Cuba “Stooge” or Lonely Voice?

by Peter C. Bjarkman (*)

Peter C. Bjarkman

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 19 — Early last week, the prestigious Wall Street Journal featured a front page story by Christopher Rhoads (“Inside Baseball: This Yanqui is Welcome in Cuba’s Locker Room”) highlighting my personal adventures with Cuban baseball over the past decade and a half.

From my perspective the story was indeed “fair and balanced” and thus accomplished the WSJ goal of demonstrating that my “special access” in Cuba would inevitably have its multitude of North American critics (especially in Miami, Cincinnati and New Haven)—those who could see me only as a “stooge” of the Cuban political and social system.

At the same time the story accomplished my own aims (the reasons for which I agreed to be part of the feature in the first place) by demonstrating that there are indeed some Americans who see Cuban baseball as being something other than only a forbidden oasis for mining big league talent or an essay target for launching attacks on the Cuban political system.

For those who missed the original WSJ story, it is now available for reading on-line at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704141104575588360930640460.html?mod=ITP_TEST.

-Likewise, an insightful video interview with Christopher Rhoads can also still be accessed at: http://online.wsj.com/video/a-champion-of-cuban-baseball/619812C2-542E-459B-8DFC-707CBAC0B2EB.html?mod=WSJ_ITP_PageOne_VideoCarousel_1.

Most amusing in the piece (and most typical of the position of my numerous critics) is the response of distinguished Yale University professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarría, author of the 1999 tome The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (Oxford University Press). Asked to comment on my work with Cuban baseball Gonzalez Echevarria had only the following observation to offer: “Bjarkman echoes government propaganda, so I have nothing to say about him.”

Since in the past I have taken issue with the Yale professor’s stance in his own book that the Golden Age of Cuban baseball occurred with a then-dying professional league of the 1940s (a league producing few quality big leaguers and having little impact on the baseball universe of that era), he has chosen to end all dialogue between us on the topic of Cuban baseball history.

Since I have subsequently argued that the true glory years for the island sport have actually arrived in the most recent decades when Cuban national teams have played on equal footing with big leaguers and when a handful of “defectors” like El Duque Hernández, Alexei Ramírez and José Contreras have far outstripped the performances of 1940s-era Cuban big leaguers, Gonzalez Echevarría has gone on record as branding me a “stooge” for Cuban government propaganda.

Of course it might be most enlightening to hear precisely how the Yale professor would explain my recent criticisms on this website of today’s spoiled Cuban fans (“Wake Up Cuban Fans!” found at: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/intercontinentalcup2010/PeterIntercontinental01.html) or my explanations of Cuba’s mastery of international tournaments (“On Premature Dismissal of Cuba’s Long-Reigning Dominance” found at http://www.baseballdecuba.com/WBCnewsContainer.asp?id=1363) as being in any manner a form of Cuba government propaganda.

Am I truly an “apologist” for post-revolution Cuban baseball, or is the Yale professor an “apologist” for pre-revolution Cuban baseball? I will let others make that judgment. But since Gonzalez Echevarría would apparently dismiss (by not wishing to comment) every article and report I have ever written on the Cuban game over more than a decade as being by fiat (since Bjarkman wrote it) a political commentary, it might seem to some at least that it is his own views that actually carry a strong propagandist overtone to them.

In brief, I am certainly no mere apologist for the Cuban government or for any other particular political, social or economic system. But I am definitely a champion (an apologist if you care to use that word) for Cuban baseball, for the Cuban National Series, for Cuban ballplayers, and for the Cuban national team. I am foremost a baseball fan by passion and a baseball commentator by trade, and if my outspoken views are inevitably colored, they are mostly colored by my admitted distaste (shared with many others) for the profits-first corporate structure of the MLB baseball product.

My obvious enchantment with the retro-style non-corporate flavor of baseball as still found in Cuba also admittedly has its role to play. This orientation does not come about because I advocate any particular political system, but rather because I believe Cuba’s current baseball is indeed the purest and most entertaining form of the sport still standing anywhere on the globe. And also because I believe that the beauty and passion of Cuban baseball continues to exist precisely because it is the one remaining baseball universe still operating outside the control of corporate Major League Baseball.

It is my baseball fandom not my politics that is unabashedly “pro-Cuban” and my viewpoint is thus far more anti-MLB than it is anti-American. All of today’s big league ballplayers may be required to sport American flags on their uniform sleeves (even if they are citizens of Japan, Korea, Australia or the Dominican Republic) and all fans attending big league games may be forced to stand for endless renditions of “the Star-Spangled Banner “ and “God Bless America” (even if they happen to be viewing a game played in Toronto); yet I nonetheless continue to exercise my own personal freedom as an American-based baseball fan not to place any “patriotic” MLB arm patches on any of my own baseball commentaries.

Call this “political” if you must; I see it as my opinionated and sometimes even well-informed baseball journalism. For me baseball is not owned exclusively by MLB, and baseball is not somehow by definition inevitably “American.”

