On March 22, 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays will play an exhibition baseball game in Cuba:
“The game will be the first involving a major North American professional sports league in Cuba since the U.S. began reestablishing diplomatic ties with the country early last year. It will be played in Havana at ‘Estadio Latinoamericano’, Cuba’s largest stadium…
“MLB not only seeks to play a symbolic role in the reopening of relations between the two countries for the first time since 1961. The league is also eyeing the longer-term goal of easing the often-dangerous path Cuban-born players take to reach the major leagues…”
–‘Tampa Bay Rays to Play in Cuba’,
BRIAN COSTA, Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2016
http://www.wsj.com/articles/tampa-bay-rays-to-play-cuban-national-team-1456872628 Here’s some of the background…
‘This Cuban Defector Changed Baseball. Nobody Remembers’
“…Major League Baseball and Cuba are discussing ways for Cuban players to sign with teams without having to defect, taking advantage of a thaw between the countries that will culminate in President Obama’s two-day trip there, set to begin Sunday. A new arrangement would formalize the decades-long flow of Cuban players showing up on American shores and major league rosters — including star players like Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman and Orlando Hernandez, known as “El Duque.”
“Before all of them, and hundreds of others, there was Rene Arocha.
“He never got a big-money contract or played memorably enough to be a household name, even among ardent fans. At best, he may be a curious footnote.
“But on July 10, 1991, he committed a simple but utterly-rebellious act that opened the way for the modern surge of Cuban players: He walked away from the Cuban national team during a layover in Miami and sought asylum in the United States.
“Until then, no active player on the national team, the best of the best in the country, had defected.
“He was the one who started the current wave of players defecting and deciding to come to the U.S. and staying here”,
said Peter C. Bjarkman, a longtime scholar of Cuban baseball, whose book “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors” is scheduled for publication in May.
“He really was the pioneer.”
“Now, the kind of defections that Arocha opened the way to, may be on the way out.
“After Fidel Castro took power in 1959, he abolished professional baseball and established the ‘National Series’, a 16-team amateur league run by a government department.
“This is the triumph of free baseball over slave baseball”,
Castro declared, showing his distaste for the buying and selling of players in the United States leagues.
“Before Arocha defected, a few players managed to make it to the United States, but none had been active players on the high-profile national team.
“One player, Barbaro Garbey, who had been imprisoned on a game-fixing charge and left Cuba on the Mariel boatlift — a mass migration in 1980 of more than 120,000 Cuban refugees to the United States — did make it to the major leagues. But Garbey was not an active player when he left Cuba, Bjarkman said, and his departure did not cause nearly the stir that Arocha’s did.
“Arocha, by contrast, was a star pitcher on Cuba’s national team when he left, a right-hander with a 92-mile-an-hour fastball. At 25, however, he was already an overworked one. Cuba tended not to use relievers, so pitchers often worked entire games, sometimes several a week.
“I got injured when I was 17 but I still played”, Arocha recalled. “We used terrible baseballs, too. None of the equipment was good then.”
“Even as Major League Baseball has applied to the Treasury Department to institute a new system to draft Cuban players to teams directly — a pathway that the league anticipates would pre-empt the smuggling and the often chaotic and dangerous journeys of Cuban players to the United States — players continue to arrive.
“Last month, two brothers, Yulieski Gourriel, 31, and Lourdes Gourriel Jr., 22, left the Cuban national team while in the Dominican Republic, one of the most high-profile defections in recent years.
“Their father, Lourdes Gourriel Sr., was one of Cuba’s most celebrated players. Arocha played with him on the Cuba teams that won the 1986 Amateur World Series and the 1988 ‘Baseball World Cup’ against the United States.
“I still remember Lourdes’s home run that tied the score before we went on to win”, Arocha said. “I gave up the runs that put the United States ahead, but then he tied it. Pow!”
“There is pride in that voice.
