- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Pedro Sierra is back in professional baseball for the first time in a quarter century. But then, he has become all too familiar with spending decades away from the people and things that he loves.

Sierra’s genteel demeanor and soft features mask a man who has paid an incredible personal price for his baseball career and life in America. He spent 27 years in exile from his homeland, separated from family and friends by the Cuban revolution when Fidel Castro sealed the island’s borders.

“My father said, ‘Stay over there. Don’t come back. Because things are getting bad,’” said Sierra, a 64-year-old Silver Spring resident, recalling a phone conversation with his dad, Pedro Sr. “He said, ‘Stay there and fulfill your dreams as a baseball player.’ And that’s what I did.”

The political situation also caused an eight-year separation from his future wife, Pilar, who stayed in Cuba when Pedro left. The childhood sweethearts married by proxy in 1967. “And that gave her a visa to come here,” said Sierra, who recently celebrated his 36th wedding anniversary.

Sierra had a 22-year career that began when he left Cuba as a 16-year-old to play for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro League and included two stints in the Washington Senators’ system. He left baseball in 1976 and worked for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation for 25 years.

Now, Sierra is back in baseball. He is in his first full season as a pitching coach with the Pennsylvania Road Warriors of the independent Atlantic League.

“I feel younger being out here,” Sierra said before warming up pitchers before a game in Atlantic City. “At first, it felt a little awkward. Then it was natural. I couldn’t wait to go to a spring camp this year after 30 years away. It was exhilarating.”

It is fitting that the grandfather of three is now molding pitchers on a club named the Road Warriors, which has no home field and plays its entire 126-game schedule in opponent’s parks. Sierra’s life has been largely an odyssey since he left Cuba.

He played in the Canadian Provincial League, the Mexican League, in the Dominican Republic and even served in the U.S. Army during his 22 seasons on the mound.

Sierra possessed an aggressive pitching style, including a fondness for a well-timed brush back. The only two things missing from his playing days were a call-up to the major leagues and the chance to play in front of loved ones.

“I regret that my father and friends and family never saw me play,” said Sierra, whose two brothers and sister stayed in Cuba during his playing days. “I missed my family. I regret not being with my friends. My heart was always there. I love the United States, but that’s my home.”

After completing five seasons in the Negro League and making his final visit to Cuba in 1959, Sierra didn’t see his father or siblings for two decades. His mother Eugenia had died when he was 15.

He served in the U.S. Army in Fort Hood, Texas, from 1959 to 1962 as an infantry specialist and the star pitcher on the Army team that won the 4th Army championship in 1961.

His first visit by a family member was in 1980, when his brother Jesus came to the United States. Five years later, Sierra’s dad, a former professional boxer, came to America to see his son for the first time in 26 years.

“He had white hair,” said Sierra, who spoke by phone to his family several times a month during the time apart. “The last time I saw him, he had black hair. That was shocking. I couldn’t put it past me. He said, ‘That’s the facts of life.’”

In 1986, Sierra returned to his childhood home in Havana. The scrawny teenager who had left Cuba with baseball dreams returned 27 years later as a 43-year-old father of three. He visited the ball fields where he became enamored with the game.

“It was like being in a dream place, seeing guys I grew up with,” Sierra said. “Some of my family was dead. I was wondering if things there were as hard as people said. I saw my family and walked wherever I could go. I brought a camera, but I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture. I kept thinking I am not a tourist.”

Sierra, who became an American citizen in 1986, now returns to Cuba every few years and has given baseball clinics there. Brother Jesus and sister Mercedes are now in the United States. Pedro Sr. died in 1994, but his brother Juan and several aunts still live in Cuba.

He describes his family as “non-political,” but he yearns to see the day when Cuba and America have normal relations and Cubans are free to play in the United States.

“It’s a shame people can’t see the caliber of play in Cuba,” he said.

He brings his children to Cuba whenever he can because he wants them to appreciate their heritage. The pitcher has passed on his athleticism to his children, and his youngest son, David, earned a football scholarship to Howard and was named all-conference at tight end. Now 30, he works on Capitol Hill.

Sierra worked for Montgomery County for 25 years in programs designed to help at-risk children and help immigrants adjust to American culture.

Sierra got back into baseball several years ago when he helped out at Essex Community College in Baltimore. But it wasn’t until he got the call from the Atlantic League that Sierra leaped at the chance to again wear a professional uniform — a call that came largely because of a relationship from his days in the Senators organization.

Sierra played for the Washington Class AA farm club in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1970 and 1971. Those teams were managed by Joe Klein, who went on to be the general manager of the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers. Klein founded the Atlantic League in 1998 and serves as league president.

“He’s probably more of an uncle and a teacher than a disciplinarian,” Klein said. “We had a need for someone with experience like his.”

Klein saw Sierra pitch in the twilight of his career, and doesn’t believe he ever saw him at his best. The old manager does remember a savvy veteran who helped tutor young players, and an intimidating pitcher who didn’t hesitate to throw inside.

“He showed by example,” Klein said.

And the brush back is now a staple Sierra passes on to others.

“If I had to knock down my father or my mother to win, I would have,” said Sierra, whose intensity hasn’t mellowed with age. “Batters are your enemies during the game. You have to take command of the whole plate.”

Road Warriors pitcher Greg Runser sees Sierra as a player’s coach, who prefers to encourage rather than be confrontational.

Sierra treats his players like professionals and doesn’t force his theories or mechanics on his pitchers. He does school them on setting up batters, keeping them off guard and the value of throwing high and tight.

“He’s able to share his experience and knowledge with guys like me who are trying to make it,” said Runser, 24. “He obviously has strong convictions judging by all the things he been through. He’s a calming influence and he is always positive. Some coaches yell. He doesn’t. He puts positive things in your mind.”

Sierra left baseball in 1976 season after spending five seasons in the Mexican League. He went south of the border after the Texas Rangers sold his contract there in 1971. Sierra never made it to the major leagues, although he was called up to pitch batting practice for the Senators by manager Ted Williams late in the 1970 and ‘71 seasons.

“I thought if I had my opportunity, I would have made it,” said Sierra, who also played in the Minnesota Twins’ system from 1962 to ‘66. “I don’t think I had a fair chance. I feel I could have played with any team. … It was probably just not meant to be.”

Sierra did have a Hollywood moment with his acting debut in the 1994 movie “Major League II” in which he played the third-base coach for the Chicago White Sox.

“I have always wanted to get back into baseball, but didn’t know if I would have the chance,” Sierra said. “As long as they want me to be here, I will be here. I want to give back to baseball as much as I can.”

Baseball has got back more than its fair share.

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