By Bill McCaughey
For the Fort Bend Star
Around 10 a.m. on Sept. 24, 2004, Johan Limonta, 18 years old at the time and now an outfielder with the Sugar Land Skeeters, received a phone call that changed his life forever.
The caller told Limonta, who was living in Havana, Cuba, to be at a certain address at 1 p.m. that afternoon, and he was to bring nothing with him. Limonta’s father was sitting next to him when the call came, but he didn’t say anything to his father. Around noon, Limonta told his father he would “be back later” and headed for the pick-up location. A truck picked him up and delivered him to a safe house where Limonta stayed for about five days. He then moved to another safe house before finally leaving Havana for good on Oct. 4 around 9 p.m.
Limonta and 35 other people, including four other baseball players, were put on board a small boat that typically accommodates about 10 people. For the next 36 hours, the passengers and crew endured rough seas and heavy wind and rain.
“I really thought I was going to die. I didn’t see how we could make it to the United States with such a little boat and the large waves and winds,” Limonta said.
There was no food or water and no bathroom facilities for the passengers who sat shoulder to shoulder the whole trip. Finally, around 9 a.m. on Oct. 6, the boat landed at what Limonta believes was an island in the Dry Tortugas island chain, about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. The passengers departed the boat and sat on the sandy beach as the boat returned to Cuba. Eventually they were picked up by the United States Coast Guard and taken to Key West and eventually Miami.
Prior to his escape from Cuba, Limonta lived in Havana with his father and brother. His father was retired but worked part-time stocking shelves in a supermarket, and Limonta worked part time in an ice cream shop and played baseball the rest of the time for a minor league team in the Cuban baseball system. He also played volleyball while growing up but baseball became his favorite sport Limonta’s heroes while growing up were Barry Bonds and Tony Gwynn. He was also a big fan of the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run battle.
Baseball is wildly popular in Cuba, and young players with potential are sometimes approached by shadowy groups that will assist baseball players in getting into the United States. It is rumored the smugglers want $10,000 to deliver a Cuban baseball player to Miami, provide a place to live and train, and connect them to baseball agents and scouts. Sometimes if a smuggled-in player signs a big money contract, the smugglers will demand more money.
Limonta was approached in May of 2004 about leaving Cuba and immediately said he was interested. He only discussed his leaving with his brother and a close friend. Limonta said he never knew the names of the people behind his escape, as the penalties would be harsh if the smugglers became known to the communist officials.
“I never said anything to anyone because if someone found out, it would be a really big deal,” Limonta said.
After expressing his desire to leave, there was little contact between Limonta and the smugglers until the phone call on Sept. 24. When asked if he had to pay to get out of Cuba, Limonta just said, “It’s complicated.”
With Limonta on the escape boat was Yunel Escobar, currently the third baseman for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Escobar was the only player of the five on the boat to make it to the major leagues. In a Washington Post article (May 7, 2015), Escobar said he paid $50,000 to the smugglers to cover his fee and the fees for the other four players on the boat with him.
Limonta spent about a year in Miami living with people connected to the smugglers. During this time, he and the other baseball players worked out and participated in tryout camps.
Limonta played for Miami Dade College in 2005 and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the 20th round in 2006. He worked his way up the minor leagues, reaching the AAA level in 2011. He played several more seasons in AAA leagues before joining the York Revolution of the Atlantic League in 2015. The Skeeters signed him in June of 2015.
Earlier this spring, Limonta was the high school baseball coach for the Posnack Rams in Broward, Fla.
“I enjoyed being a manager and working with the kids,” he said. “Several of my high school pitchers talked me out of taking them out of the game. That’s something I need to work on.”
The high school would like him back next season.
“Just this week they called me three times about coaching next season,” Limonta said.
Several years ago, Limonta’s father visited him in Miami and did not return to Cuba Limonta’s brother is still in Havana. Limonta believes his brother will stay in Havana as he has married and started a family. If the United States removes travel restrictions to and from Cuba, Limonta may get to see his brother again. As the 33-year-old contemplates the end of his playing days, he would like to stay in baseball.
“When the time comes I will be ready to move on. I will be a little sad, but I will be ready for it,” he said.
“I would really like to be a general manager or manager after my playing days,” he added. “I watch how Gary (Gaetti) manages. I watch him real close and sometimes he says, hey, what are you looking at? I tell him, I just want to learn from him. Gary is my hero. He played in the majors for 20 years and won a World Series. I want to be like him. I respect him in all kinds of ways. I love playing for him.”
Gaetti picked up Limonta last season just as soon as he was cut by another team.
“I didn’t know his story until later on. I can’t convey what the story was other than it’s a legitimate life-and-death serious situation that he was in to actually get to the United States. … He’s a neat guy, a really good player, just a neat guy to be around. I’m glad I got him,” he said.
Limonta keeps up with the Major Leagues and other sports. He is picking San Francisco and Boston to meet in this year’s World Series, and the Cavaliers to beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
“I am not a LeBron (James) fan as he left Miami behind, but I think the city of Cleveland, after all they have been through, deserves a championship,” said Limonta.
After all he has been through, Limonta deserves a championship too.