“Of course”, he said. “I am very proud. I am Cuban, pure Cuban. I am just not a baseball player. It is no longer part of my life.”
“He paused for a moment.
“It is a little like when you were with a woman, and now you are no longer with her.”
‘A Strange Freedom’
“If Jose Canseco, the Oakland Athletics’ All-Star, had not decided to make a candy bar, Arocha might not have ended up in the majors.
“Cuba now closely guards the travels of its players, driving many defecting players to risk harrowing journeys in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.
“But Arocha’s defection was remarkably simple.
“The team was on a layover in Miami after playing a series of exhibition games against the United States. The players were staying at the hotel in the middle of the airport, Arocha said, and he just walked out.
“He did have a plan. In fact, he said, he had been plotting for a long time to make a break from the team, considering and then dropping the idea on at least two earlier occasions when the team was traveling.
“Miami, however, made a lot of sense because he had relatives there.
“When his father and aunt came to visit at the airport hotel, he told them he was not going back to Cuba and would stay with them.
“They didn’t know what I was going to do”, he said. “I told them I was staying. They could not believe it.”
“He slipped out of the hotel and through an exit door in the crowded terminal, apparently not closely watched by Cuban officials, who had not dealt with a defection before.
“The next day, according to news accounts at the time, the Cuban team waited on the plane for Arocha. And waited, and waited…until after a few hours it was clear he was not going to show up.
“Back in Cuba, he was denounced as a traitor in official media.
“In Cuba, he had left a wife and young daughter but doubted they would suffer reprisals. (His daughter eventually joined him.)
“It was not about them”, he said. “It was about me.”
“He had been playing baseball since he was 13, starting in his hometown, Regla, near Havana.
“He had worked his way up through the equivalent of the minor leagues to the ‘Metropolitanos’ and the ‘Industriales’, two of the country’s best teams. In total, he is credited with 100 wins and a .600 winning percentage, Bjarkman said, and was talked up as the probable starter for Cuba’s Olympic baseball team at the ‘1992 Barcelona Games’.
“Over the years, a torn Achilles’ tendon set him back and his throwing arm went cold and hot, but he made it to the national team.
“With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba entered what is known as the ‘Special Period’, an era of food shortages and want among the worst the country endured.
“Baseball players were not spared.
“Sometimes on the road we slept right in the stands, outside with the mosquitoes”, he said. “Just like everybody else, we had to search for food and figure out how to get by. I didn’t have eggs in the refrigerator, either.”
“There were other slights.
“The authoritarian ways of the country trickled down to athletics. Players, Arocha said, were tightly controlled. Decisions on who would start which games were never explained, and the players were forced to attend mandatory meetings to hear political speeches.
“Nothing was ever explained, they just made decisions and nobody would know why”, he said.
“Off the field, people were punished for seemingly minor violations. He recalled the time an uncle was jailed for simply possessing American dollars.
“It was all getting to him, he said.
“I wanted freedom”, he said. “Yes, I was playing baseball and wondered if I could play in the big leagues, but mainly I wanted to be free.”
“Not even his wife at the time knew his plan, he said. She went to the Havana airport to meet him; they eventually split up, and he has since remarried in the United States.
“It was hard at first”, he said. “I missed Cuba, but I knew I could not go back.”
“The sudden freedom to speak his mind bewildered him at first.
“At a cafe in Little Havana in Miami, he was stunned to hear fellow Cubans loudly criticizing the president.
“’Bush this’, ‘Bush that’”, he recalled, chuckling at the memory. “I was looking around and thinking, ‘How could they be talking like this about the president?’ Nobody was hushing their voice. That’s how you can tell a newly-arrived Cuban. They still talk in whispers.”
“The exile community embraced him, though Arocha was wary of political activism.
“I know nothing about politics”,
he told ‘The New York Times’ a few weeks after arriving. As that article noted, Arocha had left shortly before Havana was to play host to the ‘Pan-American Games’, perhaps adding to Fidel Castro’s ire.
