Flashback Friday: In fair territory (1994)

L to R: Raul Ibanez, Ivan Montane, Jose Cuellar. Teammates on the 1994 Appleton Foxes with Cuban roots. (Post-Crescent/Michael Leschisin)

By Chris Mehring / Wisconsin Timber Rattlers | October 8, 2010 7:58 AM ET

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The first edition of Flashback Friday for the 2010-2011 offseason is a look back at the story of Jose Cuellar, a member of the Appleton Foxes in 1994.

This is a story by Joe Christensen and it appeared in the Sunday, August 21, 1994 edition of The Post-Crescent.  The story ran on page one and continued on the back page.

Cuban catcher makes his break for freedom

Less than a year ago, the Appleton Foxes' Jose Cuellar still played on a Cuban national team

It was his chance to escape.  While playing baseball for a Cuban national team in the Canary Islands last September, now 24-year-old catcher with the Appleton Foxes, plotted his path to freedom.  He convinced two strangers to hide him for a week until his team and any Cuban search parties had gone away.

"If they would have caught me, I would have gone straight to jail," Cuellar said in Spanish recently while teammates Raul Ibanez and Ivan Montane translated.  "I could forget about baseball. I would have it rough like everyone else."

Cuba's poverty and oppression have led to the emigration of more than 7,000 Cubans to the United States this year.

But baseball has rescued Cuellar from the poverty.

The Cuban national team housed him and fed him meat, a rarity in Cuba, along with other decent meals.

And then came the chance to follow his dream of playing Major League Baseball in the United States, perhaps the only chance he had to leave his communist homeland behind.

Since baseball was his only way out, Cuellar took a risk on the one trip his team (Cuba's third-best national team) made outside the country, to the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa.

He befriended two people there and eventually asked them, "Can you please hide me? I don't want to go back to Cuba."

Fortunately, they didn't turn him in to the authorities.  They let him stay for seven days and, when he felt it was safe, Cuellar made his way to Miami.

There he joined his parents, who, for political reasons, were allowed to leave.  The U.S. Government granted him citizenship right away, keeping with what had been the long-standing tradition of granting Cubans asylum.

"This is a dream country," he said between bites of a fish sandwich at a local resaurant.  "It's just the greatest place.  The best thing here is the liberty and the freedom."

But in his mind, getting here was only the beginning of the odyssey.

"The biggest reason I came here was to play Major League Baseball," he said.

Only two players who defected to the United States from Cuba have made it to the majors: Rene Arocha, the current closer for the St. Louis Cardinals, and Barbaro Garbey, who played for the Detroit Tigers from 1984-1985 and the Texas Rangers in 1988.

Arocha's defection in July 1991 started a trend, and within the next year nine more players defected.  Once they got here, though, there were no guarantees.

"One of the things that scares players is they might not get picked up by a team," Cuellar said.

Trying out made him almost as nervous as hiding out, he said.  But the Seattle Mariners erased those fears when they signed him and sent him to the Single-A Foxes.

In Appleton, he met Montane and Ibanez, two players with Cuban roots.  Montane, 21, and Ibanez, 22, grew up together in Miami aas best friends, shrugging their shoulders when their mothers told them stories about defecting from Cuba.

Since meeting Cuellar, however, their interest has grown.  The three get together during batting practice almost every day to exchange stories about Cuba.

Montane proudly talks about 1960, the year his mother left for Miami, while his father stayed behind to study medicine at the University of Havana.  Montane said his father found freedom after an anxious moment when the new dictator, Fidel Castro, spoke to his class one day.

"Fidel told them, whoever wants to leave this country has to leave right now; there's a plane waiting," Montane said.  "When my dad raised his hand...he was afraid of what could happen to him.  He could have been in jail, right now.  And I wouldn't be here."

Ibanez's father spent two years working in Cuban sugar-cane fields in an agreement with the government so his family could leave in 1969.

Both upper-middle class families left their fortunes behind to start from scratch in the United States.

But until recently, Ibanez and Montane were oblivious to the hardship.

"You really don't realize it.  you know, in Miami, everyone is Cuban-American like us, and everyone speaks Spanish and English," Ibanez said.  "You really don't realize it until someone like Jose comes along.

Cuellar has enjoyed his time in Appleton with Montane and Ibanez, but his real goal is to get to Seattle.  He's played in about 50 games, either as a backup catcher or a designated hitter, and his average is hovering around .230.

"If it doesn't work out, I'll go to school or find a job," he said.  "I'm not going to sit around and be lazy."

No matter what, Cuellar will have his freedom.

For him, this is like living on cloud nine," Montane said.  "It's like finding the gold at the end of the rainbow."

Cuellar played 54 games for the Foxes in '94 and hit .211 with a home run.  He played 19 games for Riverside in the California League in 1995 and was released before the end of the first half.  That was the end of his professional baseball career.

Montane came back to pitch for the Timber Rattlers in 1999.  He made it to Triple-A later in his career before wrapping up his baseball life in the independent leagues in 2004.

Ibanez is still plugging away in the major leagues.

Also in the paper on August 21, 1994:

Foxes lose doubleheader, second place: The Beloit Brewers swept a doubleheader at Pohlman Field by scores of 4-0 and 3-2.  The losses dropped the Foxes one game behind the Brewers for the second half playoff spot in the Northern Division.

Majkowski has the magic touch in Colts' win: The Majik Man led the Colts to a 17-14 win over Pittsburgh in a pre-season game.  It is noted that Majkowski is battling with Browning Neagle to be the backup to Jim Harbaugh.

Irish eyes are watching: They are watching quarterback Ron Powlus and talking up the National Championship hopes of Notre Dame for the 1994 college football season.

Irvan in fight for his life: A story about NASCAR driver Ernie Irvan's crash during practice for the Goodwrench 400 in Michigan.  He won the fight.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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