Karl Lindholm: Baseball in Cuba: More than a sport
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Read part one here.
“It could be a train wreck,” was Oscar’s apprehensive assessment.
We were having a late night impromptu discussion of the future of Cuban baseball in Kit Krieger’s 17th-floor room in the Habana Libre Hotel. We had just returned from watching Industriales of Havana defeat Camaguey, 7-1, at Estadio Latinamericano.
Our company included two of the foremost experts on Cuban baseball in the world, our special guest Sigfredo Barros, the baseball writer for Granma, the Communist daily newspaper in Cuba, and American Peter Bjarkman, author of two important histories of Cuban baseball and the soon-to-be-published “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story of Major League Baseball’s Hottest Issue.”
Peter was a participant, with me, in Cubaball, a baseball excursion organized by Kit (for the 14th time in the last 20 years), a former teacher from Vancouver, British Columbia, by way of New York. Unlike me, Peter has been to Cuba “60 or 70 times.”
I had come to Cuba once before, in 2001, as the faculty representative on a Middlebury College alumni trip. I lectured to our group on Cuban baseball without ever having seen a game. My recent trip, two weeks ago, was something then of an act of compensation: We saw seven games in seven days, seven different teams, four different ballparks and cities. Wonderful.
On a superficial level, I thought I knew something about Cuba as a result of that earlier exposure. Not so. I found the difference between Cuba then and Cuba now to be night and day.
Cuba then was just emerging from the “special period,” the terrible aftermath of the Soviet retreat from sponsorship. The hardship in Cuba was palpable. The word that dominated my consciousness was “decrepitude.” The beautiful century-old buildings in Havana were falling down.
MURALS OF BASEBALL, including revolutionary leader Fidel Castro swinging a bat, are exhibited beneath the grandstand in Estadio Latinamericano in Havana.
Cuba now is different indeed. Old Havana, in conspicuous decay 15 years ago, is much brighter and shinier, clean and safe. Clearly, there is tourist money in Cuba. Joint ventures between the Cuban government and European and South American firms have proliferated.
Baseball is changing in Cuba too, as relations between Cuba and the U.S. thaw, and is likely to change dramatically, perhaps sooner rather than later, in ways that are hard to predict.
Baseball has been a passion for Cubans for a long time. Organized league play goes all the way back to the 1870s. During the 60 years of segregation in American baseball (1887-1947), Cuban players came north to play in the U.S.
Players of European descent (Spanish), 41 in all, played in the white major leagues; players with African backgrounds (slavery existed in Cuba from the 16th century until 1888) played in the Negro leagues, about 200 of them.
Martin Dihigo, Jose Mendez, and Cristobal Torriente are Cubans who played in the Negro leagues and have been elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
In the winter, they all came back to Cuba and played with one another, along with many American players, white and black, in integrated baseball, at a very high level.
In the 1950s, after integration of U.S. baseball and before Castro’s revolution, a number of great Cuban players came to compete professionally in the U.S., including Luis Tiant Jr., Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, Tony Oliva, Atanasio “Tony” Perez (the first Cuban player elected to the Hall of Fame, 2000).
Castro, an avid fan of the game, put an end to professional baseball in Cuba, instituting an amateur version in 1961. The Cuban National Team quickly became the best in the world, outside Major League Baseball, compiling a record in international competitions rarely blemished by defeat.
The best players in Cuba were prohibited from leaving the island to pursue their craft, lucratively, in the U.S. To do so, they had to escape illegally, defect. Defection is dangerous, expensive, unpredictable in outcome. Defectors are smuggled off the island, often on rickety boats, by predatory recruiters, who extort a significant slice of the player’s eventual MLB contract.
There were 18 Cuban players, defectors, on major league rosters on Opening Day this past season. They are among the very best players in the game. The World Series teams this year each had an important Cuban contributor, Yoenis Cespedes for the Mets and Kendrys Morales for the Royals. All-Star pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds Aroldis Chapman has thrown a pitch at 106 mph, the fastest ever recorded.
Shortstops Alexei Ramirez (White Sox) and Jose Iglesias (Tigers) have been All-Stars. Power hitters Jorge Soler (Cubs), Jose Abreu (White Sox), and Yasiel Puig (Dodgers) are among the game’s most exciting young players.
Peter Bjarkman wrote in “Smoke: The Romance and Lure of Cuban Baseball” of the great appeal of baseball in Cuba to fans and students of the game like me: “It is only in Fidel’s modern day socialist Cuba where one still finds the 19th century Pan-American pastime anachronistically existing in its unadulterated and most pristine forms.” Bjarkman called Cuban baseball “an escape to baseball’s universally revered past.”
In Castro’s Cuba, one sees, and has seen for over five decades, the game of baseball beautifully played and enthusiastically received, with none of the commercial overlay of professional baseball in the U.S., which at times can seem overwhelming. Cuba has been called a beisbol paradiso.
So what will happen if and when Cuba is opened up to American interests? In our nocturnal discussion, Peter Bjarkman suggested that eventually there is likely to be a system something like the one MLB has with Japan. Teams that sign a Japanese player must pay a posting fee, compensation for the team that loses the player. Much has to happen before that takes place.
The impediment to that arrangement is the American embargo of Cuba, which prohibits payments to the Cuban government. And the lifting of the embargo must be legislated by a vote in the Republican-led Congress. Perhaps a case can be made that baseball is so vitally important to both countries that an exception to the embargo restrictions can be negotiated.
Kit asked the question explicitly to Sigfredo, the Cuban baseball writer: “What would the Cuban fan prefer: to watch Cubans in the big leagues, or to follow their teams in the National Series?”
We were reminded that the Negro leagues folded after Jackie Robinson and other brave souls crossed the color line in the U.S. in the late 1940s and ’50s, costing hundreds of jobs. African Americans forsook, understandably, one of the most vibrant enterprises in Black America to follow a handful of pioneers in the white majors.
In Room 1707 at the Habana Libre, Sigfredo Barros shook his head. He is 69 years old and has written about baseball in Granma for nearly a half-century. “The young generation think different,” he said. “The new generation can’t wait. The future is so uncertain.”
Fidel is 89 years old; his brother, Raul, now the head of government as president, is 84.
Sigfredo acknowledged that defection is “a big, big problem,” and not just in baseball but in other sports too — volleyball and field hockey, more than 100 athletes in the last year.
He reminded us that for the Cuban government baseball is just a “piece of the puzzle.” He took care to point out that in 1958 there were over a million illiterate Cubans, and now Cuba has nearly 100 percent literacy. He emphasized that “health care and education is free — we can’t lose that.
“But,” he added, “Baseball is more than a sport.
“We can’t lose baseball.”
FANS WATCHING A baseball game in Estadio Cinco de Septiembre stadium in Cienfuegos are reminded by a huge sign — “Revolucion Si” — to support Cuba’s Communist revolution.
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