PORTLAND, Maine — When asked whether his decision to defect from Cuba last November was difficult, Rusney Castillo answered without hesitation.
“No,” he said.
Then he shook his head side to side for emphasis, his broad, muscled shoulders underlining the gesture. He answered with absolute certainty even though most of his immediate family remains in Cuba, including his parents, sister, and a 2-year-old son who shares his first name.
On the cusp of his major league debut, Castillo, 27, is trying to look forward, not back.
“It wasn’t hard, because I know if I’m here I will be able to provide for them,” said Castillo, speaking through a translator. “At the moment, it was hard. But in the long run, it was the right thing to do and my son’s future will be better.
“My family is always giving me encouragement and support. They want me to keep making progress and they know someday we’ll be together.”
Castillo sat in the Portland Sea Dogs dugout at Hadlock Field, separated from his hometown of Ciego de Avila, Cuba, by nearly 1,600 miles of ocean. He watched groundskeepers work beneath a replica Green Monster, eagerly anticipating that night’s first pitch.
After 18 months away from competitive baseball because of a mysterious suspension from the Cuban national team, then his defection, Castillo relishes every opportunity to play. The outfielder could make his first appearance for the Red Sox as soon as this weekend.
“I’m a little anxious to play for the Red Sox, but I always try to focus on the moment,” said Castillo. “The conditions for baseball are different in the United States. There is a big difference with the resources and the stadiums. But baseball is baseball. I will try to play my game the way I played in Cuba.”
Yet the more Castillo spoke, the more the distance between his Cuban past and his American present seemed to expand. Add the perks (and pressures) of future Red Sox stardom to the mix and mileage is a woefully inadequate measure. That was clear as Castillo described what he left behind and what he hopes awaits.
After he established residency in Haiti over the winter and arrived in the US in June on a tourist visa, Castillo excited major league scouts at a late July showcase in sweltering Miami heat that lasted three hours. He impressed with his speed (6.5 seconds in the 60-yard dash), hit a couple pitches off the wall and a couple over it, and exhibited an average arm.
The display by the 5-foot-9-inch, 205-pound outfielder had many of the 28 teams present interested in his services, especially given the successful track records of recent Cuban defectors such as Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, and Red Sox outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
In mid August, Castillo accepted a seven-year, $72.5 million contract with Boston. He signed the richest deal ever for a Cuban defector under the representation of Roc Nation Sports, a joint venture of Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter’s Roc Nation and Creative Artists Agency.
In addition to the money Boston offered, the franchise’s pitch connected with Castillo.
“The Red Sox talked about roster construction,” said Brodie Van Wagenen, co-head of the baseball division at CAA Sports. “They talked about the value of center-field and right-field defense in their team philosophy and how they believed Rusney can fit into those two positions, specifically center field.
“They talked about the support system they could provide him in terms of assimilating into our culture, into Boston as a city and into the organization. They took time to help him understand the organization’s commitment to winning year in and year out.”
The enthusiasm of Red Sox Nation — a rabid fan base reminiscent of what he experienced in Cuban baseball — also helped lure Castillo.
Up through the ranks
Castillo claims an impressive baseball lineage. His father and grandfather played in Cuba’s Serie Nacional de Beisbol for the team that represented their province. Formed after the Cuban Revolution to replace the profit-motivated professional system, the Serie Nacional is the nation’s most prominent amateur league and feeds players toward the national team. Both Castillo and his father played for the Cuban national team.
But long before he made the national team, Castillo played both baseball and soccer, sometimes dragging an aluminum bat to pickup games, sometimes dribbling a soccer ball down the road.
“I played forward and I scored lots of goals,” Castillo said with a smile.
Still, he seemed destined for a baseball career.
At 11, Castillo tried out for one of Cuba’s state-run baseball academies. He won a spot with his natural speed and fielding ability at shortstop and in the outfield. He finished his baseball academy education at 17, then started his amateur career.
Castillo debuted for the Ciego de Avila Tigers in the 2008-09 season in a limited role. He started in right field during the 2010-11 season, batting .324 and leading the league in stolen bases with 29 over a 90-game season.
In the 2011-12 season, he hit .332, led the league with 28 doubles, and won a Gold Glove for his outfield play. He competed for the national team in the 2011 Baseball World Cup — where the Red Sox first took note of him — the 2011 Pan American Games, and a few other international games in 2012.
International play introduced Castillo to a wider world of baseball possibilities and to David Ortiz.
“Playing in the Cuban league, we didn’t have a chance to see anything beyond Cuban baseball,” said Castillo. “Once I got to the Cuban seleccion [national team], I could see international players.
“At that time, I always liked David Ortiz. I liked that he was a source of energy for the Red Sox, that he was the driving force behind the team. I tried to emulate him and that style when I played for my teams.”
Castillo made Cuba’s provisional roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, but surprisingly did not make the final team. According to the Havana Times, Castillo had been suspended from national team play because he committed “a violation of the code of ethics of revolutionary baseball.”
It is believed by some that the suspension resulted from an earlier defection attempt, but that has not been confirmed.
A little star-struck
Nearly a year removed from his defection, Castillo is not ready to recount what happened when he left Cuba for Hispaniola, not with most of his family still in Cuba.
His reluctance is understandable. Stories of other players’ defections are harrowing, particularly when family members try to follow. Cespedes initially hoped a small group of relatives would accompany him to the US. It didn’t work out that way.
His family members, including his mother, faced multiple obstacles and a much longer, more complicated journey than the 23-hour boat ride that took Cespedes from Cuba to the Dominican Republic. His relatives endured multiple boat rides, jail time, an immigration raid, charges of human trafficking, and trouble with a Dominican baseball agent, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article.
Instead, Castillo recalled a life filled with family, friends, and baseball in Ciego de Avila, a city of nearly 90,000 in central Cuba with a baseball stadium that holds 13,000. The bright blue-and-white Jose Ramon Cepero Stadium, home of the Tigers, contrasts with the faded, low-lying buildings that dominate the cityscape.
Though joined here by his wife Mariela Lopez and 5-year-old stepdaughter Shanel Rosa, Castillo cannot replicate the comforts of his Cuban neighborhood. When he calls his uncle in Cuba, he hears news from home, and relays updates on his baseball progress and stories of new experiences. Few recent arrivals have tales like Castillo’s.
On his first night in the US, Castillo went to a concert featuring Jay-Z and Beyonce, and he met Jay-Z. Castillo was more nervous there than he was at the baseball auditions that led to his record-setting contract.
“It was definitely breathtaking,” said Castillo. “I listened to Jay-Z’s songs before, and now I was about to meet him. He let me take a picture with him and I was really happy about that.
“The culture in this country is impressive, and I talk about it with my friends, my coaches. I’m always listening to music in the car, in the hotel, every kind — salsa, merengue, bachata, reggaeton.”
But since he signed the contract, there has been little time for anything but baseball. Castillo went through private workouts in Fort Myers, Fla., in late August, then played for the Gulf Coast Red Sox in their late August/early September championship series. Most recently, he was with the Double A Sea Dogs at the end of their postseason run and the Pawtucket Red Sox in the Governors’ Cup finals.
As Castillo continues to work his way up the minor league ladder and his Red Sox debut draws closer, he sounds philosophical about the big moment.
“When the time comes and I get to the big leagues, it will be the right time,” said Castillo. “I’m excited about being able to play with David Ortiz and Cespedes, who I’ve always looked up to.
“There are a lot of Cubans who I look up to. I want to do well, like the other Cubans.”