Cubans in professional leagues: who gives the first step?
Cubans in professional leagues: who gives the first step?
When in June 2013 the Cuban media reported that player Michel Enríquez, one of the most consistent batters of the past fifteen years in the National Series, had signed a contract to join Piratas de Campache of the Mexican Professional Baseball League, the sport's followers in this country understood that it had been a historic event.
Although this wasn't a millionaire contract - distant from those signed by other Cuban players in Major Leagues- nor Enríquez's stay was long, due to a knee injury that made him come back to Cuba; his name went down in History because for the first time in fifty years an active player in the National Series got the permission from Cuban National Sports Authorities to be part of a Professional League.
Then, two other players arrived in Piratas, both from the province of Granma: Yordanis Samón, who didn't stay long either due to his poor performance; and Alfredo Despaigne, considered the greatest slugger in national baseball. The sturdy athlete shined in the Mexican team, and he even equaled a mark in that league by throwing six home-runs in one match. The total amount of his contract wasn't revealed, but the Cuban part did clarify that Despaigne received 80% of the money, while the Federation retained 20% of it.
The practice of professional sport was officially forbidden in Cuba on March 19th, 1962, through the Resolution 83-A, of the National Sport, Physical Education and Recreation Institute (INDER, in Spanish). For almost four decades little was said about the topic and it was only in the late 90s or even in the early 21st Century when there finally were some movements. For instance, many of the best Cuban volleyball players were able to play in the strong Italian League; but it didn't last long. Those subtle modifications, nevertheless, weren't applied in baseball.
The only player who made it into a professional club was Omar Linares, who is known as the most complete batter in Cuba after 1959, however, he never left the country definitively. 'El Niño' - The Kid, as he was called, because of his childish face expressions - retired from the National Series in 2002 and that same year he joined 'The Chunichi Dragons' in the Japanese Professional Baseball League, where he stayed for three seasons, until 2004.
Context to understand the change.
Cuban sport isn't in its best moment. The impressive fifth place in Barcelona Olympic Games, 1992, where Cuba got 14 titles, seems to be further every day. The second position in the Panamerican Games standings, right behind the United States, is no longer safe due to the pressure that Canada and Mexico mean. Not even the mastery in the Central American area is as overwhelming as it was just a decade ago.
The economic crisis that started with the disappearance of the Eastern Bloc and the collapse of the USSR, obliged the Government to diminish the sport budget. This affected the contraction of competitions organized in the country and the presence of Cuban delegations in foreign events; besides, the budgetary reduction had a negative impact in training quality; while installations, by not receiving a proper maintenance, were sadly abandoned.
Another consequence of the crisis was the constant departure of athletes of all specialties, to different places in the world, in the search of better competitiveness and economic options. Havana considers this a 'talent theft', a problem common to all underdeveloped countries. One significant fact depicts the situation: in the past 20 years, more than 300 players have left the island. A change was essential...
A new remuneration and hiring policy.
On September 27th, 2013, it was known that the Council of Cuban Ministers had approved a new remuneration policy for athletes, coaches and specialists. This modification meant to improve sport and generate more sources of income through taxes. It also aimed at looking for best quality and strictness in competitions, as well as gradually increasing salaries of athletes.
Among the most striking elements of the new policy, there was the authorization for players to be hired in professional teams overseas, 'protected by the INDER and Sport Federations, without being treated as goods'. However, it was clarified in the statement that these athletes would have to be in Cuba for the important competitions of the year.
This concept was particularly applied in the cases of the three players that had signed with the Mexican 'Piratas de Campeche', since the contract established that they all had to participate, in their respective teams, in the National Baseball Series.
This novel approach to sport in Cuba was well received by athletes and coaches. According to Yuliesky Gourriel - considered the most complete Cuban player of the moment, and, without a doubt, the one that more attention will get from professional clubs - the change ''is a good option. I think that players have been waiting for this opportunity for a while now, and it benefits mainly athletes, since they'll be measured in another level and it will really help national players in international events. Personally, I am willing to play as long as we are authorized''.
