For Cuban friends, improbable reunion
Mariners infielder, MLS star meet by chance after defections
It was the summer of 2005, and Maykel Galindo knew virtually no one in Seattle. He had just defected from Cuba while playing with the national soccer team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup held in the United States, but now he was quite alone and far, far away from his family back home.Thanks to his talent, he quickly latched on with the Seattle Sounders of the United Soccer League's first division -- a level below Major League Soccer. Still very new to his surroundings, he picked up a newspaper one day and began to read. There he was. On the page was the name Yuniesky Betancourt, Galindo's childhood friend from back home in Cuba who had defected in 2003 to play baseball. He read that his buddy was in Triple-A Tacoma, and shortly thereafter, he saw a picture of Betancourt in the paper and found out he was being promoted to the big club in Seattle. Galindo, who had not known which city Betancourt lived in, contacted the Mariners. Betancourt got a little surprise himself. He arrived at his locker one day to find a note with Galindo's contact info. The two rendezvoused at a restaurant to catch up, reunited after a multiyear separation by an unlikely coincidence. "It was just like always, especially when you first come here, you don't know anybody and you don't have your family," Betancourt said through an interpreter. "You stick with each other, and give each other a hug, and start reminiscing about old times." ********************************************
Now it's a few years later, and Betancourt is currently in his third full season with the Mariners as a defensive stalwart and part of an ever-improving middle-infield duo with Jose Lopez.When the Mariners head down to Los Angeles to play a series, Betancourt often has a special fan in the stands. Galindo sits, watching his buddy compete in the best baseball league the world has to offer. "I feel ... obligated to be there at his games because, if not, I'm going to get a lot of flak for that," Galindo said through an interpreter. Betancourt returns the favor, too, because Galindo now plays for MLS club Chivas USA in Los Angeles. The kid who took the less-popular road in Cuban athletics is now a standout performer in the top U.S. league, coming off a 12-goal regular season in 2007 that earned him the team's Golden Boot award as Chivas won the regular season Western Conference title. "Thank God we were both lucky enough to have the opportunity to come over here," Betancourt said. When the two aren't at games, they head out to dinner together and hang out, becoming nearly inseparable on such trips. But even when Betancourt heads back to Seattle, they'll still be in touch, be it phone calls or text messages. It's just another chapter in a friendship that made it against the odds. ******************************************
Roughly 16 years ago, they were just a couple of kids, meeting at around age 10 and growing up in Villa Clara, a province in the middle of Cuba.Goofing around in school, playing pranks on each other, from time to time they'd mess around with a hand-made baseball in the classrooms, throwing it to each other and using their hands as bats just to have some fun. The two mainly hung out during class hours because Betancourt often had to work at home afterward. Once the studying was done in the morning, it was time for practice. At the sports-based academy, the two youngsters had to pick their trades at an early age. Betancourt chose baseball, the sport most associated with Cuba, the logical choice. His buddy, Galindo, elected to use his feet and pick up the less-popular fútbol -- soccer for Americans. And so they grew up that way, studying, practicing, playing, always good friends but distanced once Galindo left at around age 13 to train in Havana, the nation's capital. Both no doubt full of the dreams all little kids fall asleep to, but also living in a country where athletes often try to defect and are watched closely by the government. Neither aware of what the coming years would bring. They saw each other when their schedules allowed, but in 2003 the pals were split up when Betancourt decided to escape the country. The details of his departure have never been perfectly clear -- Betancourt is reserved on the subject -- but the basic storyline is that he wound up taking a boat off the island and eventually spent time in Mexico before emerging in the United States and signing with the Mariners in early 2005. He chose to embark on a new life and was soon on a fast track to the Major Leagues, while Galindo, still with the national team in Havana, kept grinding away at his soccer career. He knew nothing about his buddy's exact location, only that he was in the States. But then Galindo, too, made the monumental decision to leave Cuba behind, although his defection grabbed a bit more attention than Betancourt's. With the Cuban national soccer team in Seattle for the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July 2005, he provided Cuba's lone goal in a 3-1 loss against Costa Rica before sneaking out of the team hotel later on to seek political asylum. He hopped on a bus and eventually contacted the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services with help from Alex Zahajko, a high school Spanish teacher who was also a liaison for the Cuban team in Seattle. The unlikely circumstances quickly brought the two friends together after the newspaper discovery. It was especially helpful for Galindo, who was still new to the Seattle scene. "When I was in Seattle, I was very alone," Galindo said. "The only people I knew were the family that took me in their home. But knowing him, it really made me have a lot of calm and be very comfortable in Seattle." Soon they were hanging out in their off-time, even going to each other's games once in a while, and Galindo chose to stay in Seattle for the 2006 season. Betancourt was on hand to watch his close friend score the tying goal in the 2005 USL championship game that the Sounders eventually won in penalty kicks. "He attended that game, and it was very beautiful for me to have this guy [there] that I spent my childhood with," Galindo said. ***********************************
The two describe each other as true friends would. Galindo says that Betancourt is humble, despite the fact that he's "very famous.""He's always had his feet on the ground," Galindo said. Betancourt talks about Galindo's "charismatic" personality, and when asked about how the two friends have risen to the top of their respective sports, he immediately gave the credit to his countryman. After all, soccer's low profile in Cuba makes his friend's accomplishments even more impressive. Their modest and attention-deflecting answers probably have something to do with why they're close in the first place. "He's always been in a good mood despite everything that he's gone through, and we get along well because we have the similar type personality," Betancourt said. And with Seattle set to join the MLS in 2009, Galindo could be returning once in a while to the city where he got his start, maybe even to catch a Mariners game and check in on their shortstop. In fact, Galindo visited Safeco Field when he was part of the Sounders in August 2006, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a Yankee game to Betancourt behind the plate. There they were, the soon-to-be MLS star and the Major League shortstop in a Major League Stadium. Just a couple of kids from Cuba messing around with a ball once again -- this time thanks to some lucky twists of fate that somehow kept them close and in contact. A "beautiful" moment, as Galindo describes such things. A beautiful friendship.
Jesse Baumgartner is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.