The 2019 MLB roster included 23 Cuban-born players on major league teams plus 108 on minor league teams. Could these players join a 2021 Cuban Olympic team?
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Photo credit: Christopher P. Baker

An unknowing visitor witnessing the strident histrionics of Cuban males in Havana’s tree-shaded Parque Central might be forgiven for thinking a counter-revolutionary riot is brewing. Relax! The in-your-face confrontations at ‘Esquina Caliente’ (‘Hot Corner’) are over baseball. Daily, dozens of pelota (baseball) fanatics gather beside the monument of José Martí to debate Cuba’s national obsession with an all-bark-but-no-bite ferocity that might focus on such arcane trivia as the Industriales’ best-ever pitcher or more urgent themes that cut to the quick of national pride.

Unlike in the US, Cuba’s professional peloteros (baseball players) are state employees and play for the island’s 16 provincial teams…

When, on July 16, 2020, Cuba’s National Baseball Federation (FBC) president Higinio Vélez announced that Cuba was studying whether to allow players hired in U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB) to represent the island’s national team in international competition, the Esquina Caliente cogió candela (was on fire)!

“They’re traitors!” screamed one fidelista.

“You’re an idiot!” responded a less politically impassioned neighbor.

¡Candela!

Vélez wasn’t simply talking about Erisbel Arruebarrena, the Cienfuegos shortstop who fled Cuba in 2013, signed on for the L.A. Dodgers for $25 million and after washing out for indiscipline, returned to Cuba in 2019 to play for Matanzas.

During Fidel’s six-decade tenure, Cuba’s top baseball players were given special perks to keep them loyal. Others were men of principle, loyal to the Revolution regardless…

According to Forbes magazine, the 2019 MLB roster included 23 Cuban-born players on major league teams plus 108 on minor league teams. Among them are many top stars that outshine a Pulsar, including José Abreu, Yoenis Céspedes, Aroldis Chapman, Yuli Gurriel, and Yasiel Puig.

cuban mlb
A Cuban baseball fan. Photo: Christopher P. Baker

So many of Cuba’s top players have left the island in recent years that baseball on the island has seen far better days. After decades of dominating international competition, Cuba’s national team has performed in recent years like a bunch of amateurs, finishing a shameful sixth at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima. 

Alex has no car. He lugs his timeworn bicycle up four flights of stairs, while 200 miles to the north Puig now drives a Lamborghini with a Playboy-esque blonde at his side.

No wonder Cuba wants its MLB estrellas back! If only for a game or two. 

Like everything relating to Cuba, ¡es complicado!

Unlike in the US, Cuba’s professional peloteros are state employees and play for the island’s 16 provincial teams overseen by INDER (the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education & Recreation). Alex ‘King’ Quintero —a zurdo (leftie)— pitched 20 years for Cienfuegos, and for the Cuban national team against the Baltimore Orioles when, in 1999, they became the first MLB team to play in Cuba since 1958. Today his monthly salary as a coach, like that of all his teammates, is the equivalent of about US$30 (the state also gifted him a two-bedroom apartment when he retired as an active player). 

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“We’re trying to rebuild our team,” Alex tells my U.S. motorcycle tour group when I take them to Cienfuegos’ Estadio Cinco de Septiembre to learn ‘Cuban Baseball 101.’ “We’ve lost 18 players since 2000!” Among them Alex’s former clubmates and pals, Puig (2012), Abreu (2013), and Arruebarrena (2013). Puig signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for $42 million; Abreu with the Chicago White Sox for $68 million. 

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A dedicated Cuban baseball fan. Photo: Christopher P. Baker

Alex has no car. He lugs his timeworn bicycle up four flights of stairs, while 200 miles to the north Puig now drives a Lamborghini with a Playboy-esque blonde at his side. Combine that kind of incentive with a natural desire among many Cuban players to rise to the top of their game, and it’s inevitable that the MLB is like a magnet to iron filings. 

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Although Cubans were well represented in the Big Leagues throughout the 1940s and ‘50s — the Cleveland Indians’ Minnie “Cuban Comet” Miñoso and Washington Senators’ pitcher Camilo Pascual among them— since 1961, U.S. embargo laws have prevented Cuban players from playing in the MLB unless they defect from the isle and renounce Cuban citizenship. 

Cuban players who first establish residency in a third country —typically Mexico or the Dominican Republic— can then enter the major leagues as unrestricted free agents instead of having to participate in the main MLB draft.

During Fidel’s six-decade tenure, Cuba’s top baseball players were given special perks to keep them loyal. Others were men of principle, loyal to the Revolution regardless; Pinar del Río’s Omar Linares —once considered best third basemen on the planet— famously turned down a $40 million offer from the New York Yankees. “There are people who can’t be bought with money, and I’m one of them,” he said. 

Anyone who jumped ship and headed stateside was a gusano (worm) and traitor. Few peloteros did so. 

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Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the Cuban economy. In the desperate hardships that followed, many beísbol players risked their lives to reach Florida on flimsy rafts. Since 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act has fast-tracked the legal residence process for Cubans, and the 1995 “wet foot, dry foot” policy allowed Cubans who touched U.S. soil the automatic right to stay, multiplying the incentive to flee Cuba. Professional smugglers got in on the game, often in cahoots with agents and scouts who scoured the island for the best talent, hoping to make millions on future contracts. 

