November 22, 2017

Can Tropical Wind’s Ever Blow Strong for Cuban Baseball Again?

August 14, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

Cuba is a complicated issue and most American fans don’t have the time. For those that do, there is author Peter Bjarkman, faithfully trying to peal back the layers of intrigue and politics until there is only the love of the game that Cubans and Americans share. Peter Bjarkman’s recently published book, Cuba’s Baseball Defectors, the Untold Story, is an honest and worthy attempt to navigate the waters that separate Cuba from the mainland USA. Peter is working on a book about Fidel Castro and Cuban baseball, so this newest book is a great starting point for a journey that is only beginning.

The book goes beyond the pronounced focus on the All-Star caliber talents like Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes that have left the island in recent years. But if you want shark infested waters and heroic escapism, this book is not for you. There is so much more to the back story of Cuban baseball than just the defectors.

The historic tradition of Cuban baseball, as it has been played there for more than a century, must be understood before one can approach the modern situation. Some acquaintance with Esteban Bellan and Emilio Sabourin–who played in the first game between Matanzas and Habana in 1874–is a good starting point. Bellan begins the tradition of playing both in the mainland and in Cuba, a tradition that first culminates when Dolf Luque breaks in with the Boston Braves in 1914 and goes on to play twenty seasons and win 27 games for Cincinnati in 1923.

Sabourin is the first to unite revolutionary politics with baseball and after serving as one of the founders of the sport, was arrested for his part in the war against the Spanish in 1895 and died in a Spanish prison in 1897. Then there is Martin Dhigo who might be the best Cuban player ever to lace up his baseball spikes. But his African heritage shown through as clear as a moonlight night and he played his entire career alongside the great Negro League players of the 1920’s and 30’s. For all except Sabourin, travel back and forth the US mainland was a big part of their story and the immigrant story is essential both to Cuban baseball and Bjarkman’s narrative.

There is a wealth of Cuban baseball history before 1961, but some of the best stories are the ones that are written after MLB pulls out of Cuba and Fidel Castro puts down the foundations for an independent baseball in Cuba that is as good as anything in the US. The startling news is that until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the resulting loss of financial support for the Cuban revolution, there were few defectors, just a growing dominance by Cuban amateur baseball that won almost every international competition and forced the US to expand its own international presence to include MLB players as the Cubans began winning Olympic Gold in the sport on a consistent basis.

Rather than be embarrassed by the riches Fidel created on the diamonds across Cuba from 1961 to 1991, Americans have chosen to ignore the facts and distort the reality. American coverage of Cuban baseball has taken the seams off the ball and beaten the remains into a square hole to comport with the dominant political narrative that supports the embargo of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Bjarkman is nothing if not even-handed in his assessment of the shortcomings of Cuban political culture as it affects the players, but he is also an advocate for a broader view than taken by almost every news outlet that has fixed its cameras on a ’57 Belair motoring down the Malecon.

If overlaid on a map of the US, Cuba stretches from Washington, DC to Chicago. It has 11 million inhabitants, of whom somewhere between one third and one-half are African in descent, depending upon the threshold one employs for membership in that demographic group. Life in Havana was largely segregated before the revolution and economic opportunities went to light-skinned Cubans first. The Buena Vista Social Club was a music spot frequented by Afro-Cubans and many social clubs in Havana were not integrated. There is a spot in the recent movie, “Buena Vista Social Club, Adios,” in which Ibrahim Ferrer is shown singing as a backing vocalist in the late 1950’s for a band fronted by a light-skinned lead singer. Ferrer recounts how his opportunities were curtailed with some emotion.

Kit Krieger, who has been leading Cubaball tours for the past few decades said recently that advocates of the Cuban revolution focus attention on the advances their society has made in education where near uniform literacy and overall science and and technical educational levels have helped support their excellent health care system. But the unspoken accomplishment, according to Krieger, is the integration of Cuban society and the spreading of economic wealth more evenly in a way that is not seen in the US. A substantial proportion of Cuba’s baseball defectors are of African descent, whereas African-American participation in MLB has declined precipitously.

