“I hate boats,” Maikel Jova tells me. Then he smiles.

We’re sitting on plastic chairs an easy toss from the first base line at cozy Albert Park, adjacent to a playground and a maple-lined suburb. 

Jova has just finished batting practice. His cap is pulled low over reflective sunglasses. He slumps slightly in his seat, but his handshake is warm and his grin is broad and winning.

In about an hour, he’ll take his hacks as the designated hitter for the San Rafael Pacifics, an independent league team in Marin County, California.

The late-August sun cuts evening shadows across the outfield. A few fans have already filed in, bought IPAs and tri-tip sandwiches and taken their seats in the painted wooden bleachers. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” blares from the PA system.

That’s when Jova tells me about the first boat. It was more of a raft, reallyless than 10 feet long with a sputtering outboard motor.

In March 1998, Jovaa promising 17-year-old ballplayer and the son of former star Cuban National shortstop Pedro Jovaboarded the craft with eight of his countrymen.

The destination was Florida, where Cuban right-hander Livan Hernandez was pitching for the Marlins. Livan‘s brother, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, had also defected and would soon sign with the New York Yankees. 

A storm hit. Jova‘s boat drifted. The sun rose, sank, rose, sank. Still they drifted.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to die,'” he says. He moves his arms like the sloshing waves.

After 10 days at sea, they were rescued by a fishing crew. Instead of Miami, they’d reached the Bahamas. They were detained in a room where rats scurried across the floor. Outside, negotiations for their asylum went back and forth like a rocking boat.

When a plane came for them, however, it said ‘Cuba’ on the side. Jova‘s heart sank.

“When I got back, they told me, ‘You cannot play baseball. You cannot go to school,'” he says. “You cannot go anywhere. Do anything.”

His father, who won three consecutive Serie Nacional championships as a manager for Villa Clara after hitting .315 in 17 seasons, was also blacklisted.

Jova‘s mother died when he was a young boy. Now, his father was out of work. They had lost everything.

“It was like this,” Jova says. He balls his hands into fists, spreads his fingers apart and makes the sound of a bomb exploding.

The second boat was larger. Much larger.

“It was a big league boat,” Jova recalls with a wink. 

He boarded it that same year, 1998. It was August 13, Fidel Castro’s birthday. 

The voyage covered hundreds of miles, and the sea was unforgiving. Jova was dehydrated and sick. He holds his stomach and shakes his head, conjuring the feeling.

They made landfall in Nicaragua and from there traveled to Costa Rica. At last, after the waves and rats and heartbreak and explosions, Jova got to do the thing he set out to do: play baseball.

“He was a five-tool talent,” says Pacifics owner and general manager Mike Shapiro, who has worked in the front offices of the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals and first met Jova in 2012. “He could hit, hit for power, run. Cannon for an arm. You can still see some of that, even if he’s lost the speed.”

After his Costa Rica showcase, Jova signed with the Toronto Blue Jays for $150,000. In 2001, he hit 12 home runs with 53 RBI between Low-A and Single-A.

By 2004, he’d climbed to Double-A, where he hit .277. In 2006, he got the call from the Syracuse SkyChiefs, the Jays’ then-Triple-A affiliate. One small step away.

Also one giant leap.

“It was like this,” Jova says, holding his thumb and index finger an inch or so apart. “You feel so close.”

In 30 plate appearances with the SkyChiefs, Jova tallied seven hits, all singles. After just nine games, he was given his release, to use one of sports’ cruelest euphemisms. 

His MLB dreams were over. He was 1,500 miles and several worlds away from his family. He was 25 years old.

“He loves it. You cannot just stop doing what you love,” says Jova‘s wife, Diany. “That’s what I tell Maikel: ‘If you really love baseball, do it.'”

After the Jays set him adrift, Jova caught on with the Yuma Bullfrogs, an independent team in Arizona. From there, he had indie stints with the Sussex Skyhawks, Chico Outlaws, Lincoln Saltdogs, Lake County Fielders and, finally, the Pacifics.

In July 2015, Maikel and Diany got married on the field at Albert Park. They walked down the “aisle” under a tunnel of baseball bats held aloft by Jova‘s teammates. Pacifics manager Matt Kavanaugh performed the ceremony.

Most Pacifics players live with host families during the three-month season. This year, Diany and Maikel got their own apartment in San Rafael, where they live with her two older children, Jye and Jaydy, and their one-year-old son, Maykdel.

“I love it here,” says Diany. “The weather is beautiful.” After the season ends in September, however, the couple will go to Mexico to stay with her family. 

Marin County is expensive; the median home price hovers around $1 million. The highest-paid players on the Pacifics, according to Shapiro, make about $1,000 a month, though Jova also works as the team’s hitting coach.

Surviving off independent ball is tough. It’s nearly impossible in one of the country’s wealthiest enclaves, where investment bankers complain about the cost of living. 

Jova says he plans to return next season. Shapiro sounds like he’d love to have him.

