By Shannon Drayer
PEORIA, Ariz. – While a jump from the Double-A Jackson rotation to the big leagues would seem improbable, it is far less daunting than the leap Roenis Elias took four years ago when he fled Cuba in the wee hours of the morning aboard a boat bound for Mexico with 25 others.
Like other baseball players that have left Cuba, Elias had a dream about playing in the big leagues. Unlike many Cuban ballplayers who have made it to the United States, however, he had no Cuban national team or international experience. He was a relative unknown to those both in and outside his country.
"I was an inexperienced player," Elias answered when asked to describe his place in baseball in Cuba before he left. "I only had two years playing in the National League there and the first year I was a reliever. The next year I got the chance to start but I didn't have success I wanted. I hadn't yet had the opportunity to get to the national team; I didn't have enough experience."
He wasn't going to wait to make that team, and while his dream was to play in Major League Baseball, his expectations were realistic. He had no idea if he was good enough to make it to the big leagues, but the one thing he did know is he had to try.
"I didn't know," he said. "It was something I knew that I had to come over here. Once I got here the goal was to make it to the majors, and until I made it or didn't I wouldn't know. The goal was not just to make it here, but stay here."
As under the radar as Elias was coming into this camp, he may have been even more so leaving Cuba. He wasn't a big-name player. He wasn't a player that teams would battle each other to sign. He was, as he said, an inexperienced baseball player. Luckily, that was enough.
Ted Heid, the Mariners' coordinator of special projects international, was charged with the task of tracking all Cuban baseball players that were leaving the country and finding out where they landed.
"We knew a group had gotten out by a boat," Heid recalled. "We didn't know any of the details, but they had landed somewhere near Cancun and immediately went to Monterrey."
Elias' time in Monterrey was a necessary but unpleasant stop in his journey to the United States.
"It was really difficult, there were a lot of barriers," he said. "I was there for seven months and it was really hard because you get up at 6 to train and you basically train for an hour and then go home. You don't see people of my complexion there so you never know what dangers are there. So you go work out early and then you go home and you wait until the next day when you go work out again. There were a lot of barriers there, but when you have in your mind that you want to succeed you don't let those barriers get in your way."
While details are not clear, there appears to have been more than one group of Cuban ballplayers that arrived in Monterrey around the same time. The agents for the players put the word out that they were there and various teams came calling, most to see the premier player in the group, current Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin.
"There was a tryout, a showcase, simulated game for five or six different players with different levels of experience, with Martin being the premium guy," Heid said.
While Heid liked what he saw in Martin – who was more of a known quantity having been seen in international competition for some time – it was the lesser known Elias who caught his eye.
"I kept being drawn to this left-hander," he said. "He just had an infectious smile, he shagged balls, he was the first guy there at the tryout and when he finally got a chance to pitch in the game everybody was already putting their bags away. Then I saw him pitch and he threw 90-93 from five different arm angles and it really looked like he was creating pitches on the mound. Just in true Cuban style."
Elias – whose demeanor was very matter of fact and very calm while describing the events that brought him to the United States to play baseball – became very animated when talking about that tryout.
"There were about 12 teams there," he said. "I didn't know Seattle was there, never knew they were interested. I threw three innings and allowed one hit and struck out five."
Elias, in fact, knew nothing about Seattle other than that was the team Felix Hernandez pitched for.
"I just knew Seattle based on videos," he said. "Ever since I was a kid, the pitcher that I followed was always Felix Hernandez. Just watching his starts was all the impression I had of Seattle."
Heid liked what he saw and wrote in his report from the tryout that of all of the players there, he had a "gut feeling" about Elias.
Bob Engle – who was then vice president of international operations for the Mariners – asked top scout Patrick Guerrero to travel with Heid to Monterrey to watch Elias and Martin the next time they were scheduled to work out for teams. Guerrero liked both players, according to Heid, but did not have as strong feelings about Elias. Nevertheless, Heid submitted another report to Engle and asked if he could make a run at him. Engle gave him the go ahead.
"I got permission, talked to the agent and negotiated," he said.
Heid left Monterrey after his sales pitch not knowing if the Mariners would be able to sign him. Soon after his return he got the news.
"I remember to this day, it was a Monday morning, I got this call, it says, 'He's yours,' " Heid said. "I was on the first flight I could get to Monterrey, where I spent about the scariest five days I ever spent trying to get the documentation and everything so the contract would get approved."
The documentation was secured, the contracts signed and Elias was a Mariner. He would move quickly through the lower levels of the organization in his first year and put up back-to-back successful years in High Desert and Jackson. Over that time he has seen his velocity jump a few ticks, which he says occurred because of the work he has put in. Heid has been following his career as a Mariner and has been impressed but not surprised with what he has seen.
"I think his makeup was the clincher for me," he said. "You could tell he wanted to play. While he was down there in Monterrey, the only games that they could play in was like adult beer-league games on Sunday morning on bad fields. He was still the first guy there."
"I am really proud of him," Heid continued. "It is just one of those great success stories. Once he got in our organization, our minor-league pitching development is as good as anyone's. [Pitching coach] Rick Waits took a liking to him right away, really worked with him."
It would appear that work is paying off as Elias has opened eyes this spring. He has a legitimate chance to make the rotation out of spring training and if he doesn't, it would be hard to imagine that we don't see him at some point this year in Seattle.
"It is a big opportunity," he said of the chance he was given to compete this spring. "I have been waiting for it for a couple of years now. I am grateful to have it."
He is also grateful that Heid took a chance years ago in Monterrey and went with his gut.
"He is a very nice man," Elias said. "I met him in Monterrey and he told me that he believed in me and that he had a lot of faith that I would make the majors. I have seen him around here a couple of times and every time he comes over and embraces me and says that I know that you have what it takes to succeed in the major leagues."
We very well could see him get that opportunity soon.