What will become of baseball's decline in Cuba? The field might open
further in U.S.
BY LINDA ROBERTSON LROBERTSON@MIAMIHERALD.COM
12/28/2014 2:56 PM 12/28/2014 7:28 PM
Second of two parts.
Yusseff Diaz follows the Cuban baseball league and the Big Red Machine
national team from afar with the same passion as an astronomer following
his favorite stars.
Diaz, who lives in Hialeah, owns a collection of Cuban baseball
memorabilia and uniforms, has a Facebook page dedicated to the sport and
watches games on Cuba Vision TV and the Internet.
Diaz, Havana-born and a Mariel refugee, dreams of the day he can return
to his hometown and see Cuban players in person. But he worries that by
the time he gets there, the storied Serie Nacional will no longer exist.
The caliber of the game on the island has steadily deteriorated over the
past 25 years as players have defected to the United States, where about
200 have made it to the majors or minor leagues. Last season, 24 players
who left Cuba in their prime held spots on major-league rosters, with
contracts worth a combined total of nearly $450 million, and five were
selected for the All-Star game.
Rusney Castillo became the highest-paid Cuban player in history when he
signed a $72.5 million deal with the Boston Red Sox in August. Money is
a powerful lure for athletes stuck in a stagnating socialist economy and
playing at dilapidated stadiums with rationed bats and frayed gloves.
The dual announcement by President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl
Castro that the two countries plan to restore diplomatic relations after
54 years of lingering Cold War animosity could open the underground
pipeline of Cuban talent. Players who must sneak off the island —
usually by pledging part of their future salary to smugglers — could
find themselves free to negotiate with major-league teams if the U.S.
trade embargo ends and Castro releases them from their obligations as
"Cuban baseball players could be the ones who bring an end to
communism," Diaz said. "When they get to the majors, fans on the island
follow their careers closely and learn what it means to make a lot of
money. The revolution has endured so long because there are no
millionaires, except for the elite one-percenters. Belief in the
revolution gets weaker and weaker when the people see these players
Speculation on the future of Cuban baseball is as rampant as that on the
potential of Yasmany Tomas, who signed for $68.5 million with the
Arizona Diamondbacks, or young infielder Yoan Moncada, expected to sign
soon after holding a showcase for scouts in Guatemala.
But no one denies that the talent drain has hurt the 16-team Cuban
league. Fidel Castro, who abolished professional sports in 1961,
declaring sport to be "a right of the people," used to shrug when a
player defected, saying Cuba had three more to replace any traitor.
Castro relied on loyal athletes like boxer Teofilo Stevenson, who
famously said, "What is a million dollars worth compared to the love of
eight million Cubans?"
The success of Cuba's national baseball team, dominant in international
tournaments, was like that of Cuba's other athletes — out of proportion
to the country's size. Sport was a vital source of pride and a
dependable instrument of propaganda. Militante stars such as runner Ana
Fidelia Quirot could be counted on for their medals and rhetoric about
the glory of the revolution.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the termination of its
subsidies to Cuba caused the fade of the glory days. Castro's system
still churns out champions but not with the same regularity or fervor.
Cuba's 15 medals at the 2012 London Olympics were its fewest since 1976.
Baseball players haven't been able to resist the challenge and lucrative
contracts of Major League Baseball, whose clubs are flush with TV
revenue. Five players from Cuba's 2013 World Baseball Classic team left
last year, among them slugger Jose Abreu, signed by the Chicago White
Sox for $68 million and named 2014 American League Rookie of the Year.
"Cuban baseball is on limited life support," said Peter Bjarkman, a
Cuban baseball historian, author and BaseballdeCuba website editor who
is a regular visitor to the island. "They've maintained an isolated
league and tried to prevent players from being tempted by money. But the
world is changing fast."
Cubans have been playing in the Major Leagues since the early 1900s.
Baseball is the national pastime and passion. As rosters have thinned,
it's gotten tougher to replenish them, and the game has lost some of its
Havana's Industriales — the Yankees of Cuba — and the Cienfuegos
Elefantes have been hit hard by defections. After Alexei Ramirez left in
2008, the national team had Hector Olivera to take his place, but
Olivera left in September, and his young heirs, Moncada and Andy Ibanez,
Pitcher Aroldis Chapman's defection in 2007 during a team trip to the
Netherlands and his subsequent signing with the Cincinnati Reds for $30
million accelerated the flow of exits. Adeiny Hechavarria, Dayan
Viciedo, Leonys Martin, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig followed in
successive years, with Alex Guerrero in the large 2013 class of
defectors that included Abreu.
