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Are The U.S. And Cuba Ready To Play Ball?

Are The U.S. And Cuba Ready To Play Ball?

Posted by Juan Gavasa on March 25, 2015

It has already been a messy game at Havana's Latin American Stadium, the premier baseball stadium in Cuba. The home team, the Industriales, has given up five runs in the first inning; a shortstop fumbled a ball, an outfielder failed to hustle and an easy out became an extra-base hit.

The home crowd isn't deterred. The vuvuzelas, those ear-splitting plastic horns, still swell when an opposing batter reaches two strikes.

Ismael Sené, a former intelligence agent-turned-baseball historian who was in the stands cheering the Industriales, isn't too worried. The opposing team, Alazanes de Granma, has been playing terribly lately as Cuba's winter league season winds down.

In large part, Sené says, Granma was struggling because some of its best pitchers had defected recently to the U.S. They'd left their team toward the end of the season to try their luck in the major leagues.

Like the rest of the country, Cuban baseball has been in crisis. But as the U.S. and Cuba have moved to normalize diplomatic relations, hope is bubbling that the rapprochement could bring new opportunities, stop Cuba's top talent from fleeing and perhaps lead to reconciliation between those who've left and those who've stayed.

Sené looks out at the field. Baseball is a different game here in Cuba: There are no hot dogs or Cracker Jack for sale. Instead, the vendors hawk pork sandwiches, popcorn, coffee and plantain chips. There is no advertising in the stadium. No sky boxes. No seventh-inning stretch. Instead, there's a fifth-inning break when the umpires are served hot coffee.

Cuba's financial crisis extends to its national pastime: These balls are used during batting practice. Eyder Peralta/NPR

How bad are things, right now, in Cuban baseball?

Sené says the starting pitcher, who had just given up the five runs, was pitching on just one day of rest, when four is the norm. The groundskeeper tells us if it rains, as forecast, they won't cover the infield, because the tarp is full of holes.

The hope for Cuban baseball, says Sené, may ironically reside up north.

"If we reach a kind of agreement with the United States in which they will enforce that our people have to follow the rules and have to fulfill their contracts," he says, "that will be the best thing that can happen to our baseball."

A Cautious Opening To The U.S.

Back in December, President Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba gave simultaneous speeches on live television.

The leaders announced that after more than 50 years, the two countries would re-establish ties and that sometime soon the American flag would fly over an embassy in Havana and a Cuban one would fly over an embassy in Washington.

It wasn't long before headlines about the potential for baseball diplomacy began appearing. There was speculation about how quickly MLB scouts would flood the island and whether Cuban athletes could finally head north legally.

Peter Bjarkman, who has written books about the history of Cuban baseball, says all of that speculation has been off the mark.

"The conventional wisdom has been that Cuba will become the next Dominican Republic, where Major League Baseball has set up academies," says Bjarkman. "I doubt that's going to happen in Cuba."

The Cuban government, Bjarkman says, has always used baseball as a political tool.

A sign in front of the stadium features a quote from Fidel Castro: "Triumph is found in the sum of all our efforts." Eyder Peralta/NPR

"In Cuba, baseball is everything," Bjarkman says. "It's the one place they've won big propaganda victories overseas. They beat the Yankees at their own game and for years dominated international tournaments."

So, Bjarkman says, it's unlikely that the government will just throw open the door. Plus, he adds, the sport's governing body on the island, the National Institute for Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, or INDER, is stacked with revolutionary hard-liners, who Bjarkman can't imagine will sign off on a system that would turn the Cuban league into a de facto farm system for the majors.

"Cuba has already foreshadowed what can happen with the U.S.," says Bjarkman. Over the past few years, Cuba has developed a posting system with Japan: In other words, the Japanese league pays Cuba for the right to negotiate a contract with its players, who are also required to play in the Cuban league for a certain number of years.

There is one wild card in all of this, however.

Cuban baseball is in a deep crisis. With a recent exception in the Caribbean Series, Cuban baseball teams have put up disappointing performances internationally. The money problems that ail Cuba are also affecting baseball: Equipment is subpar and the stadiums are in disrepair.

And then there's the problem of defections. Of course, some of Cuba's top players have fled, but Bjarkman notes that many young players, who will very likely never see a game in the majors, also have left, in search of the dream.

"There are estimates that about 350 Cubans are out there right now, looking to get signed," Bjarkman says, "and that is affecting the quality of the game at home. In fact, they've had to take some desperate measures in the last few years."

For example, the Cuban league has 16 teams, but midway through the season it collapsed to eight in an effort to strengthen the level of play. Still, the defections have continued and the money problems have forced INDER to cut back on international competition.

New diplomatic relations with a historic enemy could prove a lifeline too difficult to resist.

Leo Vigil Plutin, a pianist and baseball aficionado, debates the game with friends at La Esquina Caliente — the Hot Corner — in Havana's Central Park. Eyder Peralta/NPR

A Fan's Call To Put Politics Aside

There's a spot in Havana's Central Park known as La Esquina Caliente, or the Hot Corner.

It's a baseball reference, of course. Like third base, this corner is full of line drives — in this case, verbal ones.

Architecturally, it's a magical corner: It's tree-lined and the buildings that surround it are handsome examples of the island's colonial past. The capitol building — essentially a replica of the U.S. Capitol — is just across the street.

On a recent day, Leo Vigil Plutin sits on one of the benches, holding court, looking like the elder statesman of the park. He always wanted to be a baseball player, he says, but he couldn't run and he couldn't bat and he couldn't catch, so he settled for playing piano instead.

He is nothing but optimistic about the potential for a new relationship with the United States.

It's no secret, he says, that Cuban baseball players are risking their lives on rafts for a chance to play baseball in the States.

"That's why we want the relations to be normalized, so the U.S. can set up academies like they did in the past," Plutin says.

The crowd at Latin American Stadium watches a game. Eyder Peralta/NPR

Before the revolution, white Cubans used to play in the U.S. big leagues. Black Cubans used to play in the Negro Leagues. Americans used to play in the Cuban leagues.

It all dissolved in one of the world's most acrimonious divorces, after Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista and sided with the Soviet Union.

"Right now, and unlike every other country, we go to the World Baseball Classic with a purely Cuban team that hasn't played professional ball," Plutin says. That means that the Cuban team went into decline in the early 2000s when the Olympics allowed professionals to enter the game, and that Cuba hasn't fared well at the classic, which began in 2006.

Maybe it's not his position to opine, Plutin says, but it's time to start letting those star players who have fled to the U.S. come back home and play on the national team.

In other words, put the politics aside, he says, so Cuba can start winning again.

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