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Steve Wulf/Scottsdale

FOR OSVALDO FERNANDEZ AND LIVAN Hernandez, the distance between Cuba and the U.S. is not the 75 miles of the Caribbean, and not the almost 40 years of bitter and sometimes deadly conflict. It is the 60 ft. 6 in. between the rubber and the plate.

Fernandez and Hernandez are pitchers, far better pitchers than Fidel Castro ever was, so good that they were national heroes in Cuba. As such, they were given certain entitlements. In the case of Fernandez, the best pitcher for Cuba during the past Olympics, the privileged life included a Moskvich car, immunity from food shortages, $5 a month in wages and closely guarded travel with the national team. Nobody was watching, though, when he slipped out of his motel in Millington, Tennessee, at 7 a.m. last July and got into a van that drove him to Miami.

Behind the wheel was Joe Cubas, a 35-year-old Miami contractor who has shadowed the Cuban team for several years. Now the agent for both players, Cubas executed a similar pick-off play with Hernandez two months later in Mexico. The pitchers soon found themselves being wined and dined by a dozen clubs. They even partied with Gloria Estefan, courtesy of the Florida Marlins. They were also offered money beyond their dreams.

In January, Hernandez, 21, signed a four-year, $4.5 million deal with the Marlins, and Fernandez, 27, accepted a three-year, $3.2 million package from the San Francisco Giants. Other teams offered more, but Hernandez chose the Marlins because “Miami tastes like Cuba,” while Fernandez opted for the Giants because of their Latin tradition–Juan Marichal, the Alou brothers–and because they needed pitching.

None other than Castro himself thinks the Marlins got the better arm. But Hernandez may be too young for the majors this season, even though he had two scoreless innings in his spring-training debut last Wednesday. The more experienced Fernandez has already been penciled into the Giants’ rotation. Their weekly meal money alone–$563–is almost 10 times what they made in a year in Cuba. “Maybe one day they will come back to Cuba and bring their money with them,” Castro told TIME last week.

Although Cuban pelota remains a mystery to the average fan, baseball people know just how good it is. In his spring-training office in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week, Giants manager Dusty Baker rattled off some names–“Tony Perez, Tito Fuentes, Tony Taylor, Camilo Pascual, Tony Gonzalez, Pedro Ramos, Tony Oliva”–and then said, “Every Cuban I have ever played with or against knew how this game is played.”

In 1991 pitcher Rene Arocha became the first Cuban national-team member to defect, and he soon established himself with the St. Louis Cardinals. There have been a few other defectors–Oakland Athletics pitcher Ariel Prieto and New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez–whom the Cubans tried to dismiss as second-rank malcontents. But when Fernandez got into Cubas’ van last July, they could no longer make that claim. He was, after all, 22-0 in international competition, with a 1.62 era. And he was not considered a security risk.

“I was probably the player they least expected to defect,” Fernandez said last week through Carlos Alfonso, the Giants bullpen coach who has been acting as his interpreter. “I am from Holguin, in the country, and nobody from the country had ever defected. Even though I began to think about it in 1993, I never told anyone, including my wife.”

Fernandez still talks to Elizabeth, a pediatric nurse, and their 1 1/2-year-old daughter, also named Elizabeth, on a nightly basis. But he is worried that the furor over the downing of the American civilian planes on Feb. 24 will lead to a communications blackout. “Still, I will never lose faith that we will be reunited,” he says, “even if this incident means it will take a little longer.” As for adjusting to American life, he says, “I feel funny and strange all the time. But everybody has been nice, and when I step on the mound, I feel at home.”

Indeed, the Giants have been very impressed with his repertoire of five pitches, including a knuckler, thrown from four different angles. He had some control problems and gave up three runs in his two-inning spring-training debut last Friday, but he charmed reporters when they asked him if the strike zone is different in the U.S. “I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t throw that many strikes.”

His manager thinks Fernandez will do just fine, on and off the field. “I was driving along Scottsdale Road the other day,” says Baker, “and at the light, I looked over at a Mustang convertible in the next lane. Behind the wheel, smiling at me, was Osvaldo.” –With reporting by Joelle Attinger/Havana

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