HAVANA TIMES — Before 1961, no nation contributed more baseball players to the US Major Leagues than Cuba. After that date, as per the laws set down by the revolution headed by Fidel Castro (which abolished professional sports in the country), playing in the northern giant was to cease being Cuban.
The handful of Cuban players willing to try their luck abroad, like Barbaro Garbey, who left the island in the 70s, began trickling to the north. In 1992, Rene Arocha re-opened this “frontier” and more and more baseball players began to follow in his footsteps. This exodus reached its peak in the last five years, when it began to include players from across Cuba.
In contrast to the recent past, when mainly Havana’s more renowned baseball teams (Industriales and Metropolitanos) felt the outflow of players, today Cuban baseball managers from Pinar del Rio to Guantanamo can’t be certain whether they will be working with the same players the following year.
Currently, around 15 Cuban baseball players are on major league teams, a figure that has no precedent since 1959. In total, more than 500 Cubans have played in the major leagues throughout history, and around one hundred are currently on teams abroad.
This phenomenon is coupled with the overall poor performance of Cuban baseball teams in recent years. Though it held the top spot at the international level for decades, Cuba has not secured any significant international titles since 2005, and some fans and experts would like to see “reinforcements” among the émigrés.
What do Cubans actually know about the island’s players currently in the United States? How do they keep abreast of developments? What do they think about these players’ decision to become major league professionals? In their eyes, are they traitors or sport heroes? Should the Cuban media keep them outside the country’s official history or should they report on their successes and failures as professionals? These are the questions Havana Times put to people on the streets of Havana, and the results were interesting indeed.
Like the vast majority of Cubans, William Machado is hugely unsatisfied with Cuba’s press, and the sports press is no exception. “How is it possible we aren’t told of important things in advance, that we have to find out about them after people begin to talk about them on the street? Right now, I couldn’t tell you what Cuban baseball players are in the major leagues because I have no cable TV or Internet.”
Jose de Jesus Martinez is no spring chicken and isn’t surprised about any of this. “Why doesn’t the press report any of this? It looks like a big mystery, but it’s actually quite normal for Cuba. It’s the way we’ve been doing things for a long time. With respect to the players, I think that, ultimately, we’re going to see a lot of Cubans playing in professional teams around the world. I don’t understand how there aren’t any agreements whereby Cuban players can play on professional Venezuelan teams, for instance, given the relations between the two countries.
“This way, we would start seeing less and less desertions, because Cubans would be allowed to play for other countries and take part in national championships. It would benefit the player and the Cuban State. It’s a fact: these players will not likely play for free, they will most likely make a few bucks and the State can take its cut. If they don’t do this, we’re going to lose all our players, because a lot of money is offered abroad.”
“They have to go, they have no other choice,” says Denny Perez, who is much younger than Chucho. “Those who’re leaving are faring very well and getting good contracts. Many of them need the money. Now, I ask you: why shouldn’t they be allowed to play on Team Cuba if they wanted to? What they do here is forget about them and close all doors to them.”
Alexander Rodriguez, a Law student, votes wholeheartedly in favor of authorizing Cuban baseball players to join other leagues, “provided it’s done in an organized fashion, chiefly for the purposes of improving our own baseball league and such that it will benefit both the players and the country.” What Rodriguez has never approved of is the policy of ostracizing those who decided to leave the country to put themselves to the test at the highest, professional levels. “Why should they be considered traitors? I don’t feel betrayed by them. On the contrary, I am happy over every one of their achievements,” he adds.
For other interviewees, the tense diplomatic relations that exist between Cuba and the United States are another aspect to be considered. This, at least, is what Rafael Acosta, who works at an agricultural and meat market in Havana, thinks.
“It’s clear that US major league baseball can’t have any contracts with the Cuban Baseball Federation. The blockade forbids it, for it would mean profits for our country. Just look at what’s going in with the Caribbean Series. Perhaps we can try contracts with other countries, like Japan, Mexico, Venezuela, Korea or Taipei. I think that, if players were allowed to play in these leagues and to come back with their earnings, Cuban players would have no need to go to the MLB. There would be some who want to try their luck at that level, but not everyone can do that. There are a number of talented Cubans playing in the Mexican league that never make it to the MLB,” he points out.
Hobert Cabrera, who feels that these decisions should be made by each individual player, jumps in:
“Talent should be rewarded, and only a fool would be opposed to the right of every individual to determine their fate and choose their way. I support [Jose Dariel] Abreu and everyone else who have decided to take their destiny into their own hands, without succumbing to pressures from any political organization. Sports are entertainment and we have to let talented athletes delight their fans, wherever they may be.
“Politics is for those who only think they have talent and who almost always end up lying and manipulating those who actually do have talent, those who bring in money for the country. This is why I think sports represent freedom and creativity. Who knows what politics really is, after seeing so much shuffling around? I think players will continue to break free. I say “break free” because people are born to be free and no one and nothing can enslave them forever. All this talk about treason is nothing but lies,” the mechanic almost yells out.
Elias Altamirando, who enjoys keeping up on every Cuban baseball player in MLB, joins the debate:
“One thing is certain,” he says, “and it’s the fact that the US has the best baseball league in the world. The one way that Cuba’s best baseball players have of putting themselves to the test, playing against those players, is to leave the country, for the blockade gives them no other choice. It’s sad and a pain in the ass for us, but, in addition to the money, these players will always want to test themselves to know if they are at the level of the world’s best, and that has nothing to do with patriotism. Marti said it in his time: ‘I am proud, not only of everything Cuban, but also of everything done in Cuba.’ Abreu will continue being Cuban and many will continue to celebrate his home-runs, wherever he is.”
The debate, as heated as you would expect from any informal exchange among sport-loving Cubans, returned to the other important issue, that of the press – and it was no less interesting.
“People with more information are better prepared for any kind of confrontation, in any field. We’ve grown accustomed to hiding information about everything. Sometimes, it’s so obvious that we can’t help but ask ourselves whether the people doing the hiding are mentally retarded,” says German Almanza to get the debate going.
Pedro Ureña immediately places the conversation in context: “When they started saying Abreu, who looks entirely healthy, was injured, I couldn’t help but laugh. You could tell that, again, they were concealing something. What do we gain by hiding information that is later revealed to make us look like a bunch of liars?
“Though we know some things are not the way they say they are, you can find out about everything over the Internet. ‘Changing everything that needs to be changed.’ How hard it’s been to be true to that slogan! It’s already 2013, when are we going to change the things that need to be changed? Cespedes has a four-year contract for 36 million dollars. Cuba doesn’t get a cent of that.
“How different things would have been if Cespedes and many others were allowed to legally enter into such contracts and the Cuban Federation got a percentage of their earnings, which could be destined to fixing up stadiums, buying sports equipment and other things!
“We’re a poor country. Anything we can take in legally would be welcome. Why, then, do we refuse to open that door through our athletes? Cuba is the world’s leading nation in terms of medical doctors. Thousands and thousands of physicians offer their services abroad. Musicians do something similar. Why shouldn’t athletes?”
These were not, to be sure, the only opinions out there, but a complete description of the fruitful exchange that took place in the “hot corner” of Havana’s Parque Central after I set the conversation going would prove endless. We will perhaps address some of the other issues discussed in the near future.
Also See: Cuba in MLB: Opening of 2013 Season