Soler to realize dream on Wednesday

Soler to realize dream on Wednesday

NEW YORK -- For 10 minutes after batting practice on Tuesday, only the short wall along the right-field line separated Mets starter Alay Soler from his new adoring fans.

He smiled. They smiled back. He laughed. They laughed back. It was an autograph bonanza, making it hard to tell who was having more fun, the fans or Soler.

It still is.

The American dream will become a reality Wednesday for Soler when the right-hander makes his Major League debut against the Phillies. His present and future belong to the Mets. His past belongs to Cuba, the country he defected from in a boat in 2003.

"There are certain things that everybody knows about Cuba, but to leave your family behind is very difficult," Soler, 26, said. "For us Latinos, what is the most important is family. I wanted to go forward and make a life, but leaving them behind was really hard. It's the hardest part of this."

Pitching in the United States has been relatively easy. Soler went 3-0 with a 1.51 ERA in the Minor Leagues this season, including 1-0 with a 2.75 ERA in three starts for Double-A Binghamton. He was called up from Double-A on Tuesday.

"Maybe he'll throw us a gem and give us a good shot," Mets manager Willie Randolph said.

He just might. Soler is used to pitching under pressure. He went 10-4 with a 2.01 ERA for the Cuban National Team in 2003.

"I was having a good season [in the Minors] and I am happy to be here," Soler said. "You saw in the World Classic what type of skill we have in Cuba, but it is different here. The preparation and mentality of players is different and I had to change a little. But baseball is baseball, and you work with the same enthusiasm and same calmness you always have."

Born and raised in the province of Pinar Del Rio, an area known for its tobacco, mountain ranges and mines, Soler starred in all sports as a child. With the support of his father, a miner, and mother, a school teacher, he quickly established himself as one of the top athletes in the country, just like another famous pitcher from Pinar Del Rio -- White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras.

Contreras and Soler were teammates in Cuba and remain good friends. Contreras defected in 2002 and continues to offer Soler advice on pitching and living in the United States.

"Jose understands me. He knows leaving Cuba is a personal decision," Soler said. "It was really hard, but that's part of life, and you do it. It can be a good experience, or it can be a bad one. There are no guarantees here, but for me it has been great. Here I am, and I hope it all ends with a good story."

Soler's defection is only part of his story, but it remains the most mysterious. He says he is not fond of discussing the details of his journey to the United States, particularly of his escape from Cuba, because he does not want to incriminate any of the people who helped him leave the island. His parents and sister still live in Cuba and he says they live a relatively peaceful life.

He wants to keep it that way.

"It's an ugly story, but it's also beautiful because I am here," he said. "There are some things I do not want to talk about. I hope people understand that. My history affects more than me. There are still people in Cuba who want out."

He knows of what he speaks. Soler's wife and 2-year-old son, Alain, recently joined him in the United States from Cuba and are currently with him in New York. Having them around has made this experience easier to handle, he says, but joked that he hopes when his infant son signs a baseball contract one day, he will not be forced to change his name like his father did.

"I don't know what happened," Soler said. "Somewhere between the Dominican Republic and signing, I got a new name. I lost the 'n' on the voyage."

He gained quite a bit in return. Soler received political asylum in the Dominican Republic in 2003 and signed a $2.8 million deal with the Mets in September 2004. Visa problems kept him from entering the United States until last winter, but he joined the club during Spring Training, fulfilling a childhood dream.

"I never imagined I would be playing in the Major Leagues," he said. "It was in the back of my head, but I never thought it would really happen. I had a life in Cuba."

The next phase of his life starts Wednesday.

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.