Cuba’s Baseball in the Wake of Defeat

Yusimi Rodriguez

Team Cuba after an international event last year.

HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 3 — Last Friday evening, the regulars at “sports corner” in Old Havana’s Central Park were gathered under a rain that slackened up for only a few minutes. The topic of conversation was the recent chain of defeats suffered by the Cuban baseball team.

You might think that a majority of Cubans are passionate about baseball – and you’d be right.  In Cuba, people breathe baseball, they thrive on baseball, they cry over it, they have heart attacks over it and even die from the game.

Our sports commentators are used to saying that when facing the United States we don’t like to lose under any circumstances.  But the reality is that we can lose to the Americans in any other sphere, but not in baseball.

I’d venture to guess that people here wouldn’t have suffered as much if last week’s resolution against the blockade hadn’t won the vast majority of the votes in the UN General Assembly (in any case the victory we’ve won there every year for decades now hasn’t meant any change in our lives).

The United States government has—once again—thumbed its nose at the will of the international community and the embargo remains solidly in place, making life more difficult for Cubans and serving as the excuse for everything that goes wrong in the country.

We didn’t think we would edge out the USA’s continental domination in the Pan American Games (except for the historic exception of 1991, when the event took place in Havana).  We’re aware that it’s a much larger country, with higher levels of development in both its economy and its sports programs.  We know that even without its top athletes it could still dominate most events.

Cuban baseball fans discussing their team at Havana's Central Park.

But to win in baseball is a scratch in the paint that we can’t ignore.  Just when we were beginning to recover from two defeats at the hands of the Dutch in the IBAF Baseball World Cup in early October, the Cuban team lost to the United States 12 to 10 in the Pan American Games, and in a semifinal match for a spot to contend for the gold.

Though our sportscasters tried to concentrate on the good news of the moment (Cuba’s UN victory and the other gold medals obtained by the sports delegation) nothing could compensate for the defeat.  Though the team later won in the competition for the bronze medal, that metal still had the taste of defeat.

Journalists and sports commentators analyzed what had happened and repeated solutions that they previously proposed: the holding of a first tier tournament, apart from our regular national league season, in which would be concentrated the very best players.

However, people on the street held their own discussions, because this is not only a country where people breathe and sweat baseball, it’s this is a country where people know baseball and where there’s a manager on every corner.

Like on earlier occasions, the fans put the blame for the defeats suffered by the team squarely on the shoulders of the current manager, Alfonso Urquiola (the heroes of all wins are always the players, while team managers carry the responsibility for any reverses).

“Urquiola committed an injustice by not including any player from Pinar del Rio Province in his lineup even though their team was the national champion.”  It’s a logical argument, but if he had selected those players from his province to the detriment of other areas of the country, and he had still lost, he would have been criticized for regionalism.

But we’re not talking about losses in one or two tournaments, rather the fact that Cuban baseball teams have failed to pick up a world title since 2005. What’s more, they’ve come up with empty hands in the two World Baseball Classics and in the last Olympics, and now in the Pan American Games (and if that weren’t bad enough, a Cuban gold medal in Pan American Games baseball had been an unbroken tradition since 1963).

Can you blame Urquiola for this entire losing streak?   Has no manager who has led national baseball teams in recent years known how to do their job?

Cuban fans at Havana's Central Park. Photo: Caridad

During the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the ‘90s, Cuba dominated amateur baseball worldwide. These were the years of Augustin Marqueti, Pedro Medina, when I could watch Orestes Kindelan, Omar “El niño” Linares, Antonio Pacheo, Victor Mesa, Omar Ajete, Lazaro Vargas, German “El Iman” Mesa, among other stars.

But times changed and professional players entered the stadium.  The Cuban “amateurs” (who actually spend the entire year playing baseball, and therefore could also be called professional, though literally they don’t receive a small fraction of the money of the pros) are now faced with higher quality baseball.  Teams that Cuba defeated in the past by wide margins now make our squad sweat blood, with some having drubbed our guys twice in less than a week.

One thing is clear to most of those present at the sports corner in Central Park: Baseball in Cuba has stalled.

However, this is influenced by several factors.

Some agree that it’s necessary to go back to having the select league that concentrate the best players. Others argue that in the past many players who had already been trained on the big team didn’t make their best performances in the regular national league, but reserved themselves for the select league because that’s where the players for team Cuba are chosen.