“At heart, Maikel is a really decent, fine individual who cares deeply about not only the game of baseball but about people,” he says. “There isn’t a person on this team or who’s ever been associated with this team who doesn’t have unbelievable respect for him.”

Jova signed with the Pacifics in 2012. He’d previously played indie ball under the team’s then-manager, former MLB All-Star outfielder/first baseman Mike Marshall. Marshall introduced him to Shapiro. 

“I was immediately taken by him,” recalls Shapiro. “Most of my career has been in the major leagues, so I’m used to a lot of the trappings of ballplayers. Here’s a man who I later found out had been through all these trials and tribulations and he was as sweet and natural and forthcoming as your best friend might be.”

Jova batted .341 that year and set the North American League record with a 37-game hitting streak.

Shapiro and I are seated behind home plate as the grounds crew prepares the field. While we’re talking, little Maykdel toddles up holding a foam bat emblazoned with the MLB logo.

He points through the screen at the green grass and red dirt and the men in their blue-and-white uniforms. “Ball!” he exclaims. His face lights up. His grin is broad and winning.

He’s wearing a Pacifics cap, with the brim tipped back. Underneath, in Sharpie, someone has scrawled a single word: “Cuba.”

From the moment he boarded the second boat, Jova knew he might not ever see his family again. He’d experienced firsthand how the Cuban government treated defectors.

For 14 years, he didn’t see them. They missed his ascent through the Blue Jays organization—and his seasons toiling in indie ball. They missed him growing from a boy into a man.

In 2012, Jova won a government lottery that allowed him to return to Cuba. He got on a plane and watched, transfixed, as his homeland materialized through the window.

“It was like a dream,” he says, running his fingers along his forearm. Goosebumps.

When he landed, he says, they checked his passport, asked his name and told him to wait. Everyone else got off the plane. 

Then they dropped the hammer: “No.”

He couldn’t see his father, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins. He would get on a plane the next day and go back to the United States. 

I ask if they gave him a reason. He bites his lip and shakes his head. “No reason.”

“He was very sad when he got back, very depressed,” says Diany. “To get that close and not be able to see them, it was very hard for him.”

This part of the story has a happy ending. The following year, he tried again. He got on the plane. He saw Cuba through the window. He landed. They checked his passport, asked his name and told him to wait. 

This time, they let him in.

He’s been back a couple of times since, including a trip with Diany and Maykdel

“Three generations of Jovas,” Diany says of the meeting between Pedro, Maikel and Maykdel. “Grandpa loved seeing [Maykdel]. Said he was going to be a catcher, like Ivan Rodriguez.”

With relations between the U.S. and Cuba continuing to thaw, travel between the two countries is getting easier. Some of Jova‘s family has been able to visit him here. The distance is shrinking. 

“It’s better,” he says. “It’s getting better.”

Cuban big leaguers come in many varieties. There are the success stories such as the Hernandez brothers and Yoenis Cespedes. There are the high-profile flameouts like Hector Olivera. There are up-and-comers, including Yoan Moncada and Lazaro Armenteros Jr.

Then there’s a guy like Yasiel Puig, who’s loaded with talent but seemingly unable to master the mental aspect of the game and the discipline and maturity necessary for a prolonged career.

That’s Jova‘s take. “He’s a great player,” he says of Puig. “But…” He taps two fingers to the side of his head.

He says he enjoys following his countrymen in the big leagues and roots for their success. There is no hint of bitterness in his words.

When I ask how it feels to have come so close, he shrugs, pauses for a moment and then smiles that broad, winning smile. “It’s baseball.”

He says he enjoys coaching the younger players, but only the ones willing to heed his advice. “If they want to listen, they can listen,” he says. “If not, that’s fine.”

To Shapiro, Jova is the team leader. The man. Period. 

“That’s Papi‘s clubhouse,” he says. “They call him Papi. You can see when you go down there, the way they look to him.”

Jova is 35 now, not quite over the hill but well past the summit. He’s hitting .257 with 13 doubles and four home runs in 75 games.

The fans still love him, cheering loudly as he strides to the plate to (warning: link includes NSFW language) Jay Z’s “Public Service Announcement” (sample lyric: “Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is Hov…fresh out the fryin‘ pan into the fire…”).

Still, the end will come eventually. Is a full-time coaching gig next?

“I feel good,” he says. “My body feels good. I can still play. So one more year, and then we’ll see.”

It’s coincidental when you think about it—the distance between Jova and the big leagues is still a stretch of salt water.

Then, it was the Caribbean Sea. Now, it’s the San Francisco Bay, which separates San Rafael from San Francisco’s AT&T Park to the south and Oakland’s O.co Coliseum to the southeast. The bright lights. The TV cameras. Thousands of fans and millions of dollars. 

This time, though, there’s no boat waiting for him.

All things considered, Maikel Jova is probably OK with that.


Jacob Shafer is a national columnist for Bleacher Report. You can find him in Twitter form here.

All quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

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