“Gus Dominguez, a Cuban-American working at an advertising firm in Los Angeles, happened to be visiting a Miami radio station to help promote Canseco’s candy bar while word spread of Arocha’s defection.
“A sports reporter helped him make the connection.
“I knew Canseco’s agents, so I agreed to bring Rene to Los Angeles to meet them and see what could happen”, Dominguez said.
“A week later, the meeting had still not panned out. Baseball had no system in place to draft Cuban players, so everybody was operating with caution and suspicion.
“Finally, Rene tells me, ‘Why don’t you be my agent? You are the only one helping me,’” Dominguez said. “He said, ‘I will learn how to play baseball here and you learn how to be an agent.’”
“It took several months, but the league decided to hold a special lottery for Arocha. The St. Louis Cardinals signed him.
“I wanted him to play, to at least give it a shot”, Dominguez said. “His talent was above average, but he wasn’t great”, he added. “What made him above average is you could tell winning was always on his mind.”
‘A Short but Pioneering Stint’
“Pitching in Cuba was one thing; pitching in the big leagues was another.
“I thought my years of experience would help, but I had a lot to learn”, Arocha said. “Slider, sinker, everything. I mostly used the fastball in Cuba.”
“Arocha went 11-8 his rookie season in 1993. He remembered standing on the mound in that first game against the Cincinnati Reds on April 9, 1993.
“I thought, ‘I really did it”, he said. “I have arrived’.”
“It turned out to be the pinnacle of his career.
“The next season, he was in the bullpen.
“Arocha did not adjust well, mentally or physically, and ended up with an elbow injury that at first was diagnosed as a bone chip, but was later found to be a torn tendon. He required ‘Tommy John’ surgery and, in his eyes and the eyes of his associates, it signaled the end of his career. He missed the 1996 season.
“He was cut by the Cardinals after having played three seasons and signed with the San Francisco Giants in 1997 for a season but did not start, relegated to one of their minor league teams.
“In 1998, he played for the New Orleans Zephyrs, a Houston Astros ‘Triple-A’ team, then went on to play in Mexican leagues in 1999 and discussed a comeback with the Mets in 2000, but there was not enough interest, and he retired.
“He settled here, because the community had always welcomed him. Thousands of fans of Cuban descent had watched and cheered him here when he had pitched against the Marlins in a game that rookie season.
“Without a doubt, Arocha was a pitcher with a lot of talent but injuries and bad luck always followed him”,
said Ian Padron, a Cuban filmmaker who featured Arocha in his 2003 documentary on Cuban baseball, “Fuera de Liga” (“Out of This League”).
“Still, Arocha’s relative success when healthy answered doubts about whether top Cuban players could play in the big leagues.
“His rookie season alone was solid enough to answer the many doubts of the skeptics”, Bjarkman writes in his new book, “and to demonstrate that at least the top Cuban League pitchers could indeed make the grade at the highest levels of professional baseball.”
‘Letting Go of the Past, Almost’
“I don’t watch baseball, none of the games or spring training or anything”, Arocha said recently on his cluttered back patio. “I never liked watching baseball. I don’t have patience for that. I liked playing baseball.”
“He likened his split with the sport to a
“chapter in my life that has ended.”
“Sometimes they come around and ask me to play softball”, he added. “I don’t even do that.”
“Yet, he is still conscious enough of his image to have posted several videos of his playing days on ‘YouTube’.
“Who, after all, wants to be forgotten?
“At the suggestion that he might feel differently if baseball had made him rich, or if injuries had not derailed his career, he shrugged.
“For a time, he did run a youth baseball academy, coaching children, but the business failed in hard economic times and he closed it in 2010.
“He gets by driving a van for a medical clinic and spends his free time on his motorboat or with his three grown children, two of whom were born and raised in the United States.
