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Canada: A New Destination for Cuban Baseball Players

Canada: A New Destination for Cuban Baseball Players

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on April 16, 2015

After the fiasco with Caribbean professional leagues, the distrust combined with the lack of interest of Japanese NPB and the silence maintained by executives from South Korea and Taiwan, Cuban baseball players have found a surprising place to prove their worth in Canada’s Independent League, and they are not asked to definitively leave their country.

A year and half ago, when Cuban authorities announced that, after five decades of prohibitions, they would allow their baseball players be signed up by foreign professional leagues, many people thought that in just a few years the best athletes would be playing around the world. The reality has been different by far.

The much-anticipated insertion process has found several obstacles, from the incompatibility of the National Series’ schedule with the main leagues’, the intention of Cuban authorities to take hired baseball players to international events (Central American Games, Pan-American Games, etc.) to the US Embargo that took the main possibilities for Cuban players off the table: Caribbean leagues.

Mexico’s Piratas de Campeche took the first step by signing up four baseball players, including slugger Alfredo Despaigne; but that experiment didn’t have a happy ending. Major League Baseball “reminded” the Mexican League that, since they are members of the organized baseball system, their teams cannot include players that hold the Cuban residency because of the Embargo. The executive committee of Piratas tried to keep Despaigne, so a dark plot was prepared by using a false passport to have Despaigne as a Dominican resident.

The move was uncovered and Despaigne was expelled from the Mexican League, and the rest of the Caribbean organizations got the message: do not approach Cuban baseball players that still live on the island nation. That was the first door they got closed.

Afterwards, the Japanese Professional League (NPB) came into the game. It’s ranked second in the world, right behind MLB. In 2014, four baseball players joined three teams of the NPB and two of them, Yuliesky Gourriel and Despaigne, made a very good impression although they didn’t play for a long time. It wasn’t hard to foresee that both Yokohama DeNa Baystars and Chiba Marine Lotte would try to have them back for another season.

The dialogue for the new contract was positive and Despaigne signed up for two years with Chiba, nearly 4.1 million dollars — a figure that could be higher depending on his performance—; and Gourriel, after a tense wait, was finally taken by Yokohama, for one year and three million dollars. This negotiation also included Yuly’s younger brother, Lourdes Yuniesky, described as one of the best players of Cuban baseball.

Everything seemed to be fine; however, standing as a surprise for the baseball realm and even the national Federation —which represents baseball players— Yuliesky, who suffered an injury during the 54th edition of the National Series, failed to show up at Baystars’ training field. As a consequence of such action, the Yokohama executives decided to cancel the contract and moved his brother to the list of baseball players with restrictions. After this poor image, the door to NPB was barely half-open for Cuban athletes.

What are the options on the table? According to Jose Francisco Puello, head of the Caribbean Professional Baseball Confederation, within the framework of the shifting relations between Cuba and the United States, if MLB approves the presence of the Island as a full member of such confederation everything would be set for Cuban baseball players to participate in regional tournaments.

During his recent visit to Cuba, Puello pointed out that the leagues of the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico are interested in signing up Cuban players and they are only waiting for MLB to give the green light. When is this going to happen? No date has been announced, so nobody can give a convincing answer.

The Cuban Federation has kept on looking for alternatives. The leagues from South Korea and Taiwan expressed their interest in establishing a dialogue, but nothing was put down in black and white. That’s when the eyes were focused on Canada’s Independent League, which is not a member of MLB and, therefore, does not follow the Embargo rules.

In 2014, Yuniesky Gourriel, the older brother of Yuly and Lourdes Jr., was signed up by Quebec’s Capitales. His results were acceptable, with an average of 321 (78 – 25), he scored 10 runs, batted 4 doubles and pushed 11 runs. Since this experience was positive, executives of Capitales traveled to Cuba and negotiated with the Federation, which approved the contracts for four baseball players: Gourriel, fielder Alexei Bell, center fielder Yordan Manduley and pitcher Ismel Jimenez.

The last three players have been members of the national team in recent international events. According to Patrick Scalabrini, manager of Capitales, they found “stars of the diamond and excellent people (…) I’m a big fan of Cuban baseball. I talked to several coaches. Lourdes Gourriel shared his opinions with me; even a taxi driver told me that Mr. Manduley is the finest short stop of Cuba. But I already knew all of them. I’m very pleased with our selection”. That’s what Mr. Scalabrini said during a press conference where the baseball players showed the uniform of their new team.

The president of Capitales, Michel Laplante, commented that “these are high-quality players. They are going to be very useful”. The four baseball players are going to occupy important positions in the team. For instance, Bell will be alternating both right and center field with Gourriel and Scalabrini wants him before or after the fourth batter. Manduley will play short stop and bat in the seventh position; while Ismel could be the first or second pitcher.

Canada’s Independent League features a 96-game schedule to be played between May 21 and September 15. The four Cuban players would be there for the first games, but if they are called by the manager of the Cuban team, Victor Mesa, to participate in Toronto Pan-American Games, they would have to leave Capitales for a while.

Bell, Jimenez and Manduley could have options in other leagues, with higher economic remuneration —the contract figures have not been announced, but the salaries with the Independent League range between 2,000 and 4,000 dollars a month—; nevertheless, due to the complex scenery that is being faced by the Cuban Federation, Canada seems to be the best choice… so far. 

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