In the back of a shed in his run-down Miami neighborhood, where he can see it every time he gets his rusty old lawn mower chugging away, there's a poster of Rene Arocha when he was young, when in 1993 he set the whole baseball world on its ear.
That was when he wasn't a star of the diamond but just another defector from communism. That was a time when not just our best baseball players but ballerinas, cellists, dancers and nearly every other great American ensemble consisted of refugees from the old Soviet Union or one of its equally oppressive satellites. Rene Arocha joined the star-studded exodus July 10, 1991, by walking out of a hotel side door and requesting diplomatic asylum in this land of the free and mother of exiles. He didn't have any luggage with him, but he did have a 92-mile-an-hour fastball and lots of relatives in Miami, and that was more than enough.
Of course he was denounced as a traitor to the glorious revolution of the proletariat, but with the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist "Republics," all that changed, and both he and Cuba entered a new and better world. What surprised him most about this country was how everybody could criticize its leader -- without needing to whisper.
Rene Arocha was soon assigned to the old St. Louis Cardinals, whose games many an American followed first on radio and then on television. Those were the days -- and static-filled nights. There is something about departed glory that never departs.
When he takes his 17-foot boat out into the Gulf of Mexico, he knows that it's considered smuggling to bring fleeing Cubans on board, but it's OK to throw some food and water over the side so that this year's crop of refugees can survive long enough for the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue them. Those of us with roots as immigrants -- legal, illegal or otherwise -- never forget our roots. No matter how many Castros or Trumps arise and do their best, or rather worst, to kill the unkillable American Dream.
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