“He never got the multimillion-dollar contracts that many Cuban players land now. His signing bonus with St. Louis was $15,000. (“I thought it was a fortune,” he said.) The most he made in a season was $300,000.
“I don’t have control over such things”, he said of the difference in contracts. “Those players deserve it. They have the talent. I was in a different time.”
“He still harbors doubts about Cuba and the talk of changes there. Several of his relatives have gone on trips to Cuba and encouraged him to go, but he said he doubted that much had really changed. His only visit came during a 1994 humanitarian tour to visit refugees at the American military base at Guantánamo, which is walled off from the rest of the country.
“Players are going to keep coming because there still is no freedom there”, he said.
“He noted that Puig and a few other players who had defected visited Cuba in November but only as part of a good will trip organized by Major League Baseball and the players’ union.
“So, it was controlled”, he said. “If I go, I want to go wherever I want, whenever I want. That is freedom.”
“In the fading afternoon light, he is waxing the side of his 17-foot boat parked in the yard.
“When he takes it out on the seas, it occurs to him he may encounter Cubans on rafts fleeing the island, a common occurrence in South Florida.
“I hear you can’t bring them on the boat”, he says. “You could be accused of smuggling. You throw them water and food and call the Coast Guard.”
“The letters indicating the name of the boat are fading. “Lady …”
“No”, Arocha interrupts. “No, that’s not the name. I haven’t named it yet but I have the name picked out.”
“He smiles, pausing for effect.
“And he laughs loudly at the inside joke, one for the Cuban fans.”
–‘This Cuban Defector Changed Baseball. Nobody Remembers’,
RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD, New York Times, MARCH 18, 2016
‘Cuban baseball defectors made triumphant return’
HAVANA (AP) — “More than 100 Cuban boys wearing the uniforms of local baseball teams stood in rows, smiling nervously Wednesday, as they got tips and training from some of their major league idols — men who were born on the island and were once disdained by the Communist government for defecting to the United States.
“Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu were among those who ran 10- and 11-year-old Cuban players through a three-hour skills camp on the second day of a three-day mission meant to warm relations between ‘Major League Baseball’ and Cuba.
“Joined by pitcher Pedro Luis Lazo and other Cuban baseball stars who have stayed on the island, the major league stars divided the youths into five groups and ran them through calisthenics and batting, pitching and catching drills. And they offered their advice.
“We’re going to give our best on this visit and we appreciate the opportunity we’ve been given”, said Yasiel Puig, who left Cuba illegally in 2012. “Everything else, we leave to God and destiny.”
“Eleven-year-old Yassel Veranes grinned widely as he waited for the clinic to begin.
“It’s my dream to be here to see them”,
said the boy, who was brought to Havana’s ‘Latinoamericano Stadium’ by his father, Elio Veranes, who watched the proceedings with pride.
“The official return on Tuesday of baseball defectors earning millions in the major leagues was a landmark in the new relationship between Cuba and the United States and a dramatic manifestation of Cuba’s shifting attitude toward the hundreds of players who have abandoned the country that trained them.
“One year ago this week, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that their countries were restoring diplomatic ties, opening the door for better baseball relations between the countries.
“Cuba and the United States always have shared a love of baseball, despite deep political and ideological differences over the years. From the Negro Leagues to the current crop of Cuban stars, the communist island and the U.S. are linked by century-old baseball ties.
“During their current trip, ‘Major League Baseball Players Association’ executives…hope to make progress toward creating a legal route for Cuban players to make their way to the major leagues…
‘MLB agent Bart Hernandez arrested’
“When they weren’t getting tips or training, the boys asked their idols to sign baseball, or have their photograph taken together.
“Pena, dressed in his St. Louis team jersey, said he was happy
“to come back to see my family, to share with them.”
“The player said he also enjoyed meeting with his young fans in Havana. Another clinic was planned Thursday in Matanzas, east of the capital.
