What Will Become of the Cuban Baseball Game?
Published in Seven Magazine
Thursday, 18 March 2010 00:00
In July 2003, four Havana University engineering students made the 90 mile trip from Cuba to Florida, floating on a Buick they had fitted with an engine — they had built a car boat from scratch. Despite their talent and resourcefulness, they were sent back under the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy: Cubans who reach dry land can stay, those who are intercepted in the water are sent back.
The only unusual fact about this event was the sophistication of the vessel. These Bolseros (‘rafters’) have arrived in a steady trickle since the start of the periodico especial—the special period of economic hardship, caused by the fall of the Soviet Union. This uneasy immigration policy is what remains of official US–Cuba relations. The economic embargo, put in place by President Kennedy in 1962 in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, prevents any business or trade between the two nations. Americans are not allowed to spend money in Cuba, so this is an effective travel ban.
Over 48 years, the embargo has failed in its foreign policy objectives but so far the US’s stance has not changed—and oddly, the Florida Cubans have helped shape this policy. There are over 1 million Cuban exiles in Miami, the first wave of which came to Florida in 1959 when Fidel Castro seized power. They are the affluent class Castro sought to overthrow and are the most violently pro-blockade and anti-Castro, and, unusual for Hispanic communities, overwhelmingly Republican. As an important Republican base, their support has been key to securing Florida’s electoral votes.
Five years later, Barack Obama won Florida in the general election, thanks in part to the younger generation of American-born Cubans (‘ABCs’) who are more open to dialogue with Cuba. He won 35 per cent of the Cuban-American vote, with 55 per cent of those 29 or younger backing him, and 84 per cent of voters over 65 voting Republican. With Castro gone from public life and a new administration open to improving relations, a change in foreign policy no longer seems impossible.
But when these changes come, what will happen to Cuba’s brand of baseball? The passion Cubans have for the game, the socialist sports system, and the freeze on relations with the US has shaped the sport in a way that, like Cuba itself, is historically unique.
Baseball was essential in forming Cuba’s national identity; in the 1860s, it was a way of distinguishing between the Spanish from the criollos, the children of Cuban-born Spaniards. Cubans also used the money they earned playing baseball to fight for independence from Spain, ‘rejecting the bullfight’ in favour of the cultural values and modernity of its neighbour, the US.
The US and Cuba remained closely bound by the sport. The first Latin American player in US professional leagues was Cuban, and many Americans played in the Cuban Winter Leagues. This relationship ended when Castro abolished professional sports in 1961, proclaiming that professional athletes were treated like commodities. In Cuba, baseball teams play for their province, ostensibly for revolutionary ideals, and are not bought and traded. There are also no corporate sponsors or advertising, and all players are paid the same amount. The playing standard is high: Cuba has won the most Olympic Gold medals in baseball.
This ‘revolutionary’ baseball has made Cuba a mecca for fans of the game. Kit Krieger, a Vancouver-based educator (a former president of the British Columbia Teachers Federation) and ex-baseball player for the Pacific Coast League, is the founder of Cubaball Tours. For almost a decade, Krieger has organized trips for baseball fans—Americans included—to watch Cuban baseball and explore its history. According to Krieger, Cuban baseball is reminiscent of American baseball in earlier professional leagues.
“I call it a parallel baseball universe. It is more like the game when it was played in the 1890s or pre-World War I, with teams and players deeply rooted in their communities and displaying their love of the game.”
Many journalists and researchers have gone on the tours; Cubaball has been the subject of two documentaries and a Vanity Fair article in 2008. Using baseball as a vehicle, Cubaball provides an important cultural link between Cubans and North Americans, where contact is not otherwise possible. People on the trip learn the social realities of life in Cuba, meeting players, former players, officials, teachers, and younger Cubans. They bring medical supplies, equipment for baseball academies, or simply exchange gossip with the Pena, a cadre of baseball fans who have little access to baseball news from the US. It is an interesting irony that Cuba’s socialist sports model offers an antidote to American baseball fans disillusioned with the cynical business side of their national pastime. In the US, the sport been struggling since the strike over player salaries in 1994 and the more recent steroid scandals.
Of course, the catch is that baseball has not been spared Cuba’s crippling economic issues—the Achilles heel of socialist systems. At a game in the US, spectators get to keep balls hit into the stands. Due to equipment shortages, in Cuba the game can’t resume until the ball is found and thrown back onto the field. A baseball player in Cuba earns around US$40 per month. Players sometimes need to bolster their salaries, and they can get over month’s wages for selling one piece of memorabilia to a spectator with hard currency.