The most common routes to MLB are arranged by smugglers and take players
via boat to Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Because of the U.S.
embargo, Cuban players must establish residency in a third country
before they can be declared free agents.
"Defectors used to be lower level players; now it's the core players,"
Bjarkman said. "Their departures aren't political statements but an
economic choice. And they want to test themselves against the best.
"The guys who leave miss Cuba. They are fond of and fanatic about the
Cuban league and their comrades, yet they'd take the same risk again.
Next to Fidel they were the biggest stars in the country. They were like
gods. Now as MLB players they are bigger heroes in Cuba than the players
who are still in Cuba."
Cuban players are much in vogue among MLB general managers.
"For the cache of the Cuban players to drop, a couple guys will have to
flop," Bjarkman said.
Wild spending on unproven players Castillo and Tomas was a sort of
overcorrection for teams that whiffed on Abreu, said Joe Kehoskie, an
agent who has represented Cuban players.
"Cubans were way undervalued and now they are way overvalued," he said.
"The pendulum will swing when one of these giant contracts goes bust."
The losses mean Cuba's deep talent pool has been reduced to a puddle.
Only about a half dozen players left on the island could make an
immediate impact on an MLB roster, scouts and agents say, and most of
them are loyalists.
"The cupboard in Cuba is almost bare," Kehoskie said. "I was always
bullish on Cuban talent but I think they're going to run out of premium
players. Cuban baseball is in big trouble because the kids are leaving,
too. They have a new crop every year so what we may see are 19-year-olds
worth $3 [million] to $5 million."
Industriales third baseman Yulieski Gourriel and Granma outfielder
Alfredo Despaigne would be in high demand but neither is expected to
leave because of strong family ties to their homeland. Second baseman
Jose Fernandez is Baseball America's No. 3-rated player still in Cuba,
but he and catcher Lazaro Herrera, his cousin and teammate on Matanzas,
have not played in two months and did not accompany the national team to
the recent Central American and Caribbean Games. Bjarkman has heard from
other players that they were caught trying to defect and have been
suspended and detained. Herrera's wife was told to vacate the house he
earned as a bonus.
Highly regarded prospects include outfielders Victor Mesa and Jorge Ona,
shortstop Lourdes Gourriel and pitchers Vladimir Gutierrez and Norge Ruiz.
"Cuba is so fertile there's always going to be another star, just like
with Brazilian soccer players," Diaz said. "But on many teams it's down
to Double A quality, with pitchers barely hitting 90 mph."
Recognizing the toll, Cuba revamped its Serie Nacional two years ago,
splitting the September-April season into two halves. The top eight
teams survive, and draft 40 players from the eight eliminated teams to
supplement their rosters. Those 40 broke the tradition that players only
play for their home province team.
Last summer, the Cuban league revived an old money-making incentive and
rented players out to foreign leagues, as it had in the past and as the
government does with thousands of coaches, doctors and engineers who
work in foreign countries. INDER, the Cuban sports ministry, negotiated
contracts for players to compete for Japanese teams. A similar agreement
with the Mexican league fell apart because of MLB rules. Players also
competed for teams in the Netherlands, Italy and France.
Yulieski Gourriel was paid $980,000 by Japan's DeNa Stars; Frederich
Cepeda made $1.5 million from the Yomiuri Giants and Despaigne earned
$900,000 from the Lotte Marines. The players were required to turn over
80 percent of their salaries to INDER and return to their Cuban league
teams in the fall.
The policy revision, which included increased player bonuses of $800 and
salary increases to $40 per month, enabled Cuba to acquire hard currency
and served as an anti-defection tool.
"A big perk of foreign travel for players is their ability to sell
cigars and uniforms and pocket extra cash," Bjarkman said. "It's similar
to the way Cuban people survive by utilizing the black market."
Fidel Castro's son Tony Castro, a physician for the national team and an
officer for the international baseball federation, and the outspoken
Victor Mesa, manager of the national team, have said the Cuban league is
receptive to allowing players to compete for MLB clubs. MLB Commissioner
Bud Selig, who spoke with Fidel Castro about opening doors during the
Baltimore Orioles' 1999 visit to Cuba, would welcome more Cuban players.