Simultaneously, the veteran center fielder of Industriales, Carlos Tabares, expressed his support to the measure. ''Once again we can demonstrate that Cuban baseball can stand out in foreign lands. It's going to be very good for athletes, they'll be more professional in their jobs and they'll get to see a better practice of baseball; we'll copy everything that's positive in them and they can copy everything that's positive in us as well. I guess that if they're thinking about it and they're doing it as soon as possible, it will benefit us all. With my current physical shape I can play for three or four years in any country, and I'm going to do it well, because I have the experience, the mastery, the evilness and, above all, a very good preparation'' concluded the charismatic player.
Two second basemen and leaders of arch-rival Cuban baseball teams, Héctor Olivera, from Santiago de Cuba and Rudy Reyes, from Industriales, also showed their content with the new policy. ''This will enrich baseball even more, and, as a player, one has to prove oneself in every league on Earth to know how much you can give'', said Olivera, now recovered from the injury that kept him away from the field a long time, while Reyes stated ''it's great idea to keep upgrading our baseball and ourselves as well. As long as I have the chance, I'd love to play''.
Another to show acceptance was Osleni Guerrero, the best latinamerican badminton player. ''It gives us the chance to be part of the world elite, to have international participation. It's something that must be implemented quickly, so athletes can come and go and when they are here, in Cuba, they show whatever they have learned and represent the country with the conviction of victory''.
His coach, Roberto Mollinedo, says that so far they haven't had contact with the major clubs, ''but if we do, it would be very good. I think that the boys have the chance of knowing a competitive scenario that they don't usually have because of the economic crisis (...) There are no limits for hiring. We do the legal process, making our sports' principles clear, respecting them and the competitive needs of the country, there's no obstacle for our athletes to be hired'' he concluded.
For the athletes, the new hiring policies awaken many expectations. According to Oyanaisis Gelis, organizational basis of the Cuban National Basketball team ''the opinion about the law is positive, because it implies the possibilities players will have to develop their skills. I think there shouldn't be any kind of obstacles when it comes to making contracts, not for us, nor for the country. I had the chance to play, in 2005, with the Dynamo team of Moscow and to me it was very good. Now some clubs have come to me, from Mozambique for instance, to request my services, and I hope that from now on, that process can be made''.
Alberto Zabala has trained Gelis for years. The main coach of the Cuban team that will participate in the World Championship in Turkey, considers that this measure is necessary. ''The girls would hobnob with first-rate athletes, but we have to do it with a lot of study and control. They are in risk of, precisely for being with other athletes, losing our principles: modesty, discipline and dedication. I had the opportunity to work in Russia for almost five months, in Moskow's Spartak, with two athletes and I noticed that at the end they get a bit mercantilist. The idea is good, however, there should be a coach that supervises them, who takes care of them without abandoning the values of our sport movement (...) Our girls could be playing in Spain, Brazil and China, these are countries that have already shown their interest, although there are possibilities with Mexico, Chile, and Dominican Republic'' he added.
Halfway to the Future... and some obstacles.
The criteria of the interviewed coaches and athletes matches in emphasizing the bright side of Cuba's new approach to sport; although to fully fathom the panorama is imperative to include in the analysis the influence of the American Embargo over the possible hiring of sportsmen, specially in baseball.
In the 2014 season of the Major Leagues, more than 30 players trained in Cuba will integrate the payroll of 40 athletes in different franchises. They all had to be named ''unblocked nationals'' by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) administrated by the US Department of the Treasury. To get this ''name'', the player must present permanent residence documents in another country and the OFAC must certify that the money is not being sent to Cuba.
With so many impediments in between, not even the measure taken by the Council of Ministers would allow a regularization of dialogue between the MLB and Cuban baseball. Antonio Castro - vice-president of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) and doctor in the Cuban Team for many years - has constantly advocated for the approach between these two parts, particularly to make it possible for those who play in the Major Leagues to represent their country in international events. Intentions are praiseworthy; but it is hard to glimpse a near scenario where resistances are left behind and real approximations are made.
The authorization for hiring Cuban sportsmen in professional clubs is now a reality. The criteria about this measure among athletes, coaches and fans is positive; but the first signature is not yet official, although it's not difficult to predict that, given the interest that it has awaken in the Mexican, Korean and Japanese Leagues, players have the best options.
By M. Gómez and Y.Masó. PanamericanWorld. La Habana