Many fans in Miami—Cubans by birth but now Americans by choice—write to me about their hopes for the day when Cuban players can flood the big leagues and thus “show the rest of the world that there is a lot of talent in our nation of birth.” That dream of demonstrating the true quality of today’s Cuban ballplayers is exactly what my colleague Ray Otero and I have been attempting to accomplish with this very website.

We have been struggling in our coverage of the National Series and national team to inform the entire baseball world about the realities of Cuban League baseball and also to demonstrate just how spectacular and entertaining the Cuban game actually is. This has nothing to do with our advocating any particular governmental system.

It has everything to do, however, with clearing up such popular misperceptions as Gonzalez Echevarría’s notion that Cuban ballplayers were somehow better before 1959, or that the limited four-team Havana pro-league of the 1940s was a superior baseball spectacle to the island-wide National Series of the past five decades.

I am not only a fan of Cuban baseball but also a devotee of international baseball, and it is my love for the international version of the sport that more than anything explains my distaste for and distrust of MLB. It is historical fact (not my opinion alone) that corporate Major League Baseball owns a long and shameful history of destroying all potential competition in its untamed quest to maximize corporate profits.

By turns, MLB has wiped out the North American Negro leagues (1940s), the Mexican league (under Jorge Pasquel in the 1940s), independent minor league baseball in the USA (1950s), and more recently the Caribbean winter leagues (now replaced by the more profitable and controllable Arizona Fall League). MLB now has its sights set on full ownership of international baseball (Olympic baseball, the Japanese and Korean and Taiwanese leagues, the IBAF World Cup, and of course the Cuban League.) The World Baseball Classic was never an attempt to truly “internationalize” the game but rather a thinly veiled effort to “Americanize” the sport for purposes of maximum financial advantage flowing into MLB team coffers.

In brief, the MLB notion of “internationalization” consists of little more than exploiting other countries’ athletic talent pools in order to fill depleted MLB rosters, as well as marketing as much MLB merchandize and as many MLB television contracts as possible in other baseball-playing nations. For the full story of how MLB has co-opted and exploited international baseball, I strongly recommend Rob Elias’s important new book entitled The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad (New Press, 2010). As Elias so effectively demonstrates, the sad saga of MLB’s tainted involvement in international baseball is anything but a pretty story.

A perfect example of the disastrous consequences of MLB’s “domination policy” is today found in the Dominican Republic. Several hundred top Dominican athletes have enjoyed success in the major leagues and thus great financial rewards for themselves and their families. No one disputes this. But at the same time hundreds more have failed to find baseball success with MLB and thus failed to fulfill vain dreams of financial riches. And hundreds more (those not possessing the talents to reach organized baseball’s majors or top minors) now find themselves without any remaining domestic league back home where they might continue their ball-playing careers.

The same thing happened in the Negro leagues in the 1940s and 1950s. MLB integration (a wonderful thing in itself) allowed a small handful of Negro players to reach big league stardom, but hundreds more no longer had Blackball leagues to employ them. Black urban centers across the USA overnight lost their highly valued Negro League ball clubs that had so long been unifying community institutions.

One lingering result is that baseball has almost completely died out within the Black communities of North America, where most kids today toss footballs or bounce basketballs and thus own no further interest in an anachronistically labeled “national pastime.”

Regrettably the same thing will eventually transpire in Cuba. I tell my friends in Havana this all the time. Be careful about wishing too hard to see all the top Cuban stars playing in the big leagues. When that day comes (and it most likely will) Havana fans will no longer trek to Latin American Stadium to see their heroes up close and personal; they will enjoy them only via the distancing medium of television and it will be a poor bargain indeed.

MLB contracts will no longer allow those players to return to Havana for winter league games. The Cuban League if it exists at all will be of such low quality that no one will any longer care to attend games. And with no dreams left to be stars for Industriales or Villa Clara (because those teams will have no fans left on the island) or to play in the majors (because most simply don’t have enough talent), a vast majority of Cuban youngsters will no longer be tossing baseballs but instead kicking soccer balls and dreaming of soccer’s international World Cup and not baseball’s World Series.

When that time comes it will be a sad day for me as a fan of Cuban baseball. The last great baseball world outside of MLB will be gone. And for me the most entertaining baseball will thus also be gone. There will be no more games in small stadiums with intimate atmospheres, where the baseball game itself is the only worthwhile spectacle.

There will be no more games where the majority of fans come mainly to savor hits, runs and errors, and not just to buy merchandize or drink beer, no more games where the athletes are battling for the pride of their home town and not just to earn a huge paycheck from the company team that happens to be paying them for that particular season. I will sadly miss that older retro-style baseball once it is lost. But this is not at all because I am “an apologist of that abusive system over there” as some have phrased it; instead it is because I am a fan of a simpler and more aesthetic baseball world that no longer can be found in North American professional baseball yet can for the moment still be found in the highly anachronistic if also charming Cuban League.

