By Omar Kelly | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted June 9, 2006
The first time Ylya Rodriguez saw her son wearing a University of Miami jersey tears welled in her eyes.
Playing for the Hurricanes might have been Eddy Rodriguez's childhood dream, but seeing him attend any university, pursuing whatever dream, in a country where he could become something more than a farmer or fisherman, was her dream.
That's why Ylya and her former husband, Edilio Rodriguez, risked their lives and the lives of their two children to escape communist Cuba on Aug. 29, 1993, spending four days at sea on a makeshift boat -- battling starvation and the elements -- all for the American dream.
It was that dream that gave Ylya and Edilio the commitment to plan the trip for five years, the bravery to fight off sharks, and provided the family the faith to pray its way through a terrible storm that nearly capsized the boat, potentially drowning all five passengers, which included Eddy's older sister, Yanisbet, and cousin, Carlos.
"The third day was the worst. There was a storm that made the sea turn black. There was a moment it appeared as if the sun was joined with the sky," said a choked-up Ylya. "I still can't talk about it. ... It's one thing to be on a cruise, but when you're in the middle of the ocean and you're thinking I'm going to lose myself here in front of my children. ... Thank God the storm opened up. That was a very hard moment for me."
The entire experience still haunts Eddy. He was 8 but said he can recall "every single detail" of the journey.
To this day, he's grateful for the ship that found their boat and gave the Coast Guard their coordinates to rescue them, bringing the family to Miami.
As much as Rodriguez appreciates the opportunities his parents have provided, he firmly believes he wouldn't put his own children through that experience for "anything in the world."
"We all nearly died on more than one occasion. I can't shake those memories," said Rodriguez, who will be catching Saturday for the Hurricanes, who face Mississippi in a best-of-3 Super Regional in Oxford, Miss. "To me life is the most important thing."
Maybe he takes that stance because he doesn't fully understand his future was the driving force for the dangerous trip. Upon arriving in Miami, Rodriguez fell in love not only with baseball -- the sport he played back in Cuba with a stick and a taped up rock -- but the Hurricanes.
While playing for Tamiami Park's Little League team, the Sedano Dodgers, he attended a UM game. And after getting autographs, he pledged his allegiance to the Hurricanes, telling his mother he was going to play for Miami.
Ylya's initial response was: "Eddy, you know I can't afford to send you to this university. We just came from Cuba."
Rodriguez then told his mother, "Don't worry. I'll make it happen."
It turns out he was right. He said the day he got a UM questionnaire in the mail as a high school sophomore was the happiest of his life. He landed a scholarship before graduating from nearby Coral Gables High, but his college career didn't exactly take off like he'd hoped.
He admits to coasting his first year at UM because standout Erick San Pedro was entrenched as the starting catcher. He didn't push himself and got pudgy. His coaches weren't pleased.
"Boy, did I ride him," assistant coach Gino DiMare said.
His questionable work ethic prompted UM to recruit and sign Alex Garabedian, who turned down a lot of money as seventh-round draft pick of the Yankees to attend UM in 2004. UM's coaches told Rodriguez they expected Garabedian to beat him out, and it was that challenge that drove him through a grueling offseason program.
The following semester he was selected the team's most valuable performer during fall camp because he had finally turned his weakness -- his hitting -- into a strength. His play became so steady Garabedian transferred to the College of Charleston.
"That was one of things that helped me the most, knowing someone was out to get me. I took that personally," Rodriguez said. "I got hungry and got after it."
This season, he is batting .326 with 34 RBI. He is tied for the team lead with nine home runs and is one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award, which is given to the nation's top college catcher.
Rodriguez, a junior, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday in the 20th round of the amateur draft. After the tournament, he will have a tough decision: Does he return to UM for his senior season or sign a pro contract for less money than he feels he's worth?
"This is just more motivation for me," said Rodriguez, a bit disappointed by the draft. "Nothing has ever been handed to me, and I feel if it's handed to me I don't deserve it. Hopefully, whatever direction I choose I'll earn whatever I get."
No matter the decision he makes, Ylya, who works at a Publix deli and cleans houses to support her family, takes pride in knowing that her son is better off swinging a bat in the U.S. than swinging a fishing pole or some farming tool back in Cuba.