Cuban reliever Hinojosa has no fear on the mound

Righty, up for Phils' closing job, endured harrowing boat trip to make it to MLB

Cuban reliever Hinojosa has no fear on the mound

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Dalier Hinojosa is not afraid to pitch the ninth inning. He is quite certain of that.

The pressures of holding a lead are nothing compared to spending a single night on a rickety boat in the middle of the sea, in the pitch black, trying to evade the authorities and praying to God to survive the treacherous journey from Cuba to Haiti.

"One day, I'm going to take you to the ocean at 3 o'clock in the morning with me," Hinojosa said through the Phillies' interpreter Saturday morning at Bright House Field. "Then I will take you to the mound at the most filled stadium and you can tell me: Which one is worse? Which one is scarier? The ocean at 3 a.m. where it's plain dark, or the stadium that is filled with fans?"

Hinojosa laughed.

"Fear is gone," he said.

Hinojosa, 30, could close for the Phillies this season, based on his 0.78 ERA in 18 appearances last year, his strong Grapefruit League performances this spring (2.57 ERA in six appearances) and the fact that they have few other options. But before Hinojosa joined the Phillies in July after being claimed off waivers from Boston, and before the Red Sox signed him to a $4.5 million signing bonus in October 2013, Hinojosa defected from Cuba, traveling by handmade boat with his wife and a few others to Haiti on Feb. 23, 2013.

"To navigate through those waters, it's crazy," Hinojosa said. "It's plain crazy. ... Nowadays, I look back and analyze what I did, and I think that I was crazy."

But Hinojosa felt he had no choice.

"We make drastic and dangerous decisions, because we're very desperate to leave the island," he said. "It's a very poor place. It's a place where you have no opportunities. So I think those decisions are made based on the conditions where you live rather than how. You really don't think about how you're going to escape, rather when you're going to escape, regardless of the risk you're taking, regardless of losing your life. You feel desperate."

The boats for these trips are built in a remote area, where the work is hidden amongst the trees and bushes.

Secrecy is everything.

Hinojosa said he is asked about the boat he used perhaps more than anything else about his defection. But the truth is he does not remember it well.

"I was so nervous at the time that I didn't really pay attention to the boat," he said. "What I can remember is it was small, it was narrow and it was old. But, at that moment, I was full of fear and I just didn't pay attention to it."

The travelers at least had a GPS to make sure they got to Haiti, but it hardly guaranteed survival.

"It's more about your guts than the instruments that you're able to build to escape the island," Hinojosa said. "Sometimes we use car engines. We can think of anything. Any type of engine you can use, you use it. Based on my own experience, which is a bad one, a scary one, I was fearful from the beginning. I didn't want to lose my life. I didn't want things to go wrong. Of course, you think of the worst. But you try to block that from your head.

"I took that decision because I wanted to achieve my dream. My goal was to play in the MLB, the best baseball in the world. I wanted to help my family financially. Those factors make you make drastic decisions, decisions you're aware can make you lose your life. I was desperate on the island, as many other people are. I had to do it."

Hinojosa has settled into Miami with his wife, who is due with their first daughter in May. He still has a daughter from a previous marriage in Cuba.

"The chances that this country has given me have allowed me to do things like that," he said. "That's why I feel blessed. It makes me feel human when I am able to help others based on my work. I'm making enough money to help other people."

He could help more if he establishes himself in the big leagues. He has an excellent opportunity with the Phillies, who are desperate for late-inning relievers following trades last year that sent Jonathan Papelbon, Ken Giles and Jake Diekman to Washington, Houston and Texas, respectively.

The Phillies believe they have a nice find in Hinojosa. The story goes that Andy MacPhail -- before he officially succeeded Pat Gillick as team president -- pressed for the Phillies to claim Hinojosa, based on strong scouting reports on him.

It might have been MacPhail's first (unofficial) move with the Phillies.

"I think it's a great opportunity for me to be considered as a closer," Hinojosa said. "I am focused on helping the team. So whichever role they want me to be, I'll do it because I thank them and I thank the Lord."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his Phillies blog The Zo Zone, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.