My mission is not to debate politics but rather to celebrate a somewhat “purer” Cuban baseball world as it still manages to exist despite all the encroachments of the financially powerful corporate giant known as MLB.

I also feel the need here to clarify several additional points in this debate. First and foremost, I have never “put down Aroldis Chapman for leaving Cuba” (as so many suggest) or “trashed Cuban baseball defectors” (as some of my quoted critics recently maintained in the Wall Street Journal portrait of my Cuban adventures). Readers who think this have not paid careful attention to what I have actually written; or perhaps they are letting their own political views color their words and their perceptions.

In the case of Chapman, my arguments have always focused on the following points alone: 1) that he received an excessive $30 million contract in light of his earlier demonstrated talents; 2) that he was not in truth the best pitcher ever seen in Cuba (or even the best among the current Cuban hurlers); 3) that he was not the top prospect on the Cuban national team but had in fact been left off the 2008 Olympic squad because of his excessive wildness; 4) that Chapman owned a fantastic arm and indeed had one of the most lively fastballs I had ever seen, but nevertheless he was not yet a polished pitcher and would likely not be an immediate success as a big-league starter; 5) that Chapman was not in the same class with former Cuban Leaguer Maels Rodríquez, whose top strikeout totals in the early 2000s were double those of the new Cincinnati prospect; and 6) that Chapman (like so many other “defectors”) might be a legitimate big league talent but nonetheless had been oversold to the North American press by greedy agents trying to make their own instant fortunes through peddling his talents.

I said all those things, but I never attacked Chapman’s decision to depart his homeland. I was never motivated to justify the Cuban “system” but instead only to set the record straight about the facts of Cuban baseball. The sad truth is that because so little is known about the Cuban League here in North America, unscrupulous player agents can try to pass off almost any fiction they wish about Cuban prospects: they can sell any player as “the greatest Cuban talent in years” or as a “star on the national team” simply because they assume no one will actually know otherwise. My mission has been time and again to set the record straight on Cuban players (both those who stay and those who leave the island).

This is why I have also written critically about many of the claims fostered in the North American press about such players as Noel Argüelles, Dayan Viciedo, Yasser Gómez, Yadel Martí, Juan Yasser Serrano, Leslie Anderson and others. I once argued that Argüelles was highly overpaid in view of his single full season in the Cuban League (0-5 record on a Habana Province pitching staff that also included such true prospects as Yadier Pedroso, Miguel Alfredo González, Jonder Martínez and Yulieski González). I earlier contended that Viciedo was not (as reported) an all-star on the national team before leaving Cuba but instead only a marginal prospect who was often criticized in Cuba for having a poor work ethic.

These were attempts to set the record straight and not any efforts to score political points or punish players who had abandoned the homeland. At the same time I wrote in open praise of Yunieski Maya (when he was seeking a big league contract while in the Dominican), emphasizing that I thought he was a far more valuable prospect than Chapman, a proven starter with a big-league mentality, and a true national team ace (and thus a major loss for Cuban baseball).

And it should also be noted that these various opinions (of Chapman, Argüelles, Viciedo and Maya) were all assessments that many big league international scouts agreed with at the time. My unwavering positive promotions of Maya after he arrived in the Dominican Republic (both in print and in private conversations with MLB scouts) should be enough to demonstrate that I do not unfairly “trash” players once they leave the island.

A true irony that most of my critics remain unaware of is that I do indeed remain in touch with former Cuban stars after they have become ex-patriots and a large number of them are actually registered “friends” on my Facebook page. Those who—due to their own political agendas—wish to see me as a “stooge” for the Cuban system (to quote the Wall Street Journal piece) also repeatedly choose to ignore the fact that a number of my columns have been highly critical of certain aspects of Cuban League baseball and also of Cuban fans back in the homeland.

My views have therefore been anything but entirely one sided. My recent column entitled “Wake Up Cuban Fans! There is Absolutely Nothing Wrong with Cuban Baseball!” stirred up as much negative reaction from Havana readers as any of my Chapman commentary did from readers in either Cincinnati or Miami.

In brief, I will continue to celebrate my passion for Cuban baseball and carry out my chosen mission to inform readers outside of the island about the strengths and beauties of a Cuban League baseball which I believe to be the most entertaining version of the sport found anywhere on the globe. Of course I understand that a large part of the wide interest in the island’s national pastime is inevitably and intimately tied up with the historical political conflict that has so long separated the world’s two top baseball-playing nations.

Unfortunately there will always be those whose own personal histories so deeply color their reading of anything having to do with Cuba that they must see any praise I have for the island league as being praise for the Cuban political system. They are certainly entitled to their opinion, even if it causes them entirely to miss the point about their own lack of true objectivity.

(*) Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He reports on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com and also writes a regular monthly Cuban League Report for www.ibaf.com. He is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.



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