CLEARWATER, Fla. - Dalier Hinojosa's eyes widened. It was a muggy Saturday morning, and the 30-year-old Phillies reliever was a few hours from throwing another dominant inning in a spring that has catapulted the Cuban defector.
The righthander is one week from his first opening day in the majors. And, when that day comes, he could be the Phillies' closer.
He is asked to compare this moment, on the precipice of something special, with what he braved three springs ago. You never think about how you're going to escape, he said through an interpreter. You think about when. You cannot think about the risk of imprisonment or, worse, death. You think about the desperation that you never want to feel again.
"One day," Hinojosa said, "I'm going to take you to the ocean at 3 o'clock in the morning with me. 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?"
For a moment, Hinojosa laughed. Then he turned serious.
"Fear," he said, "is gone."
It is difficult to comprehend Hinojosa's journey because so few have made it, and even fewer have experienced such extremes. When he pitched for Guantanamo in the state-run Cuban baseball league, he said, he made the equivalent of $5 to $20 a month. The Boston Red Sox signed Hinojosa for a $4 million bonus after he defected in 2013. He will make $514,000 this season with the Phillies.
In Cuba, Hinojosa said, you must beg for your salary. You must stand in lines for food. You do not know opportunity. When he fled communism for capitalism, he was rewarded with more money than he could imagine.
But it was something more simple about America that captivated Hinojosa.
"I'm a professional baseball player, and I get my check without having to ask for it," Hinojosa said. "I get money because I earn it. I'm able to go to a supermarket and buy whatever I want. That is very satisfying, to know I can do it on my own. That is one of the happiest things. You don't depend on the government. You depend on your own work."
His work was not stellar in the minors with Boston, although it still was a surprise when the Red Sox waived the righthander last July - less than two years after they lavished the big bonus on him.
The Phillies claimed him. Hinojosa posted a 0.78 ERA in 23 innings and threw strikes. His fastball hovers at 93 mph, and the coaching staff touts him as a potential closer. This rebuilding team will provide opportunity for young players, but it can also be a haven for a pitcher such as Hinojosa, who needs a second chance.
His money, Hinojosa said, has gone to family. Some of it went to his handlers and his agents. He has supported friends back in Cuba and his church.
"The ability to help others is one of the most beautiful things that has ever happened to me," Hinojosa said. "The chances that this country has given me has allowed me to do things like that. 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."
Last week, when the Tampa Bay Rays traveled to Havana and played the Cuban national team in an exhibition game, Hinojosa watched from the clubhouse at Bright House Field. He saw President Obama seated next to his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro. He saw hope, as so many other Cuban Americans did.
Hinojosa has countless friends stuck on the island, friends who could benefit from a safer method for importing Cuban baseball talent to America. That reality is closer than ever.
"Three years ago," Hinojosa said, "I had to go through a different process."
It was Feb. 24, 2013. Hinojosa and his wife, Yunieska, vanished at night to a small motorboat near Guantanamo, on Cuba's eastern coast. He paid men who specialize in smuggling people out of the country to build a boat that was hidden in a forest. It had one motor.
"I was so nervous at the time that I didn't really pay attention to the boat," Hinojosa said. "What I can remember is it was small, it was narrow, and it was old."
The smugglers used a GPS to navigate the vessel toward nearby Haiti. They spent at least 12 hours at sea. "It's so crazy that only Cubans do it," Hinojosa said. He shook his head.
"It's more about your guts," he said, "than the instruments that you're able to build to escape the island."
Husband and wife established residency in Haiti, and later he tried out for scouts in the Dominican Republic. The Red Sox signed him on Oct. 10, 2013, and Hinojosa said teammates still react with shock when he explains to them how he risked his life to reach the majors.
Yunieska is pregnant with the couple's first child, a girl due in May. Hinojosa imagines what it will be like to raise a daughter in America. First, he said, he must learn English. He wants to teach his little girl both English and Spanish.
She must know where her parents came from, a journey that changed how Hinojosa sees the world.
"It has made me want to be where I am," Hinojosa said. "And I actually am where I want to be."