“Traditionally, Cuban state television has avoided airing games featuring defectors but fans watch their idols’ performances on pirated recordings distributed on computer USB drives. Most sports experts agree that the future does not look bright without a solution to the problem of baseball talent fleeing the country. But fans who gathered to see the Cuban baseball stars said their return to the island filled them with optimism.
“U.S. teams played spring training games in Cuba before Castro’s revolution but none appeared here from March 1959 until the Baltimore Orioles faced Cuba’s national team in Havana in March, 1999. MLB has not returned since. “Under Castro, a passionate baseball fan who saw sports as an expression of national glory, defectors were banished from official memory, never mentioned on Cuban television even as they made headlines on U.S. sports pages.
“Castro’s brother and successor, President Raul Castro, has eased the treatment of players who leave, as part of a broader relaxing of social controls. That included the 2013 removal of a required exit permit for all Cubans, except those considered essential to the country.
“Some major league players have since been allowed back on low-key trips to see family. A few others, like star infielder Yoan Moncada, have received permission from Cuban authorities to depart legally to start careers in the United States. Moncada agreed to a $31.5 million signing bonus with the Boston Red Sox in March.
“Cuba also has been allowing some stars to legally play in countries such as Japan and Mexico during the offseason. Similar policies for the major leagues would be far more difficult, due to the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and Cuban fears that broad legalization of departures to the U.S. would make the talent drain even worse.”
–‘Cuban baseball defectors made triumphant return’,
Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press, Dec. 16, 2015
‘Is Cuban baseball on the brink of a revolution?’
HAVANA — “It is late February, sweltering hot, and the Cuban baseball season is in full swing.
“We are racing in a 1955 Dodge taxi to the stadium where hometown team ‘Industriales’ will face cross-island rivals ‘Pinar del Rio’ this evening, in Game 2 of a three-game series. From the front seat, taxi entrepreneur Bobby regales us with “deals” only he can get for friends like us. He turns his head distractedly to urge his passengers to “call me.”
“Right after, we miss the turn to the stadium amid the tangle of Havana back streets. Bobby urges calm: “No problem!”
“We do a quick U-turn across the busy street and veer back toward the ‘Estadio Latinoamericano’. Three or four potholed blocks later, we screech to a halt, settle the 10-peso fare hastily negotiated with Bobby, and stand on the street corner looking up at the giant blue structure looming above us.
“Havana’s big baseball stadium sits wedged in a dingy part of the central city, ringed by loud traffic and crowded among low-rise residences. Its ticket booth resembles one you might find at a remote ‘Greyhound’ station. One elderly woman peers out from a small wicket while carefully tearing little tickets, stamped ‘CubaDeportes SA’. Tickets cost 3 pesos, or roughly 30 cents for locals. They have no seat numbers.
“The stadium’s entry tunnel is dark, and under the hot stands everything feels sticky. We climb a small set of stairs and emerge into the grandstand seats.
“Suddenly, a broad, blue vista opens: 120 metres to straightaway centre field, 100 to the corners. Banners above the outfield bleachers trumpet “Cuba, Land of Champions” and “Sport, an Achievement of the Revolution”. Strikingly athletic players run after grounders on the rough infield, which is splotched with light-green and brown patches.
“The crowd is alive, and the young Pinar fan contingent jack their airhorns relentlessly, vuvuzela-style. Congas provide a backbeat for the gyrating throng. These rabid fans are kept separate; Cuban police stand warily between their conga drums and the seemingly indifferent Havana Industriales fans.
“The national anthem is mercifully short. The umpire signals it’s time to play ball.
“Pinar comes out swinging, and soon home runs are flying everywhere into the left- and right-field stands. In the first and second innings, the Havana hitters try to reply, but fail. By the top of the third it looks like a laugher, with Pinar leading 5-0. As tardy fans continue to wander into the stadium, the 7,000 to 8,000 present are still drowned out by a frenzied minority of green-clad Pinar fans.
