ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Rolando Arrojo arrived at the 1998 All-Star Game with a feeling that he represented more than his expansion franchise, though the distinction remains the highlight of a career that included five seasons in the majors.
Fifteen years ago, the right-hander and native of Santa Clara, Cuba, was two years removed from defecting from his home country, after he fled from an Albany, Ga., hotel room while on a pre-Olympics tour with the national team. His wife, Mayda, and two sons, Jason and Rolando Jr., escaped the communist nation about a month later, bound for the Miami area.
Arrojo’s winding path forced him to establish residency in Costa Rica and wade through free agency that featured interest from 19 major league teams. Eventually, he joined the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in April 1997 with a $7 million signing bonus. He arrived at Denver’s Coors Field in July 1998, named one of his sport’s best, with others in mind.
“It gave him an incredible experience that he’ll never forget,” Jason Arrojo said in interpreting his father during a recent telephone interview with FOX Sports Florida. “He keeps thinking about it. He felt like he was not only representing the Devil Rays, but he felt like he was representing all his friends and fellow baseball players back in Cuba.”
On Tuesday, left-hander Matt Moore and infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist will represent the Rays at the All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York. Thirty Tampa Bay players have been named all-stars since the franchise was formed before the 1998 season.
Through his son, Arrojo said his all-star appearance “was the highlight of his entire career.” That day, which ended with the American League beating the National League 13-8, gave Arrojo a chance to meet some of his idols: Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez.
Arrojo, then 29 years old, finished the season’s first half 10-5 with a 3.06 ERA in 18 appearances. He pitched one inning at Coors Field, allowing two hits and striking out one batter. He became the second rookie from an expansion franchise to be named an all-star and the first Cuban pitcher to be selected as one since Boston Red Sox right-hander Luis Tiant in 1976.
“It was absolutely insane, because his baseball idols, his role models, and his future idols – he was there playing with them,” Jason Arrojo said in interpreting his father. “It was a great experience.”
Arrojo became the fourth Cuban rookie named an all-star, joining other prominent names from his native country such as outfielders Minnie Minoso (1951), Tony Oliva (1964) and Jose Canseco (1986). He received a $50,000 bonus for participation in the event – a contrast to the 277 pesos (about $11) he earned each month as part of Cuba’s national team.
The all-star news arrived somewhat as a surprise. Then-Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild and then-general manager Chuck LaMar told Arrojo of his addition as a reserve, but because Arrojo could not speak much English, he failed to grasp the honor. Closer Roberto Hernandez, Arrojo’s good friend on the team, helped him understand.
“He was excited,” Jason Arrojo said.
That season, Arrojo finished 14-12 with a 3.56 ERA in 32 starts. He pitched the next year with Tampa Bay, going 7-12 with a 5.18 ERA in 24 starts, before he was traded with infielder Aaron Ledesma to the Colorado Rockies for infielder Vinny Castilla.
After 19 starts with Colorado, Arrojo was traded to Boston, where he pitched parts of three seasons mostly as a reliever. The 2002 campaign proved to be his last, but memories from his lone all-star appearance four years earlier remain a point of pride.
“Just being in the All-Star Game,” Jason Arrojo said in translating his father, “everything was an amazing experience.”