In 1997, Maikel Jova left Cuba on a raft to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball in the United States.
Eighteen years later, he married his longtime girlfriend, Diany Lomeli, in front of home plate at a minor-league ballpark in San Rafael.
It has been a long journey for the ballplayer, and not much of it has gone as planned — but Sunday afternoon’s ceremony was certainly one of the highlights.
He walked through a tunnel of his teammates’ outstretched bats on his way to be married by Pacifics manager Matt Kavanaugh, who was ordained online as a minister in order to perform the ceremony. The scene, straight out of the “Bull Durham” minor-league mold, probably wasn’t anything Jova envisioned when he left Cuba as a 16-year-old.
It took Jova two tries to defect; the first effort thwarted by the Cuban coast guard months before his second try succeeded. Jova then spent 11 years in the Toronto Blue Jays’ organization, getting to in Triple-A before finding a home with the San Rafael Pacifics, an independent-league team that exists on the fringes of the sport.
Jova, 34, views the entire San Rafael organization as family. One of the oldest players on the Pacifics’ roster, he pulls double duty as the team’s hitting coach and its starting right fielder. He’s a fan favorite at Albert Park.
When Pacifics general manager Mike Shapiro first floated the concept of an on-field wedding, however, the ballplayer’s reaction was one of surprise. As Shapiro recalled, Jova asked, “You’d do that for me?”
As it turned out, Shapiro and co-owner Eugene Lupario staged the wedding and did plenty more. Included among their wedding gifts to Jova was the suit he wore as he recited his vows, which Shapiro said was the first suit Jova had ever owned.
Jova and Lomeli, who’s from Mexico, took a break from the English-language ceremony to exchange vows in Spanish. Midway through his turn, Jova paused, overwhelmed, and laughed into the microphone before exclaiming to the crowd, in English, “Oh, my God!”
The packed grandstand exploded with cheers, wolf whistles, and applause. According to many San Rafael regulars, it was exactly the reception they expected.
“Everybody’s family here,” said Pacifics season-ticket holder Cecilia Conroy, during a game earlier in the month. “Everybody’s cheering him on.”
The wedding was indeed an all-family affair, with Lomeli’s two children, Jaydy and Jyd, serving as the flower girl and ring bearer, respectively. Jova and Lomeli’s infant son, Maikdel, had a prime viewing spot for the festivities: a perch on the best man’s shoulder.
Not to be left out, the Pacifics’ players “decided to stage a ‘redneck wedding,’” as assistant general manager Vinnie Longo explained. The result was two dozen pairs of exposed ballplayer biceps forming the baseball-bat tunnel through which the wedding party walked.
“That’s just baseball players being baseball players,” Longo said.
The wedding antics couldn’t hold a candle to Jova’s Sunday routine, however. Fifteen minutes after the ceremony, Jova had changed into his baseball uniform, and stepped to the plate to take his hacks with one out and runners on first and second. He walked on four pitches as his bride, along with the rest of the crowd, applauded enthusiastically despite the collective disappointment that Jova didn’t get a good pitch to hit.
Jova came up again in the ninth inning with two runners on base. His team was down one run and Jova had a chance to deliver a walk-off win. It wasn’t to be. The groom was retired on an easy flyball to center field.
The day was fairy tale enough for the newlywed couple, and the loss didn’t stifle any of the postgame celebrations.
In keeping with the day’s baseball theme, the club held a postgame reception at a training facility just blocks from the stadium where many players routinely work out.
It was an easy space to turn into a reception hall. “We’re just drawing back the batting cages,” Longo said.
The postgame reception was easy to swing on a Sunday afternoon, but the honeymoon will have to wait. After all, it’s still baseball season.
Lev Facher is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @levfacher