Riches, fame and notoriety are not promised to baseball players defecting from Cuba. But, with the emergence of Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland Athletics, ball players from the tiny island nation will now go to even greater lengths to try to make it off the island.
The reason ? Well Cuban baseball players are technically amateurs and paid like amateurs in their home country. This is not a generalization, Cuban players are some of the most talented baseball players in the world and are not allowed to leave. They watch from afar as the games best players perform on a grand stage while they dream of what could be. Many players, including Puig and Cespedes, are trying to change that. They just can’t sit idly by. But, the price for leaving the island and defecting can be banishment from the game on Cuba and even imprisonment.
In post-revolutionary Cuba (1961) the Cuban government abolished the professional system and league of baseball and established a primary amateur and nationalistic identity. As K.E. Baird wrote in the Journal for Sport and Social Issues in 2005,
“In 1961, the Cuban government replaced the former professional baseball system with new amateur baseball leagues, most prominent among them the Cuban National Series The reorganization aimed to organize the sport based on a socialist model of sports driven by national ideals rather than money.”
With this move to a more nationalistic approach to baseball, gone were the days of exorbitant salaries and the highlighting of individual talent. The Cuban teams were trained to perform on the global stage and to entertain at home. But, as Steve Fainaru wrote in the Cuban Reader, ”
The situation would get worse in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which was Cuba’s main trading partner. This led many players to defect to the United States due to deteriorating economic conditions. Amidst such action, even Fidel Castro admitted himself that it’s hard to prevent the baseball stars from defecting. He would later proclaim, “if you have to compete against six million dollars versus three thousand Cuban pesos you cannot win.”
So, here we sit in 2013. Cuban players have shown they are more than capable to perform against big leaguers as evidenced by their performance during the World Baseball Classic Baseball Tournaments. These Cuban players want to perform on the grand scale, but there are inherent road-blocks.
They can defect but that can be dangerous on several fronts. First the risk of injury or even death. Like a thirsty man wants water, a confined man wants his freedom. That rings true especially when there are untold riches waiting for him in the United States. Second, many of these Cuban ball-players don’t have the connections or support to try to get away from their oppressors. The Cuban government keeps a close eye on athletes of special talent making it even more difficult for them to get away.
We know the stories of some of baseball’s recent greats, the trials and tests they went through to make it to America. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez of New York Yankees fame was on a rickety raft in shark infested waters and eventually made it to the States. Most recently 22 year-old phenom, Yasiel Puig tried to defect numerous times and was caught in one instance by members of the United States Coast Guard. Puig told members of that Coast Guard unit that he will keep trying to defect because he wants to play Major League Baseball. He told them his dreams would be realized…..signing a tennis ball for the crew. Puig eventually ended up in Cancun, Mexico. Then, weeks later he was trying out for baseball teams in Mexico eventually leading to his 7-year 42 million dollar contract he signed with the Dodgers.
The emergence of Puig and Cespedes tells us two things. One, the talent on the island is significant and would greatly impact our national game, which for any true baseball fan is a great thing, better players equals better product equals better game. Two, as native Cuban players hear through the grape-vine the tremendous success of Puig and Cespedes it will only make these bands of talented players more driven to escape their shackles and make it to America to play ball. They will leave to play the game they love, but also to be a free human being. To not be confined by a nationalistic mandate or doctrine. To simply play the game they love for a price determined by a market thirsting for this unique brand of Cuban talent.
I can’t wait for the day there is a natural conduit for these Cuban players to make it to the big leagues. The game of baseball is so unique. Baseball is better with diversity. Adding the Cuban element on a grand scale to the mix will make the game even better
Some of the Cuban players on Major League rosters today……
Yasiel Puig Los Angeles Dodgers
Yoenis Cespedes Oakland A’s
Aroldis Chapman Cincinnati Reds
Leonys Martin Texas Rangers
Yunel Escobar Toronto Blue Jays
Kendrys Morales Seattle Mariners
Yuniesky Betancourt Milwaukee Brewers
Jose Iglesias Boston Red Sox
Adeiny Hechavarria Miami Marlins
Dayan Viciedo Chicago White Sox
Jorge Soler Chicago Cubs
Livan Hernandez Milwaukee Brewers