Cuban Infielder Chasing Big League Dream

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - In America one must put a lot of time and effort into making it on a daily basis. Success requires blood, sweat and tears, not to mention countless days, weeks and years pouring oneself into a discipline, be it college, a trade school or a job in the "real world." But does it include packing up and leaving behind a mother, grandmother and two siblings? Does it mean transplanting yourself in a foreign land, 1,000 miles from where you grew up?

Well, that is just what Missions' shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt did, defecting from his native Cuba in November 2003, leaving behind friends and family in hopes of fulfilling his dream of making it to "the show."

"Anytime a player can realize a dream like this, it's an honor and a beautiful thing," Betancourt said through an interpreter. "I'm really enjoying it."

After a year in Mexico, Betancourt signed a 4-year, $3.65 million contract with the Mariners on January 27, 2005, and was placed on the 40-man roster. The former Cuban national team's second baseman is being paid the league minimum, with $700,000 worth of possible bonuses.

Conflicting scouting reports have helped the 23-year-old remain somewhat of an enigma through the off-season, but after a fast start in his first professional season the light is starting to shed on this "Top Promotion Candidate," deemed so in recent days by's Jason A. Churchill.

"He seems to be the complete player," said Missions starting pitcher Thomas Oldham. "He comes to the park everyday ready to go. He's going to be good for a long time."

Going six innings without allowing a run, Oldham last week was the beneficiary of a solid Betancourt-led defense, and doesn't see the young shortstop staying down in Double-A ball much longer.

"A player like that is hard to keep down, especially if he keeps playing the way he has been," Oldham said. "He's really one of the best shortstops I've ever seen or played with."

Although his bat indicates a future at second, the athletic youngster has been everything the Missions could ask for at short, using his speed and quick hands to make slow-rollers and double plays look routine, in addition to chasing down any and every fly ball on the left side of the field.

"I see myself as a very good defensive player who runs well and from time to time can show some power, but I'm mainly just a contact hitter," Betancourt said.

A contact hitter, eh? Tell that to the Midland Rockhounds, whom Betancourt shelled for a triple and home run Tuesday night, both firsts on the season. The Cuban prospect has really taken it to Texas League pitchers, and is now hitting .323 (10-31) at the plate with a double, triple, homer, stolen base and six RBI.

"I want everything to go well, especially my first year here in the United States," Betancourt said. "I like it a lot here; this is where all the opportunities are."

While playing with the Cuban national team, Betancourt made up one half of a dominant middle infield, the other part played by stellar shortstop, Eduardo Paret.

"It was awesome defensively," Betancourt said. "We played together for three years, and we meshed really well up the middle."

Because of Paret's presence, Betancourt was forced to play second, but has since transitioned nicely to his new home in the six-hole, one he hopes he can make a career out of.

"Obviously (Paret) was a top-of-the-line shortstop, and that's why I played second," Betancourt said. "But I'd much rather play shortstop, and that's where I see myself."

Although known as a quick player able to come away with an infield single, growing up in Cuba Betancourt idolized a different type of player, someone well-known here in the states simply as "Junior."

"Ken Griffey Jr.'s my favorite player," Betancourt said.

Now after being exposed to American baseball and sharing one more thing in common with Griffey, Jr., aside from uncanny glove-work, Betancourt appears to be right on track towards his big league dreams.

"It's always been my goal (to reach the major leagues)," Betancourt said. "It's everybody's dream here, and the sooner the better."

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