Bjarkman talks frequently about the failings of the Cuban baseball system to open itself completely and the closed nature of the society generally that makes escape seem more appealing. Since defections began in earnest after the collapse of the economy in 1991, Cuban officials have more closely guarded their treasured talents and fought to keep the standard of play at the same levels as before. The reprisals taken against high profile talents who were rumored to be looking at defection has helped fueled the climate that promotes defection. But he also pushes back against the notion–commonly seen in American media–that Cuban players who leave the island revile the system than made them. Bjarkman, speaking of Yulieski Gourriel–now playing in his second season for the Houston Astros as starting first baseman–said that he “held no doubts about his (Gourriel’s) sincere loyalties to the Cuban baseball system.”

Gourriel and his brother, Lourdes Gourriel, Jr.–both sons of one of the greatest Cuban players, Lourdes Gourriel, Sr.–defected in February, 2016. Bjarkman asserts that there had been serious hope that INDER (The National Institute for Sports, Physical Education and Recreation)–which governs Cuban baseball, would allow the brothers to leave Cuba legally to play in the majors. Events did not play out that way. When Bjarkman’s book went to press, there was an evolving promise in both Cuba baseball and in relations between Cuba and the Unites States. It promised many improvements for both sides. Whether one believes that Cuba is just another outpost for the Axis of Evil, or a complex and flawed political reality, there was a widely held belief before November 9, 2016, that it was time to end the embargo and move beyond the stale thinking of old hands from the exile community in Miami. Bjarkman was caught up in that optimism and his book about Cuban defectors draws to a close with more than just hope for the future, but a firm belief in a dawning of a new era in Cuban-American baseball relations.

The last chapter of the book details the possibility that Cuba might adopt the Japanese baseball model where a posting system governs the flow of players to MLB from Nipon Professional Baseball (NPB). The ideal would be for a set of contractual arrangements between MLB and INDER such that the best Cuban players could play legally in the US but under controlled circumstances much as exists with Japanese players. Bjarkman is honest about the differences between Japan and Cuba. The economic situation in Cuba is dire and players will seek to leave in greater numbers than those that have left Japan. But the sad truth is that we may never know what might have been. Donald Trump, at Marco Rubio’s urging, pulled the plug on the modest changes that began under then President Barack Obama at then end of 2014.

Bjarkman saw that creating a contractual arrangement between MLB and a communist system in Cuba where contracts are verboten would be difficult. Yet he believed that the anti-trust exemptions that MLB enjoys would force ownership to accept something similar to the Japanese model. “But if MLB is to seek any progress with Cuba under new diplomatic accords now on the horizon, its hands may be effectively tied,” he said about MLB’s bargaining position. It is sad to think back to that reality. Bjarkman adds in the same paragraph, “Washington is likely to come down heavily on any MLB actions that might threaten efforts at compromise with the Cubans as part of the new detente arrangements.”

Those that wanted a positive alignment of interests that served both Cuban and US baseball have been frustrated by tidal shifts of unforeseen proportions. The pirates and privateers have won the day unexpectedly. They have turned back the clock to those bleak days before the millennium when the Cuban economy was in tatters and INDER was fighting to keep its scarce baseball resources from jumping ship. Bjarkman admits that for many fans in Cuba, their eyes turn increasingly to the mainland where they can follow their best and brightest stars: Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu, Yuli Gourriel, Yoan Moncada, Aroldis Chapman, Raisel Iglesias, and Yosmany Tomas.

Will Yankee imperialism have its way with Cuban baseball despite the best efforts of the Castro brothers to grow it under the hothouse lights of socialism? The old adversarial system is what we are left with now and the Unites States has all the cards. The future is not bright, but this reporter is looking forward to a look at those old ’57 Belairs sailing along the Malecon and the baseball that is played on the island the way many of us think it should be played, simply and for the love of the game.

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