Randy Arozarena has rocketed to prominence during this baseball postseason.
But Arozarena’s journey was long and difficult. It included a treacherous trip on a boat five years ago from his native Cuba to Mexico and a positive test for COVID-19 earlier this year, but now the Tampa Bay Rays’ 25-year-old outfielder is living up to the nickname he earned in his native Cuba — El Cohete Cubano — the Cuban Rocket.
Arozarena hit four home runs during the ALCS — including a two-run homer in Game 7 — to lead the Rays to their first World Series berth since 2008.
He feasted on Houston’s pitching staff with a .321 average and a 1.152 OPS. His seven homers in the postseason, including the wild card and divisional series, broke the rookie record set in 2008 by Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria. Arozarena now is one homer shy of the single-season postseason record set by Barry Bonds in 2002 and tied by Carlos Beltrán (2004) and Nelson Cruz (2011).
Arozarena became the first rookie position player in MLB history to win a League Championship Series or World Series MVP award. Previously, only pitchers had won the award: Mike Boddicker in the 1983 ALCS, Livan Hernandez in the 1997 NLCS and World Series, and Michael Wacha in the 2013 World Series.
“He is the best player on the planet,” teammate Kevin Kiermaier told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s incredible.”
Arozarena was born in Havana in 1995, and soccer was his first love. He rooted for Real Madrid and considers Cristiano Ronaldo as a major influence. That love for soccer runs in the family, as his younger brother is a pro goalie in Mexico. Arozarena became interested in baseball when a local coach needed players and recruited him.
Playing second base, he advanced to Cuba’s under-18 national team. But the 2014 death of his father, Jesus, from an allergic reaction to shellfish made him reconsider his future. When he was left off the Pinar del Río roster for the 2015 Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico despite hitting .291, Arozarena knew the time had come to leave. Cuban officials were afraid he might defect, and their fears were soon realized.
“At 19, I earned more than my mom,” Arozarena told the Times through an interpreter. In his first season in Cuba, he said he earned $4 a month and then eventually $38 a month.
In June 2015, Arozarena took an eight-hour boat and landed at Isla Mujeres, just off the Mexican coast from Cancún, according to The New York Times. Defecting Cuban baseball players must establish residency in a third country before they can be cleared by the U.S. government and sign as free agents with a major league team, the newspaper reported.
“It was incredible,” Arozarena said. “I wouldn’t want to do that again because I risked my life at sea for eight hours and I didn’t know what would happen. I saw waves 5-6 meters high in the Gulf of Mexico. It was very bad. But I had to risk my life to be able to survive and help my family.”
Through an agent, Arozarena met Guillermo Armenta, who oversaw player development for the Toros de Tijuana of the Mexican professional baseball league. He convinced Arozarena to come train in Tijuana and was immediately impressed with his speed, noting that he ran “like a lightning bolt.”
One day, as a joke, Armenta told Arozarena that a pro team would sign him if he could walk on his hands from home plate to first base, The New York Times reported. Arozarena, who said he had participated in gymnastics in Cuba, immediately flipped on his hands and did it effortlessly.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this kid is a super athlete,’” Armenta told the newspaper.
Once he became eligible, Arozarena spent three years in the St. Louis organization before he was called up by the Cardinals in 2019. He was traded to the Rays in January 2020 with Jose Martinez for pitching prospect Matt Liberatore. Cardinals fans may remember one special play from his tenure with the organization.
A case of the coronavirus kept Arozarena sidelined when MLB returned to action, but he excelled when he got back on the field, hitting seven homers in 23 games and batting .281.
“When you’re sitting there watching it first-hand, it’s pretty remarkable what’s taken place,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said this week. “There’s going to get to be a point in his career where people are not going to say, ‘Who is that guy?’”
“He’s going to show that he’s consistently really good,” Cash added. “He’s a special player and has already shown the ability to do special things.”
Randy Arozarena Prospect and Rookie Cards
Arozarena’s non-traditional journey to the majors means he isn’t featured on a lot of prospect or pre-rookie cards. His first appearance was in the 2017 Topps Heritage Minors set and he returned to the checklist again in 2018. In 2019, Panini included him in their Elite Extra Edition set.
A player’s Bowman Chrome autographs are typically the most sought after prospect issues, but Arozarena was never featured. At the start of 2020, he wasn’t the first name collectors and prospectors usually brought up when discussing potential hot players.
In 2020, anything was possible, though.
The first official Arozarena rookie card shows him as a member of the Cardinals in 2020 Topps Series 1. The floodgates opened after that with appearances in numerous products produced during the season.
As the year went on, Topps’ artists and photographers were able to capture images of him in a Rays’ uniform. He’s also appeared in online issues like the Topps Living Set and as his playoff heroics continued, he made multiple appearances in Topps NOW. Most ungraded examples remain very inexpensive but parallels and variations have been in demand. The lone Bowman Chrome Orange refractor (non-auto) graded PSA 10 so far sold for $1,999.
Prices for Arozarena autographed rookie cards have been climbing in recent days. His Topps Chrome Refractors have been among the most popular. Orange parallels numbered to 25 have touched $1,000 with Golds numbered to 50 in the $$600 neighborhood. Most regular autograph cards can still be found for a fairly reasonable cost.
You can check out all of Arozarena’s rookie cards here and see a live list of the current most-watched eBay auctions via the live list below.