Johan Limonta was facing the toughest one-on-one matchup of his life.
As the Tacoma Rainiers’ 28-year-old outfielder settled in for the challenge May 8, he was already perspiring, his palms sweaty from anticipation.
Limonta was not digging into the batter’s box against a flamethrower with a baseball game in the balance.
Instead, he was sitting in an air-conditioned office in Miami. Peering across a table was someone much craftier, someone who, figuratively, carried a much bigger stick – a female federal government officer with the authority to approve or deny the Cuban refugee’s application to become a United States citizen.
“I was nervous because I’d been working for that for several years,” Limonta said. “But at the same time, I was excited. I could not wait to see the day, see the moment.”
About an hour later, after answering questions about U.S. history and government, having his English judged and talking about his personal background, Limonta’s worries disappeared.
“She said, ‘You passed the test,’ ” he recalled. “And that was the great moment for me.”
Eight years after escaping Cuba and six years after filing the first piece of paperwork in his quest to become a U.S. citizen, Limonta had succeeded. In a few weeks, he’ll return to Miami to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States in a formal naturalization ceremony.
“Right when I got to the U.S., I started thinking about becoming a citizen,” he said. “People told me if you get citizenship you will have more opportunity in the U.S. because you’re going to be American.”
GOODBYE CUBA, HELLO AMERICA
Limonta’s journey to the United States is similar to that of many Cubans who fled the regime of Fidel Castro. In November, The Sporting News published a story that detailed his escape from Cuba.
In September 2004, Limonta and five other ballplayers, including Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar, devised a plan to leave. They told no one, not even family, for fear of repercussions against them after their escape.
According to TSN, about 10 days before boarding the boat that would take them to the U.S., the group left their homes and hid in a forest for more than a week. Then the boat’s departure point changed, forcing them to hitchhike across the island for four days. On Oct. 6, they boarded the boat along with three dozen others.
The trip wasn’t smooth. An engine failed, the rocking waves and powerful odor of fuel caused many to vomit. Sharks circled the boat.
Finally, at 1 a.m. on Oct. 9, the boat reached American shores.
The six ballplayers went to Miami. They stayed with an acquaintance and practiced baseball, preparing for the 2005 major league draft. Undrafted, Limonta enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College, where he played one season. The Mariners drafted him in the 20th round of the 2006 draft.
It was about that time Limonta took the first steps to becoming a U.S. citizen.
“Right when I got to the U.S., I started thinking about it,” he said. “But you have to wait a couple years and then apply. They investigate you. They need to know who you are.”
Limonta was comfortable telling his story and confident that investigators wouldn’t find anything amiss. The prospect of being quizzed on U.S. history and government terrified him, though.
The month before taking the test, Limonta studied whenever he could. The study guide, provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, lists 100 sample questions. Ten questions would be asked, with six correct answers needed to pass this portion of the test.
Pitcher Shawn Kelley was briefly with the Rainiers in early May for a rehab stint when he noticed Limonta reading the study guide during a four-game series at Tucson. A political science major at Austin Peay State University, Kelley was instantly interested and offered to help.
Kelley explained the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – explained how Congress is divided into the House of Representatives and Senate and drew a couple diagrams.
“He was nervous,” Kelley said. “If he wasn’t playing or preparing for a game, he was studying that booklet.”
QUICK TRIP TO MIAMI
On May 7, while the Rainiers prepared to play in Reno, Limonta took an early morning flight to Miami. He studied on the plane and crammed more that evening after arriving. He barely slept and woke up early.
A friend accompanied Limonta to the federal building, providing moral support. They were met by a room full of other applicants – 21,071 Cubans became American citizens in 2011 – and Limonta waited 20 minutes before being called to take the hour-long exam.
After a quick lunch, he caught a flight back to Sea-Tac Airport and then rejoined the team in Albuquerque on May 9.
“Everyone was pretty happy for him,” Rainiers manager Daren Brown said.
Teammates gave him a nickname, too, calling him “John” or “Johnny.”
“A lot of American teammates, they don’t call me Johan, they call me John,” he said. “(Saying) ‘Your name now is John, you’re American.’ ”
In a few months, after he takes the oath, Limonta said he wants to begin the process to bring his brother, 31-year-old Johanne, to the U.S. The two can’t communicate regularly because Internet connections are a luxury in Cuba – about 12 percent of the population has access to the Internet – and telephone calls are expensive.
Limonta sacrificed a lot by leaving Cuba, his birthplace and home to so many friends and family. He said he worries about his brother.
“I want to go back and see where I’m from,” he said. “I want to spend time where I grew up. I want to go to the first field I played at when I was little.”
He also knows he has gained so much by becoming a citizen of the United States of America.
“I will have a lot of opportunities,” Limonta said. “I can be free, can speak, do whatever I want – the right way – as an American.”email@example.com 253-365-2975 @DougPaceyTNT