Only the L.A. Times and National Public Radio, of our plethora of major media outlets, reported the recent policy changes the Cuban government announced regarding its professional athletes playing abroad. As with most sports policy that comes out of the byzantine world of Cuban sports, it was misinterpreted by novice reporters (NPR), and accurately assessed (L.A. Times) by those who have been following the decrees from Havana for a while.
The Cuban government announced that they would allow their professional athletes to play in foreign leagues for money. Aside from baseball players, the decision also affects basketball players and volleyball players. But the main focus of the law is on its baseball players.
If one stops there (as apparently NPR did), one could assume that there will now be a grand airlift of Cuban baseball players to Milwaukee, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and all across the major league landscape.
Wait, not so fast. The Cuban government stipulates that the players must repatriate nearly all of the money earned overseas, and the players must return for the November-March Cuban Baseball League. Earlier this year, the League stuck its toe in the water to take the temperature of this policy, and allowed three players — two pushing 40, so that if they defected it wouldn’t cause much damage to the League — to play in the Mexican winter league. All three players returned to Cuba.
The Cuban league has been weakened in the past few seasons by the defection of hundreds of players who saw themselves as blocked at their positions from ever getting to the national team, or even blocked on their hometown team. (Up until a few years ago, the players could only play for their local team — talk about a pure league!)
What caused the recent large number of defections? Cuban baseball players with an eye toward going after the waterfalls of dollars that have transformed the lives of defectors Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, Livan Hernandez, Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and many others, have always had a lot of doubt about how good they would be when they first stride into a Major League batter’s box, or wind up on a major league pitcher’s mound.
Canadian Cuban baseball enthusiast Kit Krieger (every February he runs elaborate, luxe, weeklong baseball tours to Cuba: firstname.lastname@example.org) points out that the bar of whether to go seems to have been substantially lowered by the situation of Dayán Viciedo. Dayán was an out-of-shape .280 hitter in Cuba. After defecting, in his first year with the Chicago White Sox in 2011, at age 21, he hit .308. Krieger says “It was always a question of how good do you have to be to make it in the Major Leauge, and the answer to that question is him: Viciendo.”
So, the theory goes, the Cuban players who were familiar with Viciendo and figured they were better than him or at least nearly as good, departed. Also, the Cuban government seems to be cracking down much less on athletes who attempt (and fail) to defect.
Formerly, Krieger notes, if a player was caught trying to go, he would be suspended from the league and watched closely. Now the Cuban government seems to have economic problems that dwarf the problems of running a 16-team league and a national team.
It should be noted that Viciendo’s numbers have declined. He hit .265 last year with a .731 OPS. In contrast, the Giants’ left fielder Gregor Blanco (who was relegated to a late-inning-defensive replacement when the Giants signed left-fielder Michael Morse) also hit .265 with a .690 OPS. However, the fancy stat WAR (wins above replacement) gives Viciendo a 0.1 War in 2013, and Blanco 2.5 (and Morse gets a –1.8 WAR).
Of course, the major barrier to the sight of Cuban baseball players gracing every MLB diamond is the half-century U.S. trade embargo. The rest of the world’s tourists enjoy the culture and the beaches of Cuba. One would think that the lives of the impoverished people of Cuba would be improved if the embargo were lifted. The Cuban government doesn’t seem to be unstable. Logic is not always the driving force of U.S. foreign policy.
Overall, there’s been a recent radical restructuring to the Cuban Baseball League. It had been set in stone that a player only played for his provincial team — one of a 16-team league. A few years ago, the Cuban league acknowledged the weakness of some of its teams by splitting its season into two. After the first half of the season, the lower eight teams were disbanded for the second half. Its players were then drafted by the remaining eight teams. The standings were wiped clean. And it became an eight-team league with bunches of players playing for teams that had been arch-enemies.
Peter Bjarkman of Indiana is acknowledged as the person in the United States who knows more than anyone about the history of Cuban baseball. (Anthony Bourdain of the CNN show No Reservations took in a game with Bjarkman in Havana as part of a show.).
Bjarkman says that the recent change in policy is “a carefully calculated propaganda message, that [the players] would have to come home for the winter leagues.” He predicts that 10-12 baseball players will be permitted to play abroad in 2014, and that they will play in Taiwan and Mexico, the two countries with good leagues whose seasons can accommodate the Cuban season.
Cuban baseball is a total throwback. The style of play is that of Yasiel Puig — lots of one-handed actions, plenty of flair, weak fundamentals — except on the national teams where fundamentals are good.
Moreover, Cubans pay 12 cents to view games. Foreigners pay $4. The fields are rough. The equipment is worn. The stadiums were built in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Concessions barely exist. You’re allowed to bring in your own beer and food. You won’t find concessions selling souvenirs — there are almost no souvenirs for sale. In the United States, you’d have to go back more than 100 years to find an atmosphere like that – with few commercial distractions — on a warm sunny winter day in Cuba.
Baseball purists might want to take a peek before it goes away.