Diaz's journey to Cardinals fostered by father

Dad shows support through son's childhood, defection from Cuba, breakthrough into Majors

June 16th, 2016
"The first time he stepped onto the field, he fell in love with baseball," Rigoberto Diaz said of his son, Aledmys.

ST. LOUIS -- For 15 days, Rigoberto Diaz clutched his phone, anxious for the moment when he could hear his son's voice again.

He had been assured by an intermediary that his 21-year-old boy, Aledmys, had been safely routed to Mexico following his defection from the Cuban national baseball team. Aledmys had sneaked away while the team was playing a tournament in the Netherlands and was now hidden away in a home. Details beyond that were scarce.

As Rigoberto awaited that phone call, he replayed conversations that, in hindsight, may have telegraphed the life-changing decision, like the time Aledmys, as a 16-year-old, came to his father questioning the validity of his country's communist rule, or the time he was so upset at being passed over for a roster spot that he told his father he wanted to defect.

:: Father's Day 2016 ::

Rigoberto, as almost any parent would, chalked the comment up to a fit of frustration.

"I took it for granted," Rigoberto said. "Kids say things, and then they often don't follow through."

His, however, did.

So Rigoberto found himself passing 15 "horrible" days in a Brazilian jungle, which is where he was stationed as a visiting entomologist working to control mosquitoes and an outbreak of malaria. Finally, his phone rang.

"It was an extremely hard decision, and possibly if I would have thought twice about it or told anybody beforehand, then I wouldn't have done it," Aledmys explained to his father during the emotional conversation.

He also detailed a situation in the Netherlands in which he found himself out of the lineup without reason after being promised playing time.

That, son told father, was the final straw.

"I said, 'OK, son. Don't worry,'" Rigoberto said. "'I'm going to support you all the time. I'll help you with everything you need.'"

Fostering a first love

It's been almost four years since Aledmys' decision to defect changed the course of his family's life. He'll celebrate this Father's Day not only as an expectant father himself, but also alongside the one who gave up everything to help him adjust to life away from Cuba.

Rigoberto arrived in St. Louis on Monday for a weeklong stay that offers him his first chance to watch his son play at Busch Stadium.

"He completed a dream that had been in the family for many generations," Rigoberto said of Aledmys breaking through to the Majors this season. "A dream came true in a person who sacrificed so much. Aledmys never played with a toy. You know what his toy was? A baseball bat and a ball."

In many ways, Aledmys getting to the big leagues was the culmination of a community effort. With his father pulled out of the country for work throughout much of his childhood, Aledmys leaned heavily on his mother and uncles for support.

One of those uncles, Nelson Diaz, was particularly influential in nurturing Aledmys' love of the sport. Nelson's other prized pupil was Jose Fernandez, then a hyperactive kid whose family lived in the same neighborhood. Fernandez is now the ace of the Marlins' rotation.

But Rigoberto's impact on his son's career is also unmistakable. When Aledmys was 3, Rigoberto talked a local swimming program for kids with asthma into allowing his son to participate. Aledmys did not have asthma, but his father was convinced that the synchronization Aledmys could learn in the pool could help him in future athletic endeavors.

"It was at that point," Rigoberto said, "that he started feeling something for sports."

By the age of 4, Aledmys was outlasting his father in the evenings, watching delayed broadcasts of Major League games until the sun rose the next morning. Soon after, his father took him to see the Cuban national team play for the first time.

"It was," Aledmys explains now, "a love-at-first-sight type of thing."

Aledmys began playing organized baseball around that time, though that was also the year that Rigoberto accepted a three-year university job in Botswana. While teaching agricultural classes in Africa, Rigoberto would receive reports about Aledmys' baseball achievements.

The stories sometimes had the feel of legend, like the time a 5-year-old Aledmys took a swing in a tryout and hit the ball to the outfield wall on one bounce, or the instance a few years later in which he accompanied an older team to Venezuela for the tournament to serve as the batboy and finished the week as the team's shortstop. For Rigoberto, knowing his little boy was thriving on the baseball field helped ease the pain of being an ocean away.

"The first time he stepped onto the field, he fell in love with baseball," Rigoberto said. "It was like something was in his veins. It was amazing."

A father's sacrifice

Having spent all that time separated from his family made Rigoberto's decision in the summer of 2012 a simple one. With his son alone in Mexico, Rigoberto saw no option other than to join him.

The Cuban government, even after learning of Aledmys' defection, remained invested in Rigoberto, whose work in Brazil was being widely lauded. They urged him to remain there for a fifth and final year. He declined and quit his job that fall.

"It was hard for me because I loved it," Rigoberto said. "But I had to make that step. There was no choice. I had to stand by my son."

The two were reunited in Mexico on Feb. 2, 2013, and remained there, together, while a paperwork snafu left Aledmys ineligible to sign with a Major League team for another year. Once Aledmys signed with the Cardinals in March '14, his father knew where he had to go next.

"I came illegally," Rigoberto admitted. "There was no choice. I suffered a lot in that way, because every time I've moved around in my life, it had been legal. But if it's regarding your children, it doesn't matter what you have to do."

It took Rigoberto 48 hours to cross the border between Mexico and the United States.

"I think it was absolutely fundamental to my transition and helped me feel comfortable in a new country," Aledmys, speaking through a translator, said of his father's willingness to accompany him to America. "I was able to reconcile the decision I had just made, and he was so much help.

"Just with the little daily-life things, like going to the bank or getting set up in a new country. We all know that baseball is extremely hard and you have to be focused on 100 percent. So not having to overload my mind to worry about those daily things because he was there really helped."

They lived together in Florida, then Springfield, Mo., then Memphis, Tenn. Once he could do so legally, Rigoberto relocated his wife, and the two now reside in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"It was pretty hard for me not to be attached to my son, because we had been away from each other for so long," Rigoberto said.

Rigoberto not only made the day-to-day challenges of living in a foreign country less daunting for his son, but he also helped accelerate Aledmys' understanding of English. Rigoberto had long ago become fluent in the language, and he actually spent some of the years in between his time in Botswana and Brazil teaching evening English classes from his dining room.

Oftentimes, he would look around and find a young Aledmys sitting in the corner. Aledmys never spoke, which is why his father was shocked some years later to watch Aledmys translate "Silence of the Lambs" scenes seamlessly from English to Spanish. Learning to speak the language, however, took much more time.

His father, along with "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," helped with that while Aledmys was in the Minors.

"When I was growing up as a teenager, he made it a point to speak to me in English," Aledmys said. "The problem was that in the moment, I didn't think English would be necessary. I didn't think I would be here or that it would help my career in the future as much as it does now."

Aledmys' English is so good now that he can converse in the language with little hesitation.

It's another accomplishment dotting the journey that led Aledmys to St. Louis, where he has emerged as one of the game's top rookies and where Rigoberto sits in the stands this week trying to reconcile how it all worked out so perfectly.

"I told him, 'It doesn't matter what you do from this point forward,'" Rigoberto said. "'You have fulfilled my dreams. Actually, you have overfilled my dreams.'"