HAVANA — As the plane descended and Jose Abreu got the first glimpse of the country he fled more than two years ago, only one thought crossed his mind.
His 5-year-old son, Dariel Eduardo.
“Two years and four months. Exactly,” the White Sox slugger said Tuesday as he waited to be reunited with the boy at the Hotel Nacional. “It’s such a beautiful thing. Very beautiful but also very hard.”
Cuban athletes who defect often must make the wrenching choice between future and family. For Abreu, that meant leaving his young son behind when he escaped in August 2013. While the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year talks to the boy as often as he can, it’s not the same as holding him in his arms.
Not anywhere close.
So as Yasiel Puig, Brayan Pena and Alexei Ramirez smoked cigars with family and friends to celebrate their triumphant return to their homeland, Abreu paced back and forth, his eyes glued to his phone as he awaited news about his son.
About an hour later, the boy finally arrived. The spitting image of his father, right down to the tiny White Sox cap on his head, Dariel Eduardo clutched his nanny’s hand as they walked through the lobby to the elevator that would whisk him upstairs for a private family reunion.
“I have no words to tell you,” Abreu said, a grin spreading across his face when asked what it was going to be like to finally see his son again.
“I’m just thankful. I’m just thankful.”
The official reason for Major League Baseball’s three-day goodwill tour is to support the game in Cuba and help pave the way for the league’s return. Once a frequent visitor to the island, no MLB team has not played here since the Baltimore Orioles faced the Cuban national team in an exhibition game in 1999.
Jose Abreu on the plane en route to Havana, Cuba. (Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
But the goodwill extends to MLB’s own players. Though Ramirez can return to Cuba whenever he wants because he left legally, Abreu and Puig had not set foot in their country since defecting; Puig left Cuba in 2012.
Pena has been back once since he left as a 16-year-old in 1999, and that was for all of two days.
Every day, people all over the world leave their homes and families in search of opportunity, education or simply a change of scenery. But most do so with the comfort of knowing home will always be there to welcome them back.
To know you might never again feel your country beneath your feet, might never experience the sights and smells of your childhood, or see the faces of your cousins and friends and neighbors, that leaves a void that simply can’t be filled. No matter how wonderful your new life is, it will never make up for the one you lost.
“I spent 17 years without coming back to my homeland. That’s almost half of my life,” said Pena, a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I’m so proud of being an American citizen and very happy and excited to be an American citizen,” Pena said. “But at the same time, I still have my family behind.”
Alexei Ramirez (left) and Yasiel Puig arrive in Havana, Cuba. (Rob Tringali via Getty Images)
No wonder, then, that the courtyard of the elegant hotel on Havana’s waterfront was the scene of one joyful reunion after another. More than 20 of Pena’s relatives were waiting for him when he arrived, including his 84-year-old grandmother. Puig wept when he spotted Juan Arechavaleta, his childhood coach.
As the two caught up over lunch, a young man wearing a Puig T-shirt — in Dodger blue, of course — approached their table. Puig’s eyes lit up when he spotted his half-brother, Yoan Hernandez, whom he hadn’t seen in five years.
Excited fans swarmed the players wherever they went, eager to get their autographs or, better yet, a selfie. When a group of a dozen fans spotted Abreu through a set of glass doors, they cheered and raised their arms, their voices rising even louder after he acknowledged them with a thumbs up.
“It’s a great feeling, a great feeling,” Pena said, looking at the room filled with family and friends. “Everybody’s excited about coming back.”