Julio Batista (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — There’s no shortage of answers to the question as to why our athletes continue to leave. Nearly all explanations point to the personal and financial aspirations of these athletes, precisely the two main impulses that have made the youngest generations leave the country in a constant hemorrhage over the past two decades.
But let us focus on sports for the time being.
For some time, Cuban sports news had ceased to touch on the issue. This was so because those who were defecting en masse weren’t renowned players, but teenagers with promising futures or mid-caliber players, of the sort that abound in our National Series and any other tournament around the world.
For months, the headlines focused on possible contracts, negotiations and visits by Major League stars, on the declining quality of our local tournaments and the successive defeats of Cuba’s team at international events. The migration of athletes was given next to no coverage. The unending parade had been made a natural extension of the existing landscape.
On February 8, however, something took us by surprise: the Gourriel’s defection. Suddenly, as though waking up from a dream, still shocked by the irrefutable news and the statements published in Granma, we understood that players were still migrating. Then, we faced up to the disquieting fact that 150 Cuban baseball players had defected in the course of 2015 alone.
What’s interesting is that, till then, it didn’t worry us much, perhaps because 150 players isn’t an alarming figure when compared to Cuba’s overall migration numbers last year. But it does represent quite a lot for a nation’s baseball franchise. To get a sense of what this actually means, let us recall that a National Series team has anywhere from 23 to 25 players for each match. We can see, then, that, in 2015, Cuba lost the equivalent of 6 of the 14 teams that play in our rather dysfunctional series [although many were not yet established in the top division league].
Baseball is not the only sport discipline that continues to lose players – it is only the most visible, particularly because every Cuban baseball player who defects has the same aim, to try and reach the Major Leagues (MLB). To make it or not is a gamble, but it is always a far better gamble than not trying.
Playing in the Big Leagues is a shared dream. Everyone has acknowledged this, even those who decided to remain in Cuba, even legends like Pedro Luis Lazo. MLB is the mecca, the pilgrimage site, the cathedral of world baseball, and, in Cuba, as we know, baseball is religion.
When, in September 2013, Cuba announced the new wage policies for athletes approved by the National Sports and Recreation Institute (INDER), many laid their hopes on the new contracts and saw them as a means of halting defections by Cuban athletes. This happened to a certain extent, despite the long waits and setbacks. However, there was one sport in which player expectations changed very little: baseball.
Though as demanding as the MLB, Japan was not one of the horizons of Cuban baseball players. But the Japanese were the first to arrive in the Cuban market, investing in and hiring players. Yulieski Gurriel was the second Cuban baseball player to make it to the Japanese Professional Baseball (NPB) under the new regulations. The NPB, however, cannot compete with the US league in terms of salaries and recognition, as no one does.
The next natural step seemed to be a definitive rapprochement with the Major Leagues. First came the announcement on December 17, 2014. Then came the high-level talks between sporting institutions, the declarations by Robert Manfred, the goodwill visits and the reencounters on Cuban soil…But, the truth is that, a year later, the basic stance has not change: Cubans living in Cuba are still unable to play in the MLB because of US law.
A year ago, the Cuban Baseball Federation expressed its position in clear terms: they are fully willing to negotiate with the MLB. The ball has been on the court of Cuba’s northern neighbor since and no notable changes have come about.
In addition to the legal obstacles, well known by all in the case of baseball, practice shows that contracts aren’t fully taken advantage of considering the potential of Cuban players. What’s more, one could surmise the process is advancing in step with the interests of the institution and not on the basis of the player aspirations.
It’s true that, in 2015, the number of contracts signed through INDER grew notably, but, when we compare it to the sustained migratory flow, it is clear this is not enough to offer confidence to those who are losing patience and time.
Why do our athletes migrate? For the same reasons that entire generations of Cubans do: to go in search of a brighter future, to try and build a new life, to exercise their right to live where they please, to experience another life, to forge a destiny different than that of their parents.
Because, in essence, to leave or to stay in Cuba should not be two irreconcilable terms. They only have one life, dialectically and materially speaking. Their productive years are more limited than that of other professionals, and the difference between being 31 and 33 years old may be the difference between playing and not playing. They leave because of a dream of a good salary, or a million-dollar salary, and that is a perfectly valid aspiration.