October 20, 2017

The Wisdom of Current MLB Policy Toward Cuba, Central and South America

July 11, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Recent Henry Chadwick Award-winning baseball writer, Peter Bjarkman, came on the Seamheads Podcasting Network both in 2014 and 2015 during a very different time. President Obama’s easing of travel restrictions with Cuba seemed to herald a new era for Cuban baseball and ideas of innovation and hope sprang anew. Fellow SABR-member Pete Cottrell and I co-hosted the show. We discussed the notion with Bjarkman that Cuban authorities might be allowed to interact with American baseball in a positive way, one that could prove a boon for the sport as it existed on the island at the time, as well as allowing for the highest quality Cuban athletes to immigrate legally to the United States.

One notion floated by Peter Bjarkman at the time was for Cuba to interpose a posting system such as the one in use between MLB teams and Japanese baseball. Such an organized means to govern the process would have managed the flow of athletes to the states and the flow of money to both players and Cuban baseball. The proposal was in stark contrast to the illegal immigration of Cuban baseball defectors that was being managed by mobsters and human traffickers in Miami and Mexico. These nefarious “agents” oversaw the perilous flight of hundreds of baseball players out of Cuba and in the process hijacked the bonus money paid by MLB to their clients. Replacing that dangerous and crime-ridden system with something that provides overt regulation and benefits both American and Cuban baseball would have been a god-send. The change in political direction in the United States last November has placed such discussions on hold, but the ideas should not be lost in the shuffle.

The funds derived from such a system might have provided the ability for stadium upgrades across Cuba and improved athletic facilities generally. Cuban playing fields and stadiums currently mirror the decrepitude of the 1950’s automobiles that symbolize life in Cuba in the mind’s eye of Americans. There remains a concern among many Americans that any above-ground means of managing Cuban-American baseball diplomacy–posting or otherwise–could aid the Cuban government and hence the repression of political dissidents and the support structure of Cuba’s brand of non-democratic socialism. Although the question is moot for the moment, it is fair to ask how much MLB really wants to replace the illegal flow of baseball players with some organized alternative? Turning a blind eye on how Cuban stars leave the island has worked for Major League teams for so long, why worry about the safety of the players and their families?

In his latest book, Cuba’s Defectors, the Inside Story, Bjarkman documents the very real dangers and moral bankruptcy of the illicit trade in human beings that is the current system of “defection.” The players who leave the island are wrapped in a blanket of political correctness woven by the decades long struggle between the Castro regime and the United States. This imaginary cloak does nothing to protect the ballplayers and their families from the very real perils of crossing treacherous stretches of water that separate the island from safe havens, and even less to limit their exposure to the Mexican cartels that have held players for stiff ransom demands paid out of their bonus money in the states. So which intermediary should benefit from the flight of Cuban ball players, the Zita Cartel or the Castro government?

The complex issues that plague Cuban ball players coming off the island is what gives gravitas to Peter Bjarkman’s book. Bjarkman asks whether Major League Baseball has become a silent partner in the game of imperialism. There is more than just the harrowing story of Cuban defection to consider and Bjarkman provides an informed discussion of the issues.

MLB has long benefited from the flow of cheap labor from the Caribbean island nations, Mexico, Venezuela and elsewhere. Baseball occupies a singular cultural niche, one of prominence, in those countries, but Bjarkman raises a red flag–so to speak–asking whether MLB has overstepped. MLB gains in the short term in the number of players who populate its major and minor league rosters and additionally from television revenues as it beams its signal to Mexico, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. But as the best athletes leave their native countries and the fan bases there are left watching MLB games on television rather than a robust local version, does it diminish the sport across the Caribbean basin?

Bjarkman’s focus is Cuba and the issue there is more the loss of the best players from the amateur leagues that Castro nurtured for 50 years. Cuban players have always taken their talents abroad, spending the off-season plying their trade in any number of outside venues. But the complete exile of so many Cuban players to the United State is a risk to baseball on the island overall. Will baseball lose its footing in Cuba as it has in places like Puerto Rico? Does MLB, through its current policies, undermine the financial viability and popularity of baseball as played across Central and South America? Will Mexican and Puerto Rican ball diamonds sprout crab grass as the interest in the native leagues of those countries wanes, and fans learn to follow the game through the exploits of their countryman siphoned off to play for MLB teams that they watch on television?

The questions are not idle or insignificant for American fans of the game to ponder. Concerns about the loss of support for baseball in American minority communities have come home to roost after it became apparent that robbing the Negro Leagues of talent while maintaining quotas for African-American players on MLB rosters undermined baseball as a popular sport among young Americans of color. Positive steps have been taken to address those issues by MLB in recent years, but the road back may prove long and the level of success remains unknown. Should MLB risk a similar loss of identity in areas where support for baseball abounds currently.

I am going to explore these questions over the coming weeks and months as I travel to Cuba and talk to Peter Bjarkman once again about solutions that can be found to support the game in other countries without an emphasis solely on their ability to add to the MLB bottom line. If these issues are of interest, I suggest a good place to explore them is with Peter Bjarkman’s latest book Cuba’s Baseball Defectors, The Untold Story. S.L. Price’s book, Pitching Around Fidel provides good company as well.

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