SARASOTA, Fla. -- When the Orioles made the unprecedented move to play the Cuban national team in Havana on March 28, 1999, the stated purpose was to improve relations between the countries through a sporting exhibition.
There was no way of knowing that 14 years later a young Cuban fan in the stands that afternoon would be wearing an Orioles uniform and preparing to play at their spring training complex.
Wednesday, 26-year-old outfielder and Cuban defector Henry Urrutia made his first public statements about receiving his work visa — after spending a total of 18 months in the Dominican Republic and Haiti — and finally joining the organization that gave him a $778,500 signing bonus last July.
“He said when he put on his uniform and walked on the field, the first thing he did was take a big breath, and he felt a lot of satisfaction. He finally was here,” Urrutia said through interpreter Felipe Alou Jr., the Orioles’ Dominican Academy director. “He’s ready to go, probably the happiest thing that’s happened to him the last couple of years. He’s really happy and thankful that the Orioles are giving him this opportunity.”
Urrutia (pronounced ooh-root-e-ah) had some familiarity with the Orioles because he watched them back in 1999 during their historic game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. Urrutia’s father and uncle are highly regarded former players in his home country.
“He was present at the game in Cuba. They really enjoyed it,” Alou said. “They could see the bonding among the players, the Cubans and the Orioles players. He said it was something real special. The Cuban people really appreciated that.”
Urrutia, who was suspended from playing baseball in Cuba because he attempted to defect, has not played competitively since a tournament in Japan in 2010. He defected to the Dominican in September 2011 and ultimately attempted to get his work visa out of Haiti, but it took months longer than expected.
“It was frustrating to be there waiting and what made it worse, there weren’t any fields available or places [he] could really go out and have a good workout,” Alou said. “He tried his best to stay in shape.”
A lanky 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, Urrutia was originally ticketed to begin his pro career at Double-A Bowie, and he still may. But his lack of recent experience will be a hurdle he’ll have to overcome this spring.
“We have high hopes for him,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s been a while, so we’ve got to be patient with the amount of time he’s been away from it and adjustments he’s got to make to life here. So, just because it’s delayed doesn’t mean it’s denied. He will reach his level. And we think it’s got a chance to be the big leagues.”
Urrutia will begin in minor league camp, with the possibility of getting in a few big league games by the end of camp, Showalter said.
Yet Urrutia said he didn’t leave his wife in Haiti and his family in Cuba without a set goal in mind.
“His idea is not to play [in the] minor leagues. When he got out of Cuba, his dream is to be a big league player,” Alou interpreted. “Like he says, he is not here to be a minor league player. That’s his dream [to be a major leaguer], and he is going to work hard for it.”
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, who signed Urrutia on the recommendations of national crosschecker Danny Haas and international scouting director Fred Ferreira, said he loved Urruita’s attitude.
“I really liked his thinking. He said, ‘My idea was to come to the states to play in the big leagues,’” Duquette said. “So he is very clear what his intent is. And that’s our intent, too. He just needs to get back into playing.”
When asked if Urrutia could make it to the big leagues in 2013, Duquette simply said, “Yes.”
“We didn't sign him to play in the minor leagues,” Duquette reiterated. “If he needs to go to the minor leagues to get his game back and get some of the rust off, that's fine. But we'll find out a little more about his bat [now]. I think his bat is pretty advanced.”
Baseball America has listed Urrutia as the 13th best prospect in the Orioles’ system this year. Once a switch-hitter, he is concentrating solely on batting left-handed, which should help him maintain a high average, one of his strengths. He is considered a good defensive outfielder and projects best as a right fielder, but he may not have the power expected from that position. Plus, the Orioles already have a Gold Glove right fielder in Nick Markakis.
“He has a very good arm, he has a quick bat and he has power,” Duquette said. “I'm sure that will translate to other positions. I believe that he also has some experience at first base. That’s a possibility.”
Showalter said that at this point Urrutia won’t be considered as a first base candidate on the big-league level. But he impressed the manager with his poise, intellect and stature. Showalter made a point of how large and long Urrutia’s hands are.
Urrutia, who said he grew up idolizing former New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams and would like to wear No. 51, said he’s just excited to be on a baseball field again.
“He said if he could sleep on a baseball field he’d probably do it,” Alou said.
“He says the most difficult decision, not only for him, but for any other player [is] to leave his family behind. Right now, he’s just looking forward to [moving] on and [having] a baseball career … It’s a real tough decision, and he hopes that he can see [his family] again and they can come visit.”