the Marlins signed him as a free agent in November 2000. He pitched with his friend Tejera in Portland last year and went 7-9 with a 3.81 ERA.
Both made the major league roster this spring. Izquierdo has been more effective, giving up just two runs in 18 innings. Tejera has been inconsistent, allowing 12 runs in 18 innings. Each has been credited with one win.
At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, the 27-year-old Nunez towers over both of them and looks over them like a big brother. His path to the Marlins was slightly different. He defected from the Cuban National B Team and signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks as a free agent in 1996. He spent parts of the 1998 and 1999 seasons with the Diamondbacks until he was traded, along with Brad Penny, to the Marlins for pitcher Matt Mantei. He had a solid season last year, posting a 4-5 mark with a 2.74 ERA, and this year has emerged as the club's closer, going 4-0 with nine saves and a 2.16 ERA.
"He has been great as our closer," Torborg said.
All three love the idea of living in South Florida, where the Cuban community is so strong. But the Marlins have yet to tap into that market, drawing just about 6,000 fans on the night all three pitchers combined recently for that victory.
"It's nice to be in Florida, in Miami, with a strong Latin community," Tejera said. "We have a lot of support living here. The hardest thing when I first defected was living here in America without my family. That was a big adjustment, but I made the transition, and now they are here with me."
It didn't matter if there were 6,000 or 60,000 people in the stands May 9. Their families were there to watch, and there were millions back on the island who would hear of their exploits and quietly celebrate the night when three of their favorite sons pitched together and won in the light of freedom.
"To be free and playing major league baseball is a dream come true," Izquierdo said. "But for all of us to be playing together is a blessing."


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