Players sometimes risk their lives to leave. Two of the more high-profile ‘defections’ are Orlando Hernandez, who crossed the Florida Straits in a small boat, and his half-brother, Livan, who was nearly hit by a car while fleeing the team hotel in Mexico. They are now both on multi-million dollar contracts. The political stalemate between means that those who have left illegally cannot return. Krieger says that ‘defect’ is too political a word: “I would say that some players have left, but very few of the best players in Cuba have gone. It could be for economic reasons—I don’t pretend to know what’s in the mind of each individual player, or whether he’s concerned he is not playing to his full ‘market’ value.”
In 1951, 90 per cent of Latin American baseball players in Major League Baseball (MLB) were Cuban. Thanks to the embargo, today Cuban players remain off-limits. Scouts have looked elsewhere in Latin America, with a growing number of prospects coming from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. But Cuba represents a huge untapped market for the MLB: “I have no doubt that US follow baseball in Cuba, know who the players are, and are anticipating when they leave or when things loosen up,’ says Krieger.
Is this a ‘when’, or still an ‘if’? Obama has loosened travel restrictions for Cubans Americans, but dislodging the trade embargo requires Congressional approval. Krieger is cautious, because relations are still business as usual: “Obama said he was willing to talk to Cuba without preconditions, but there is no evidence so far of this. Raúl Castro has made few changes, and Obama put Cuba on list of terrorism-sponsoring States, for allegedly sponsoring Basque groups in Colombia.” (Cuba hotly denies this and has been demanding removal from the list). Perhaps most importantly, the embargo is a useful political tool for both sides for domestic policy; the US does not want to loosen it without concessions by Cuba, and for its part, Cuba’s government uses the blockade as a scapegoat for its financial problems.
There may be some change in November. Three Cuban-American members of Congress, all pro-embargo/anti-Castro, are expected to be in tight races for re-election. If even one is defeated, it could pave the way for Democrats to attempt better relations with Cuba.
Krieger believes we will probably have to wait until both Castro brothers are out of the picture for real change, reminding us that Castro has been around 20 years longer after his political life expectancy in 1990 was estimated to be six months. “But,” he says, “it is his brand of baseball. Players play for revolutionary ideals. I m not sure how it will survive his passing.”
Even without official channels, for baseball relations there might be some tectonic shifts. Tim Wendel, a journalist and author who has written several books on baseball, including Castro’s Curveball, says things are changing rapidly: “A few years ago, it would have been much more difficult for a great pitching prospect like Aroldis Chapman, who recently signed with the Cincinnati Reds, to defect. Instead of trying to escape on a raft or having to endure a six-hour-plus car ride, Chapman got away quick. It appears that many more Cubans are able to leave via high-speed cigarette boats, if they have the money or can make big bucks, like Chapman can.
“Life after Castro might be similar to the ice hockey world when the Soviet Union collapsed, with professional franchises moving in quickly and signing many of the top players. It was the like the Wild, Wild West, with no sheriff in town. That could happen again in Cuba if we have a sudden regime change,” says Wendel. “But even if things change more gradually, MLB teams are eager to jump in with both feet. And the Cuban officials, no matter who is in charge, might have to let them because they need the money.”
When the Baltimore Orioles played in Havana in 1999, Wendel asked Stan Kasten, (the first team NBA president to take a basketball team to the Soviet Union) what he thought of Cuba as a market: Could Havana again be a place for academies and a spring training site?
"He smiled and said it would be a piece of cake compared to flying an NBA team to Moscow.”
Wendell believes that eventually, Cuba will be similar to the Dominican Republic, with plenty of baseball academies. “Whether that's five years or 15 years, nobody knows. What we do know is that Cuba is so close, has a passion for the game and produces quality talent.”
Like the country itself, baseball in Cuba is a historical anachronism. Few will mourn the passing of Castro’s regime, but for the baseball world, a link to the game as it used to be, without the complications of the sports business, will be lost. “Cuban baseball is unique; for a baseball fan, there is nothing better,” says Krieger. “On our last trip we met Enrique Diaz, the Cuban Rickey Henderson. After his game he came onto our tour bus to chat, and we went out to dinner. I could knock on a thousand doors in the US and that would never happen.”