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Braves notebook: Cuban-born players speak out

POSTED: March 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Yunel Escobar had to flee his homeland on a rickety boat.

Now that Fidel Castro has stepped down from power in Cuba, Escobar is hopeful the next generation of players from the baseball-rich island won’t have to resort to such desperate measures.

News that an ailing Castro was giving up control after nearly four decades as Cuba’s dictator was received enthusiastically by two Cuban-born players on the Atlanta Braves, Escobar and Brayan Pena.

"It’s a good day for Cuba," said Escobar, who is taking over as Atlanta’s starting shortstop this season. "Maybe there will be no more people in boats. Maybe this will open up the major leagues for all baseball players in Cuba."

Pena defected from Cuba almost 10 years ago while still a teenager, sneaking out of a hotel during a tournament in Venezuela.

He still clings to the thought of some day returning to visit family and friends he hasn’t seen since that fateful day.

"That is always the great hope for us," Pena said Wednesday.

Raul Castro already had been running the country the past 19 months in place of his ill brother, a period he used to hint at possible reforms to the regimented society. Pena is confident that things will be much better under a new leader, even one from the same family.

"He’s already been working to open up things a little bit for us," said Pena, who is contending for a spot as Atlanta’s backup catcher.

If the new president stays on that track, Pena can envision a day when all Cuban players are free to pursue their major league dreams.

"We all hope he will open up things down in Cuba so everybody can play in the U.S., which is the best baseball league in the world," Pena said. "Then we can all try to help our families back home, which is the main thing."

Cox misses workout
The Braves had to get through their first full-squad workout without an inspirational speech from Bobby Cox.

The manager missed Wednesday’s workout while attending the funeral of his mother-in-law back in Georgia. He’s expected to rejoin the team on Thursday, firing up his players a day later than normal.

"I kind of missed his opening day speech," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "He kind of gets us all jacked up with his optimism for the upcoming season. We missed that ... but we’ll just have to wait one day to get it."

Bench coach Chino Cadahia ran the team in place of Cox, but he didn’t try to fill the manager’s shoes — especially the speaking part. He just went over the schedule for the day before everyone hit the field.

"It wasn’t much of a speech," Jones quipped. "It was more of an instructional video than an inspirational speech."

Cadahia shrugged off any suggestion that he was leading the team, even for a day.

"It was a team effort by the whole staff," he said. "Everyone was very professional in their efforts. We had great weather, and we got it done."

No one was late reporting to camp, either.

James ‘ready for season’
Chuck James threw off the mound for the first time this spring, the next step in his recovery from a partially torn rotator cuff.

James threw just 15 fastballs at half-speed but was encouraged by the results. His sense of humor is even further along.

"I’m ready for the season," he said sarcastically. "I can guarantee 20 wins, as long as my teammates score 15 runs a game for me. I’m feeling pretty confident."

Actually, James was relieved to learn that something was wrong with his shoulder after struggling to get comfortable through nagging aches and pains much of last season.

If there are no setbacks Thursday, James will return to the mound the following day, likely adding a few more throws to his routine.



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