Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cuba failing to keep baseball talent at home as stars head for major leagues

Cuba failing to keep baseball talent at home as stars head for major leagues
Published September 22, 2014 Associated Press

HAVANA – Cuba's unprecedented effort to stop a devastating baseball
talent drain doesn't seem to be working, with a string of stars leaving
for the major leagues in the year since the government allowed a small
number to play professionally overseas.

The island's national league began its 54th season Sunday badly weakened
by the departure of both stars and promising prospects chasing dreams of
riches in the U.S. To fight the drain, Cuba relaxed a five-decade ban on
professional play in September 2013 and allowed ballplayers to sign
offseason contracts with leagues like Japan's and Mexico's as long as a
large chunk of their contracts goes to the state and they return to play
in Cuba. The state also gave raises to on-island athletes.

There are no official statistics on ballplayers' departures from Cuba,
typically murky affairs that come to light only when a player appears in
Mexico or the Dominican Republic to be declared a free agent with a shot
at a big contract in the major leagues.

But observers note that a quarter of the players on Cuba's star-studded
2013 World Baseball Classic team have stopped playing, with most leaving
the island since last year's reform in search of major-league deals.

"There's no way that economically Cuba is going to keep enough top
players in the country to have the quality of league they had five or
ten years ago," said Peter C. Bjarkman, author of "A History of Cuban
Baseball, 1864-2006." "It hasn't been destroyed, but my fear is that
it's living on borrowed time ... It certainly doesn't seem to be
affected by what the Cubans tried to do."

Cuba's national team hasn't won a title in 10 years, and national
champion Villa Clara set off an island-wide depression this year when it
was eliminated in the first round of the regional Caribbean Series.
While departing stars get the most attention, Bjarkson said that the
loss of dozens of younger, barely known players each year has been more
devastating to the sport's long-term health here.

The Cuban Baseball Federation did not respond to repeated requests for
comment. But baseball officials and players on the island say they're
confident that the option of playing legally overseas will allow Cuban
baseball players to come back and help the sport in Cuba rather than
moving to the majors.

"Only a few players have left" legally under the reform, Industriales
manager Lazaro Vargas cautioned, saying it's too early to judge the
results yet.

"We're going to raise the standard of our game and be better prepared
for tournaments like the Caribbean Series," he said. "We need to allow
some time to harvest the fruits."

Thanks to the reform, star third baseman Yulieski Gourriel, outfielders
Alfredo Despaigne and Frederich Cepeda and pitcher Hector Mendoza played
this season in Japan.

Meanwhile, 13 Cuban players signed new major or minor league contracts
this year, up from 10 the previous year. Twenty-five Cuban-born players
appeared in at least one major league game this season.

Outfielder Rusney Castillo left Cuba and signed a $72.5 million,
seven-year deal with the Boston Red Sox this summer, topping outfielder
Jose Abreu's $68 million, six-year contract with the Chicago White Sox
last October.

Asked before a game in Japan to compare his $1 million contract with
Castillo's, Gourriel laughed and said "in my case, it's the first time
that Cuba is open to us playing in foreign leagues. We haven't had the
opportunity to play here and the Japanese didn't know how we would take
to it."

"The great figure that they're paying for Rusney shows that Cuban
baseball is very strong," Gourriel told The Associated Press.

Not all Cuban players feel the same.

Industriales pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne, 27, left Cuba in February and
three months later agreed to a minor league contract with the San Diego
Padres with a $1 million signing bonus. He was called up in June and a
month later against the New York Mets came within four outs of becoming
San Diego's first pitcher to throw a no-hitter.

"I needed new challenges, that's why I left my country, to achieve my
dream of playing with the best in the major leagues," Despaigne told the AP.

The contracts for six of the top-earning Cuban-born major leaguers —
Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Castillo, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman and
Jorge Soler — total close to $280 million. And there's more to come.

Outfielders Yasmani Tomas, Gelkis Jimenez, Adriel Labrada and Alejandro
Ortiz and pitchers Diosdany Castillo, Yasmani Hernandez and Carlos
Portuondo all recently left for the major leagues. Tomas was just
cleared by the U.S. Treasury Department to sign with a major league

A 52-year-old U.S. embargo bars athletes from paying Cuban taxes on
money earned in the majors, so players still can't chase huge payouts in
the major leagues without leaving the island for good.

Typically, baseball players quietly stop playing in Cuba, then establish
residency outside the U.S., Canada or Puerto Rico in order to become
free agents, not subject to baseball's amateur draft. A series of
lawsuits and a federal investigation launched in Miami this year have
revealed that many ballplayers are smuggled out of Cuba by
human-trafficking groups in exchange for up-front fees in the hundreds
of thousands of dollars, and at least the promise of a slice of future

Such dangerous journeys haven't stopped young Cubans from dreaming of
playing far from home.

"I'd love to be great one day," 15-year-old Ernesto Medina said as he
recently played in Havana. "To start, I'm dreaming of playing for
Industriales, the greatest Cuban baseball team in my opinion, and
afterward of course I'd like to play in the major leagues."

Source: Cuba failing to keep baseball talent at home as stars head for
major leagues | Fox News -

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