GOODYEAR, AZ. — The Cincinnati Reds have found their way inside Cuba even before President Barack Obama began his Open Door suggestion about easing the embargo.
There are now three Cuban expatriates putting on uniforms in the Reds clubhouse — pitcher Aroldis Chapman, catcher Brayan Pena and the newest member, pitcher Raisel Iglesias.
No, he is not related to Julio Iglesias, the legendary Spanish singer who has sold more than 300 million records in 14 languages.
Raisel Iglesias, though, hopes to make his brand of baseball music off the pitching mound for the Reds.
The 25-year-old right hander defected from Cuba and the Cuban National team in 2013 and landed in Haiti. He established residence in Haiti, making him eligible to sign a major league contract and the Reds signed him to a seven-year deal in June of 2014.
And now he is in the mix to either be part of the starting rotation or part of the bullpen for the Reds this season.
"He is a very talented young man, very polished," said manager Bryan Price. "We haven’t seen him pitch more than two innings, but it has been very good. Our feeling is that he has the stuff, four quality pitches, and the command to start. We’ll integrate him there because that’s where he is best suited. We’ll get him ready as a starter and if it doesn’t work out we can always use him in the bullpen."
After pitching off a mound in a bullpen session Friday, Iglesias met with writers and spoke through translator Tomas Vera.
Iglesias pitched in the Arizona Fall League, used it as a classroom experience, and said, "I studied the way the umpires are here, they way they work. And it had been about eight months since I faced batters. That was important for me."
And he is learning in other ways, too. When he signed he had only two pitches, a fastball and a breaking pitch, but he since has added a change-up and a slider, both rated as plus pitches.
"On the national team in Cuba I had only two pitches, but when I came to America I added the two pitches," he said.
Iglesias joins pitcher Aroldis Chapman and catcher Bryan Pena as fellow Cuban defectors and their presence means a lot.
"I enjoy having them around because everywhere you turn around in the clubhouse everybody is American," he said. "We have some Dominicans and Latinos next to me, but it is always good to have guys who are my countrymen. And the experience they have in the big leagues will help me a lot."
Iglesias is adjusting quickly and pleasantly to his new environment and especially enjoys the freedom.
"In Cuba I didn’t have the freedom I have here, the amount of things I can do here," he said. "It is a 180-degree change for me. It is so hard to describe how I feell other than it feels really, really good."
Baseball is his life and when he signed, his father, Juan, who is still in Cuba, told him that all he needed to do was play baseball. He had no other worries or concerns. Just play the game.
But when he does have free time, he exchanges his baseball glove for a fishing pole and said, "One thing I enjoy and can do here is deep-sea fishing. I love fishing. I’d go fishing every day. My life could be on the sea. On the ocean is where I want to be."
Iglesias has been impressed with the organization and hard work that is displayed in the majors and said, "Baseball in Cuba is very strong baseball and it keeps getting better. It is hard baseball. But the discipline and how they organize is much better here than Cuba."
Iglesias’ mother is with him, but his dad and brother remain in Cuba, but they give him full support.
"My dad is really happy for me and proud with the steps I took to be here in America," he said. "He always backed me up and my whole family backed me up with my decisions. He tells me, ‘You went to America to play baseball. All you have to do is play baseball. You don’t have to think about nothing more than playing baseball."