“For the first-time fan, there is little player information available. No programmes or lineup cards are distributed, and the low-tech outfield scoreboard is no help. You have to strain to decipher the scratchy PA system, leaving you to guess the next batter is “Younis Somebody”.
“Finally, cribbing from the sports pages of ‘Granma’, the ‘Communist Party’ daily, we figure out that Pinar pitcher Freddy Asiel Alvarez is on the mound. The wily right-hander holds Havana in check for two innings, until its talented lineup jumps to the fore.
“In a memorable bottom of the third, Havana is suddenly able to hit again, belting line drives all over. The score tightens. Centre-fielder Yunieski Gurriel slams a single, while fleet left-fielder Yunier Diaz stretches a single into a double. Then burly Lisbon Correa threatens to even the score in a hurry. With the score 5-2 and runners at the corners, a disputed catch against the outfield wall sends officials back to discuss the play behind the plate. Meanwhile, all hell breaks loose. “In the stands near the visitors’ dugout, a small black dog suddenly leaps over the railing onto the field. Picking up speed, it begins to run all over the field, starting with the right-field corner. Soon, the grounds staff are in full pursuit. The dog slows down enticingly, but once they approach, it bolts, charging from the outfield to home plate, then around the bases again. By now, the entire crowd is standing, many cheering and laughing as the dog outraces the flat-footed humans.
“The players stand impassively, trying to ignore the pandemonium around them. Finally, the crowd breaks into a delirious roar as a young boy is brought onto the field near home plate to scoop the dog into his arms. The official scorer is silent, but the dog appears to have run at least a triple.
“The game continues. Havana scores again, and again. As we head to the fourth, Pinar’s lead is just 5-4.
“The scoreboard shows the batter’s count with the familiar S-B-O (strike/ball/out) initials, but the line score reads C-H-E, with “Carrera” for runs. A hit is still H, but often spelled “jit” in the Cuban press. Spanish baseball lexicon has many delicious terms, rendering ‘home run’ by the sonorous “jonron” and labelling a ‘single’ an “indiscutible”, or an indisputable hit.
“In such a knowledgeable baseball environment, one familiar Latin icon reappears in the stands. A middle-aged gentleman, arms and legs crossed, sits quietly and observes the game intently. Sometimes he shakes his head slowly, expressing dismay at the misplays to which he is witness. I can’t help but think of Felipe Alou. Reminders of old-time Caribbean pro baseball are everywhere. Before the current Industriales of the national series existed, the Havana Sugar Kings played in the International League, including against the AAA Montreal Royals.
“Today in 2015, with relations normalizing between Cuba and the United States, could a renewed Havana presence in pro ball be on the horizon? Havana will certainly not join the MLB, unless a heretofore undiscovered middle class can absorb the jump from 30 cents to $30 a ticket.
“In the baseball world, there is broad expectation that Cuba will soon be a replica of the Dominican Republic — a stupendous fount of All-Star talent. With the talent pipeline open, how many more Yasiel Puigs are coming?! Another view is that 50 years of isolation from North American pro sports has an effect. These leagues’ new conditioning and nutrition regimes, not to mention sports psychology and advanced statistics, may make adjustment to MLB difficult for many. Cuba might end up more like Mexico, Venezuela or Puerto Rico, a reliable producer of Latin baseball talent but limited by its weaker baseball infrastructure.
“Pinar holds on to win 7-4. The game report in the next day’s Granma scrupulously avoids any mention of ‘Houndgate’. Maybe this was the poor man’s ‘Youppi’ or video scoreboard – a good laugh at the park on a hot evening. We left hoping that spirit doesn’t fade in a new, more Americanized era of Havana baseball.”
–‘Is Cuban baseball on the brink of a revolution?’,
David Winch, Special to the Montreal Gazette, March 13, 2015
Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame mural (RAMON ESPINOSA – AP)