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Estadio 5 de septiembre. Photo: Christopher P. Baker

For elite baseball players, such defections are fraught with danger, not least due to a quirk in MLB rules. Cuban players who first establish residency in a third country —typically Mexico or the Dominican Republic— can then enter the major leagues as unrestricted free agents instead of having to participate in the main MLB draft. As a result, they get far more lucrative contracts, making them desirable prey for criminal gangs. Yasiel Puig is the most famous of several Cuban players who’ve been kidnapped in-transit and extorted for a share of their future salaries. Puig was held hostage for weeks on Isla la Mujeres while smugglers linked to the notorious Los Zetas drug cartel upped the $250,000 fee agreed for his passage. Reportedly, they threatened to chop off his arm! Criminals continued to extort him after he arrived safely in the US and signed with the Dodgers. (Puig also agreed to sign over 20 percent of future earnings to the agents who arranged his escape from Cuba). 

In December 2018, the MLB and FBC finally inked the deal, which promised to eliminate the peril and criminality of human trafficking. … Then Trump threw a curveball.

The steady trickle turned into a flood in 2016 as fears grew that President Obama planned to rescind “wet foot, dry foot” as part of his rapprochement with Cuba. Yordan Álvarez (Los Angeles Dodgers), Alexeis Bell (Texas Rangers), Adolis García (St. Louis Cardinals), brothers Lourdes Gurriel (Toronto Blue Jays) and Yuli Gurriel (Houston Astros), and Robert Moraín (Chicago White Sox) all defected that year. Sure enough, in January 2017 President Obama ended the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. 

That bitter pill to Cuba’s MLB aspirants was offset when in 2016 the Obama administration fostered negotiations for a legal player transfer system, approved by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). In December 2018, the MLB and FBC finally inked the deal, which promised to eliminate the peril and criminality of human trafficking. Cuban players over 25 and with six years’ experience in the Cuban league would be granted visas to play professionally in the USA, while MLB teams would pay the FCB a release fee (from 10 to 25 percent). Any money received by the FCB would be spent on developing baseball in Cuba.

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Young Cubans at baseball training in Bayamo. Photo: Christopher P. Baker

The FBC named 34 players authorized for transfer on July 2, 2019. If he hadn’t been cremated, Fidel would be squirming in his grave. 

Then Trump threw a curveball. In April 2019, he nixed the agreement, claiming that the payments would go to the Cuban government, while National Security Advisor John Bolton inanely suggested that the agreement would have subjected Cuban players to “human trafficking” by their government, making them “pawns of the Cuba dictatorship.” Accordingly, OFAC, which had proclaimed the deal consistent with carve-outs in embargo legislation that allow U.S. companies (such as airlines and agricultural corporations) to trade with Cuba, reversed its Obama-era ruling that the FBC wasn’t part of the Cuban government. (The power brokers behind the decision were hard-line Cuban Americans Sen. Marco Rubio and Mauricio Claver-Carone, advisor to Trump on Latin American affairs; Trump’s personal raison d’être, of course, is that the deal was an Obama initiative.)

Whether such a pipe dream can ever be realized may well all depend on November’s U.S. presidential election.

Meanwhile, the FBC remains forward-thinking.

“We’re studying how to incorporate all of our baseball players around the world into our national team, no matter where they play, because at the end of the day they’re Cuban,” says Higinio Vélez. 

With America’s and Cuba’s favorite pastime due to return to the Summer Olympics in 2021 in Japan for the first time since 2008, the FBC is no doubt wistful for the days when Cuba won gold in three of the last five Olympics in which baseball was hosted. 

“We’re studying how to incorporate all of our baseball players around the world into our national team, no matter where they play, because at the end of the day they’re Cuban.”

Higinio Vélez, President of Cuba’s National Baseball Federation

“Every player on our Olympic squad earns a $300 monthly bonus for life if they win gold,” Alex Quintero tells my tour group. That might fall short of tempting the MLB’s Cuban rockstars, who would share a $37,500 bonus for a gold medal as U.S. Olympians.

Moreover, the MLB has never interrupted its season for the Olympics, which are held smack in the middle of the baseball season. With the latter half of the season crucial for setting up which teams make it to the playoffs and, ultimately, the World Series, Cuba shouldn’t get its hopes up that the MLB will let players take time away from their teams. (While Cuba fielded its top players in 2008, the U.S. Olympic roster comprised minor league players and one college player.) 

With the latter half of the season crucial for setting up which teams make it to the playoffs and, ultimately, the World Series, Cuba shouldn’t get its hopes up that the MLB will let players take time away from their teams.

Still, imagine a unified Cuban team that includes José Abreu, Yordan Álvarez, Yoenis Céspedes, Yasmani Grandal, Yuli Gurriel, Yoán Moncada, Yasiel Puig, and Jorge Soler! Phew… what a powerhouse!

estadio latinoamericano
Estadio Latinoamericano Havana. Photo: Christopher P. Baker

In Havana’s Parque John Lennon in El Vedado — several miles from Parque Central, where the argument has now reached boiling point— an inscription at the base of Lennon’s statue reads “Dices que soy un soñador, pero no soy el único” (“Some say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”). 

Whether such a pipe dream can ever be realized may well all depend on November’s U.S. presidential election.

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