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Arrojo, his life in order, settles down, settles in

Rays pitcher has a clear conscience as he begins his second season.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- When Rolando Arrojo went to purchase his first car, he needed agent Joe Cubas to handle the transaction. When Arrojo wanted to buy a family van, he had Cubas come along to help. When it was time to upgrade to a nicer car, Arrojo consulted with Cubas while handling the matter.

A few weeks ago, Arrojo traded up for a sleek black 1999 Mercedes. And this time, he didn't need Cubas' help. "He got such a good deal," said Cubas, no stranger to hard bargains himself, "that I asked him if he could get me one."

As Arrojo enters his second season with the Devil Rays, the Cuban defector is slowly growing increasingly comfortable in his new life, professionally and personally. He's more at ease, more settled, more -- well -- Americanized, and the evidence is visible in other places than a new car showroom.

His wife, Mayda, observes that he is more confident and loose. Manager Larry Rothschild senses that he is allowing more of his playful personality to come out around the clubhouse. His brother, Roberto, sees that he is working out harder. Cubas notices that he has become more and more independent.

"This year is a little more relaxed for me," Arrojo said through a Times interpreter. "I know the players, I know the city, I know the public. I know the quality of baseball here. It's all a little easier for me, the personal part. As for the athletic part, it's difficult."

Arrojo has been cautious to camouflage his confidence since signing with the Rays in April 1997. But the more relaxed situation should translate to further success, if for no other reason than two significant concerns from last season have been eliminated.

On the field, any doubts about how the former Cuban national team ace would fare against major-league competition should be gone after a season in which he won 14 games, earned selection to the All-Star team and finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Rothschild says Arrojo should benefit from knowing the physical demands of a 162-game season as well as the nuances of the major-league game. "Just being here a year and adjusting to the major leagues and everything, hopefully that translates into more success," Rothschild said.

And, on a more personal level, Arrojo has the peace of mind of having his family safely here with him. His mother, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew escaped from Cuba last June and settled in St. Petersburg, not far from the house where Rolando, Mayda, and their two sons live.

When Arrojo defected, he didn't know if he would see them again and spent last spring anxiously placing daily calls to Cuba to check on their welfare. "It's a weight, a worry that he no longer has," Roberto said in Spanish. "In order to play any sport well, the mind has to be clear to prepare, to be free of any worries."

Or, as Cubas says: "He doesn't have the dark cloud over his head that his family is being tortured, harassed and thrown in jail by the Cuban government because he chose to be a free man."

Cubas says the changes will absolutely, positively lead to more victories, but Arrojo is careful to not make any assumptions. "I'm afraid of confidence," he said. "With too much confidence, you relax too much, and the quality of play goes down."

His only goal for this season, he says, is "to win the first game, then the second, then take each win as it comes along."

Rothschild says that if Arrojo makes the proper physical and mental adjustments, spectacular things are possible. "When everything is together for him, he's as good as anybody," Rothschild said.

The Arrojos live comfortably here. Their 10-year-old son, Rolando Jr., attends fourth grade at a small parochial school and is learning tennis. Jason, their 3-year-old, often tags along.

Roberto, who longs for the opportunity to return to coaching baseball as he did in Cuba, does some maintenance at John Hopkins Middle School and helps with PE classes. He lives with his wife, Estel, and their children, Luis and Liliet, in northwest St. Petersburg. The Arrojos' mother, Uvendolina de la Fe Avila, lives there, too.

Slowly, the entire family is adjusting to life in America. They watch TV and dabble in American food, though Rolando still prefers Cuban staples -- steak, beans, rice and roasted potatoes.

The biggest barrier is the language, and the Arrojos are working on it. Rolando Jr. speaks the best English of the bunch; Roberto is taking classes four nights a week, and his children are learning through a school ESL program.

Arrojo has learned some English -- more than he lets on -- but still converses in Spanish. He says he reads the Times each morning and picks up enough that he knows when an article is worth sharing. "The fundamental word right now is confidence," Mayda said. "We all have more confidence this year at all that we have achieved in this country."

It is a life far different from what Arrojo had in Cuba, where he made $11 a month, shared a three-bedroom home with eight relatives and rode a bicycle to the stadium, often in full uniform.

Here he has money, thanks to a $7-million signing bonus (plus the potential of a long-term guaranteed contract). And he has fame, courtesy of being the star pitcher on a new team.

"The people here are such fans," Mayda said. "In spite of the fact that they know he doesn't speak English, people still call to him, want him to sign autographs, have posters of him. It's incredible."

But in a way, it is a life very much the same. Arrojo works hard at baseball, keeps mostly to himself and enjoys quiet time with his family. "We continue to maintain practically the same life we had in Cuba," Mayda said, "the only difference being the improved lifestyle."

Overall, life here is good.

"Lo mejor del mundo ," Arrojo said. The best in the world.

-- Times correspondent Karen Ray Mathews contributed to this report.

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