‘It’s a blessing’: After 7 years apart, Oviedo reunited with family
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Johan Oviedo has never felt this calm.
Oviedo, 25, finds himself in a nebulous spot in his career. He's fighting for a spot on the Opening Day roster, and every pitch brings him one step closer to -- or one step farther from -- Pittsburgh. Oviedo will not be gifted a Major League roster spot; he must perform. He navigates this pressure every time he steps on a mound. That pressure, however, is confined to the realm of baseball. For more than half a decade, Oviedo has dealt with a different pressure, a different stress.
While Oviedo chased the Major League dream in the United States, his family remained in Cuba, separated from Oviedo due to circumstance. As Oviedo realized one dream, a new one formed: He wanted to be reunited with his family.
Nearly seven years after signing with the Cardinals as an 18-year-old, that dream came to fruition. His family is here. His mother, Yudith. His father, Lazaro. His sister, Jeanine. They’re all here. They’re together again.
“It’s a blessing,” Johan said. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted.”
“I’m happy. I’m proud. Incredibly, we’ve made it,” Yudith said in Spanish, fighting back tears. “We’re here, and this has been a beautiful experience.”
When Oviedo signed with the Cardinals on July 2, 2016, Johan planned on his family joining him in the United States following a brief stint in the Dominican Summer League. As the rest of the family got their affairs in order, events beyond the family’s control prevented Jeanine, Lazaro and Yudith from coming to America. Johan was separated from his family for the first time in his life, living in a country that he had never been to.
To Johan, he would never have had the opportunity to pitch in America if not for his family. Johan’s grandfather, Juan, loved the game and took Lazaro and his childhood friends to a local field, organizing pickup baseball games. Juan’s brother and Johan’s great-uncle Celso played in Mexico for a time. Johan joked that baseball is in his blood, and while Johan never met Juan, he’s been told that Juan would’ve loved to see him play.
Lazaro, who threw the javelin and kayaked, frequently took Johan to a nearby field when he returned home from work, helping his son refine his game. Even after Johan’s practices, Lazaro carved out time for the two to continue working. Johan recalls that around the time he turned 10, Lazaro stopped playing catch with Johan because his son was throwing the baseball too hard. Manuel Alejandro Rivera, a cousin who Johan considered a brother, assumed catching duties as Johan’s velocity increased.
“He’s been my first coach my whole life,” Oviedo said. “I think he knows me better than anybody else.”
Oviedo kept in touch with his family via telephone during the season, but they experienced technological limitations. Initially, Oviedo could only talk to his family if they went to a park and paid for an hour’s worth of subpar internet -- 2G, if that. The technology gradually improved, and although Oviedo admitted the fees were high, he didn’t mind as long as he and his family could communicate.
“We haven’t been here physically, but over that entire time, we’ve tried to be there at the very least in communication through the phone,” Yudith said. “That separation is difficult, but we’ve always tried to make him feel so he’s not alone. Calling him or messaging him as if we were together.”
Oviedo wasn’t completely separated from his family upon going pro, returning to Cuba to see his family during the first few offseasons of his career. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Oviedo has not returned.
Technology helped bridge the distance, but the loneliness persisted. Oviedo longed to be in his family’s presence. He enjoyed being in the United States, chasing the Majors and learning the culture, but he always felt the absence. One part of his mind was on baseball. The other part was on Cuba.
As Johan reached the Majors, he hoped his family would have an opportunity to come to the United States. This past fall, after years of yearning and wishing, Jeanine, Lazaro and Yudith arrived in America. For the first time since Johan was a teenager, the Oviedo family was once again whole.
“Thank God for being here together,” said Jeanine in Spanish. “It’s been years that we’ve been apart. I’m very proud because [Johan] fought for this, and I know he’s good. He’s going to make it.”
“It’s a feeling that you can’t believe, because it’s been so many years apart,” said Yudith. “It’s everything.”
In recent months, the Oviedos have made several stops around Florida, making trips to Orlando for Disney World and Jacksonville with family. That includes visits to the baseball diamond. When Johan threw a live bullpen session during the offseason, Yudith was brought to tears. On March 11, Oviedo pitched in a game in front of his family for the first time. He threw three scoreless innings with three strikeouts, his best performance of spring.
In time, Jeanine, Lazaro and Yudith will travel north and watch Johan pitch at PNC Park. Yudith will be in attendance, but her eyes might not be on the field.
“It’s going to be hard, because I don’t like to watch his games. I get very nervous,” Yudith said. “I still can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m here. So when I get [to Pittsburgh], I don’t know what will happen.”
“I feel like if you’re not a parent, you wouldn’t understand,” Lazaro said in Spanish. “Only the parents know what it feels like in that moment. A friend or someone else can get nervous, but what a parent feels is different. Only a parent knows. I think it’s going to be very difficult, but this is what we’re here for.”
As Johan, Jeanine, Lazaro and Yudith reflected on their time together so far, they all shared the same sentiment -- that this reunion is the realization of a dream.
Yudith’s only dream was to be reunited with her son. Jeanine, 18, shared how she will have the opportunity to pursue her own dreams in this country, too. Johan looks forward to the little things that he missed, whether it be celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for the first time since he left or enjoying his mother’s home cooking. As for Lazaro? It’s almost too much to comprehend.
“I wanted to say that it’s very difficult. No, difficult is not the right word. I would say it’s strange. It was strange when we got back here, because this is something that [we] dreamed about for a long time. It’s one thing when you think it and dream it versus when it actually becomes reality.
“The difference between where we were and where we are now is very distinct. Being together is different. It’s like how it was back in Cuba, but that hasn’t been the case for years. It’s something that is difficult to take in and digest, because it’s good, but sometimes so good that it’s not even something you ever dreamed of.”