For some, the select league (with fewer teams) deprived many towns of their only entertainment: watching live baseball games in their stadiums, one of the few inexpensive things in the country.

Yet for others the problem is deeper: “Here everything is a political question.  The team is not comprised of the best performing players, but with the most reliable – those who aren’t going to desert.  There are people who were good in their time, but those days have passed.  Pestano doesn’t produce anymore, nor does Michel Enriquez, and Yulieski Gurriel always flounders in a crunch.”

No one can forget that Gourriel hit into a double play with men on base in the last inning of the game of the 2008 Olympic gold medal in South Korea, despite the fact that in the national league he’s always among the best hitters.

“The problem is that we deceive ourselves,” said one fan, “The high averages shown by hitters in the national league are gotten in front of bush league pitchers, weak ones.  But when they face pitchers from abroad they’re out matched.  Also, they never swing at the first pitch, which gives the competitor a free strike.”

Day in and day out the fans gather to talk baseball. Foto: Caridad

Many people believe that the desertions by many players to US major league teams have had an impact on the performance of Cuban baseball in recent years.  “But if they do their best here and then they still don’t get picked for the national team, but instead they see someone less capable selected, then they have to take whatever chance they get and leave.”

The fan added, “What happens is that even if they don’t get a big paycheck there, it’s still much more than what they’ll ever get here, even as Olympic champions.”

They fondly remember Munoz, Marqueti, Linares, Kindelan and Pacheco, players who never dreamed of deserting for any amount of money.  “Those were other times, people played out of love for the sport.  They had all kinds of needs but it didn’t matter, they’d even train without eating breakfast.”

Another fan said that the problem is that back then there wasn’t any Internet; people didn’t know how much athletes earned in other countries for playing baseball.  “Furthermore, back in the 1980s we had everything here.  They could live on the little they were given, but what’s happened is that things have gotten tougher.”

One wonders why they took the same team to the Pan American Games that was just defeated twice by the Netherlands in the World Cup.  “Here there are players to fill five teams that play quality ball, but the managers are wedded to the same old players.”

In addition to agreeing with that opinion, another fan believes that the athletes get worn out on sports inside the country, they send the same athletes to all the events, which also deprives others of opportunities.

“Look at what they do with Dayron Robles; they take him to the World Championships, the Central American Games, the Pan American Games, the ALBA games—so when he gets to the Olympics he’s going to be injured.  In other countries, they reserve the strongest competitors for the major events.  Usain Bolt doesn’t compete in the Pan American Games.”

“That is why Cuba wins so many medals in the Pan American Games, it’s because they’re not really competing against the best.”

A young man offered a radical solution for Cuban baseball, and the island’s sports in general, return to the stellar level that they had always occupied.  “We should professionalize sports and athletes should be paid.”

But who’s going to pay them? I asked. The government? – which is the entity that controls sports?  This is a country where doctors, teachers and professionals are indispensable, like in any society, but they only receive token wages.  Wouldn’t it be a contradiction for the state to allocate resources to hire someone because they run fast and hit hard when they box.

Fans at Havana's Latinoamericano Stadium.

Someone told me that many of the athletes here, the stars of course, have a much higher standard of living than those of doctors, engineers, teachers and people who produce and advance the country’s economy.

“They should be allowed to play in foreign leagues that are a higher level of competition and earn their money there, and when they participate in international events they should represent this country.  The world changes, but here they don’t want to realize that,” noted a fan.

Months ago, I learned that similar approaches had been proposed in some assemblies that analyzed the guidelines of the Communist Party prior to its congress last April.

But the question is: Would the government be prepared to take that step, which would completely change the concept of revolutionary sports and resort to capitalist measures to improve the quality of socialist sports?  Would they be able to continue talking about socialist sports?

On the other hand, could this be the solution?  The extreme commodification of sports now jeopardizes the future of baseball – a sport in which its long games fail to be profitable and bore the spectators.

Baseball was excluded from the 2012 London Olympics, with its return to the 2016 Olympic program depending on changes in its rules.  This is also a major concern to the lovers of this sport.

Nor can we forget that in professional sports, the owners are the ones who decide whether to allow athletes to represent their countries in international tournaments.

I don’t think anyone should own athletes.  It should be they who decide who they prefer to have as employers.  It should be their decision whether they want to be professional athletes, providing their services subject to a contract, and serving the interests of an individual or stay at home to receive little or no money, in many cases; representing patriotic colors and the interests of the government.