Raúl Castro is not a large man. He was never said to possess a decent curveball, unlike his older brother, nor any passion for baseball, let alone baseball politics.
Whether that has been good for the Cuban game depends on your view of socialist athletics. But for Major League Baseball, and the wave of Cuban talent pouring into it, the Raúl Castro era has been a good one. Very, very good.
It was good, most recently, for Héctor Olivera, the 29-year-old defector signed by the Dodgers this week for $62.5 million. More intriguingly, it was good and perhaps better for Yoan Moncada, 19, acquired by the Boston Red Sox last month for $63 million.
Moncada did not defect from Cuba. The government just let him leave.
Moncada’s easy path to big-league riches was the latest sign that Cuba’s baseball model, like so many other things on the island, is in transition. Just as the country’s economy is somewhere between old Soviet orthodoxy and a slow-opening hybrid, Cuba’s baseball guardians say they are adapting to global market forces while trying to preserve their pastime as a source of socialist glory. It’s not at all clear how that is going to work.
The biggest change had nothing to do with baseball. It was Raúl Castro’s 2012 migration reform, essentially allowing any Cuban with a passport to leave. That has turned out to include, to the surprise of many, a vast majority of the island’s ballplayers.
Cuban baseball officials say the new rules remain a work in progress. Their challenge is to persuade a new generation of Cubans to play at home for the equivalent of about $80 a month. It’s pretty much a lost cause.
The coercion tactics the government long used to keep talent at home have failed. The socialist moral stigma against playing abroad for money is gone. When Cuban stars such as pitcher José Contreras and Gold Glove shortstop Rey Ordoñez returned to visit from the United States recently, adoring crowds welcomed them as heroes.
And today, at least for the time being, a young prospect like Moncada who is not a member of the country’s national team can simply quit the Cuban league and seek his fortunes elsewhere, said Antonio Diaz, a spokesman for Cuban baseball’s governing body, in an interview.
“They’re free to go,” Diaz said.
Free to go. This is not the Fidel Castro version of Cuban baseball.
The retired right-hander, 88, never really budged from his view that the capitalist game is inherently corrupt and that Cubans who go to the United States are sellouts. A consummate micro-manager — in politics, athletics and just about everything else — Castro was Cuba’s de facto baseball commissioner for decades.
After taking power in 1959, he abolished Cuba’s professional leagues and replaced them with an amateur one run by the government and geared toward proving socialist baseball supremacy at international competitions. And for much of the Cold War era and beyond it, polished Cuban ballplayers would beat the pants off American college kids at the Olympics and elsewhere.
Cuban fans, and players, grew restless. Players wanting out of it — and their abysmally low salaries — had to defect, sneaking away from the Cuban team at international tournaments or zipping through the night to Mexico or the Dominican Republic on smugglers’ boats. Those caught trying — or even thinking about it — were punished.
Cuban legends such as Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, who found success in the United States, became baseball phantoms back home, never to be shown on state television or talked about by Cuban announcers. They were “traitors.”
By the time Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006 and Raúl Castro came in to replace him, defections were increasing and Cuban baseball was widely viewed by fans, players and coaches to be in crisis. Stadiums were decrepit. Fans were bored. Players would offer to sell their caps and jerseys to visiting tourists for pocket money. When Cuba’s national team faced professional-level competition at events such as the World Baseball Classic, it lost.
As his brother’s reliever, Raúl Castro didn’t try to rewrite the rules himself. According to Cuban officials, he essentially told baseball authorities, managers, players and sportswriters to figure out a new system. Antonio “Tony” Castro, one of Fidel’s sons, a top baseball official, put the family name behind the overhaul effort.
Even the government’s definition of baseball betrayal has changed. It should only apply to players who abandon the Cuban team at international competitions, said Diaz, the baseball spokesman. Moncada, the 19-year-old who quit the island for $63 million and Fenway Park, “is not a traitor,” he said emphatically.
None of this has kept the Cuban talent pool from draining faster. Moncada and a few more have gone out the front door. Others continue to defect the old way. Cuba won at the Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico last month playing against pros, but two more players split the team.
According to Cuba baseball expert Peter Bjarkman, some 350 former Cuban players have left the island over the years. About 40 are playing in this year’s spring training at the big-league level. (There were 83 Dominicans on Opening Day rosters a year ago.) With the success of players such as Dodgers star Yasiel Puig and José Abreu, last year’s American League Rookie of the Year, the market value for Cuban talent continues to swell.
Players on the island know exactly what their skills are worth, even as some of the biggest Cuban stars, such as prized slugger Alfredo Despaigne, forgo tens of millions to remain at home.
Cuban authorities have tried to hang on to Despaigne and others by allowing them to sign seasonal contracts in Mexico and Japan during Cuba’s offseason. Some have earned nearly $1 million a year, paying the government about 10 percent in taxes and agreeing to play for the national team when called upon.
That sort of arrangement would not be possible with Major League Baseball under existing U.S. trade sanctions, which essentially require Cuban players to renounce their ties to the island and sharply limit the money they can send home. And U.S. teams would almost certainly not allow high-paid players to go back and grind out another 90 games a year in the Cuban winter league.
Still, if relations between the United States and Cuba continue to improve, it’s possible a new conduit to the big leagues will open, especially if U.S. regulators allow Cubans, and their earnings, to come and go more freely, said Bjarkman, who is writing a book about the country’s defectors. As with so much else, it hinges upon a new, still-undefined relationship to the United States.
“A likely scenario,” said Bjarkman, “is that Cuba will institute a posting system like Japan’s that will obligate players to serve a specified period in the Cuban League before becoming free agents.” American teams compensate Japanese clubs for their players; doing so with Cuban teams would require a lifting of U.S. trade sanctions.
Major League Baseball has already tried to tame wild spending on Cuban ringers with new restrictions making it more difficult for teams to sign them as free agents, rather than salary-capped amateurs selected through a draft. But the Cuban talent transfer continues.
With every player who leaves, Cuban baseball officials say it’s a loss for the island, but one they have come to accept.
A lot of Cuban fans don’t appear to see it that way. “We follow Cuban players in the big leagues as closely as we follow Cuban players here,” said David Rodriguez, 30, a fervent devotee of Havana’s Industriales team, seated in his fan club’s special section at the city’s Estadio Latinoamericano on a recent night. “We just want to see Cubans playing at the highest level possible.”
Rodriguez is part of a new generation of Cuban fans who follow Major League Baseball, and its Cuban stars, online. There are Cuban baseball blogs with wide-ranging discussion forums and few of the old taboos. Even state television has started showing a limited number of Major League Baseball games, pirated from satellite broadcasts, while hotel bars and government restaurants keep big-screen TVs tuned to ESPN Deportes all summer.
Rodriguez and other members of the club were head-to-toe in the team’s colors, singing and cheering with all the enthusiasm of U.S. fans. That’s where comparisons ended.
Admission to the stadium was about 8 U.S. cents. Its roofing panels were falling off. A bare-bones scoreboard offered the basics in red digital lettering, with all the sophistication of a 1980s-era clock radio.
There was no Kiss Cam, no outfield waterfall, nor any grown men holding bobble-headed dolls. The crowd hammered conga drums and tooted on bicycle horns or into shrill plastic trumpets. Flying ants swarmed the stadium floodlights.
A few fans puffed cigarettes and sipped sweet espresso, but there was no beer for sale. In place of commercial advertising, big, one-word Orwellian messages were displayed across the outfield. UNIFIED, read the first. FREE. PROUD. STRONG, the others said, underlined by a big block-letter slogan.
Cuba: Country of Champions, it read.