But there are two impediments: Cuba would still require its players to
play in its league during the winter, which MLB would reject because of
risk of injury, and INDER would still require a percentage of salaries,
which the U.S. Treasury Department would reject because of the trade
"Cuba would love to be able to broker players to mega-million-dollar
deals, but that seems like a nonstarter given the current embargo, not
to mention Cuba's approach to capitalism," Kehoskie said. "Does Cuba
really want players going off to make millions for eight months and
coming home to live among neighbors who make $20 per month? Where would
Aroldis Chapman spend his millions in Cuba? It's easy for a defector to
say he'd go home but if you're living in a Ritz-Carlton are you really
going back to a place with blackouts and food shortages?"
No one anticipates immediate changes to Cuba's relationship with MLB but
the thaw announced by Obama and an eventual loosening of the embargo
could enable the Cuban league to sell players to MLB in a way similar to
the Asian leagues, who make certain players available and charge a
release or negotiation fee.
While diplomacy maneuvers unfold, the smuggling of defectors continues
as "MLB's worst headache," Bjarkman said.
MLB could change its rules and allow Cuban defectors to become free
agents once they reach U.S. shores rather than having to establish
residency in a third country, but MLB has stated that wouldn't reduce
danger because defectors would still need "the assistance of
traffickers" to get to the U.S.
Bjarkman suggests dropping the third-country residency policy altogether
and putting Cubans in the amateur draft, thus reducing their contracts
and their appeal to smugglers.
Other proposals include giving Cuban ballplayers the same special
permission to travel as Cuban musicians and artists receive; selling
Cuba's 16 teams to foreign owners who would invest in stadium upgrades;
instituting an international MLB draft, and, someday, placing MLB
franchise academies and an actual franchise in Cuba.
MLB stays mum on the topic, other than to say its hands are tied by the
"Major League Baseball turns a blind eye to the Cuban problem because
Chapman can throw the ball 106 mph and Puig can hit it seven miles,"
said Miami attorney Ben Daniel, who prosecuted agent Gus Dominguez for
smuggling Cuban players in 2007. "They need to fill stadiums, and so it
comes back to this political artificiality: No other person in the
hemisphere is treated like a Cuban ballplayer."
Tony Perez, who left Cuba in 1960 at age 18 with a visa and his
Cincinnati Reds contract, would like to see a breakthrough so Cuban
players don't have to take risks and be separated from their families.
"It's a shame nothing has changed for 50 years," said Perez, a Miami
Marlins special assistant who recalled playing with Castillo's
grandfather and uncle in Camaguey.
Bjarkman is convinced that no matter what the future holds, the Cuban
league, which once existed in splendid parallel to MLB, is doomed.
"The history of Major League Baseball has been its killing of
competitive leagues," he said. "While no one wants segregation, MLB
killed the Negro Leagues, eliminating hundreds of jobs and businesses.
It wiped out winter leagues in the Caribbean. Cuba will be left with no
more domestic baseball than what is now found in Puerto Rico, Venezuela
and the Dominican Republic."
Yusseff Diaz dreads the decline of his beloved Serie Nacional. He knows
all the lore, statistics, gossip. He left Cuba in 1980 at age 4 in the
Mariel boatlift aboard a shrimper called the Doubleday and spent his
first day in Miami at the Orange Bowl. He was raised by his mother after
his father was sentenced to prison for murder, he said. He graduated
from American High and FIU and now works for the Department of Homeland
His first love was the Marlins, but he began following Cuban baseball in
1999 when the Orioles played the Cuban national team and Jose Contreras
struck Albert Belle out three times.
"I said, 'Wow, they have this amazing baseball in my home country?'" he
said. "Since I didn't grow up in Cuba it fascinates me to learn about
the history. I got into it heavily. They play with more devotion, more
flair. They had to tell Cespedes to stop admiring his home runs. Puig
will take the extra base even when he shouldn't gamble."
Diaz daydreams of going to Cuba, seeing all 16 teams, buying more
jerseys, sitting in the stands with rambunctious fans, meeting the
players he communicates with on Facebook.
"I feel pride seeing Cuban players excel in the major leagues," he said.
"But at the same time it's sad to see the Cuban league going downhill.
It's like Cuba is losing part of its culture."
Source: What will become of baseball's decline in Cuba? The field might
open further in U.S. | The Miami Herald -