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Toronto 2015 and Other “Insuperable” Obstacles for Cuban Baseball

Toronto 2015 and Other “Insuperable” Obstacles for Cuban Baseball

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on January 30, 2015

Back in September 2013, when Cuban baseball authorities announced a “new policy” that would let baseball players be hired by professional clubs, many people thought that the interest of American and Asian leagues would have tens of athletes joining different teams, in a short period of time. A year and half after that promising news, the reality has been overwhelming: in 2015 only five players have official contracts in Japan.

When it comes to signing a contract, foreign teams have to deal with different obstacles: Cuba rather has its baseball players signing for only one year, besides, they are demanded to play during the national season and defend the country’s colors in international events (such as the Central American and Pan-American Games, Premier-12 and the World Classic).

All these difficulties are complemented by the political context, which might look more favorable now as a result of the shifting relations between Washington and Havana, but with the Embargo still blocking the way, the Latin American leagues won’t dare to go after a Cuba-based player.

The clearest example of political interference took place with the Mexican League’s Piratas de Campeche (LMB). They decided to break the ice and brought Michel Enriquez, Yordanis Samon and Alfredo Despaigne into their payroll. The first two players didn’t last long in the club: one suffered a lesion and the other one performed poorly. However, Despaigne —positioned as the main slugger in Cuba— impressed everybody with his batting power.

Therefore, the heads of Piratas decided to hire him for another season, but with a false Dominican passport. The “reason” why they did this illegal movement aimed at avoiding a possible fine applied by the Major League Baseball, an organization that, following the Embargo’s guidelines, severely punishes any economic transaction between one of its members and a Cuba-based sportsman. The scandal was huge and, ever since, the MBL and other Caribbean leagues understood MLB’s message: zero negotiation with the Cuban Baseball Federation.

As Latin American doors were closed, the managers focused their attention on Asia. The leagues from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were the most competitive in the region, but the dialogue was only fruitful with the Japanese executives. In 2014, Frederich Cepeda, Yuliesky Gourriel, Hector Mendoza and Despaigne joined three Japanese teams. Cepeda got the juiciest contract (1.47 million dollars); nonetheless, his performance was poor. Pitcher Mendoza barely worked in minor leagues; while, Gourriel and Despaigne, despite of the short adaptation time, did show their potential.

The dialogues with both South Korea and Taiwan were expected to be productive in 2015. It didn’t happen and Japan was the only option on the table. The Cuban Federation officially announced that only five baseball players were handpicked for the upcoming Japanese league: the same players from 2014 and Lourdes Gourriel Junior (Yuliesky’s younger brother).

There is not much information on these contracts. The most commented case is Despaigne’s, who renovated his contract with Chiba Lotte Marines for two seasons and nearly 4.1 million dollars, a number that could go up to 6.7 million dollars in terms of incentives. Furthermore, Mendoza and Cepeda will return to Gigantes de Yomiuri, although the economic details have not been revealed. The most complicated issue refers to Yuliesky Gourriel, described as the best batter in Cuban baseball.

Gourriel stood out with the Yokohama DeNa Baystars in 2014 and he was expected to be offered a more profitable contract this year, but the negotiations have been too slow and there is no word for sure on Yuliesky’s next team. His younger brother — ranked among the three most promising players in Cuban baseball — would join Baystars.

One of the utmost elements that had an impact on the slender interest in hiring more Cuban baseball players has to do with the lack of flexibility shown by the authorities when it comes to managing the time of athletes. The National Series —the main sports competition in the country—is made up of 87 games, plus playoff. Moreover, they are demanded to play with the national team.

The Cuban Federation has placed special emphasis in two tournaments that are slated to be held in 2015: Toronto Pan-American Games and the Premier, which is going to be attended by the 12 finest teams of the world and is taken as the second most important event, only surpassed by the World Classic. In 2011 Guadalajara Pan-American Games, the Cuban baseball was not up to the forecast and ranked third. At the Canadian city, the authorities are looking forward to reconquering the crown (which they had since 1971) and they want to shape a powerful team, which will include baseball players hired in Japan.

Toronto Pan-American Games are set to take place on July 10 - 26, an important moment within the Japanese league. According to the agreement, the managers will have to let the Cuban players go for a whole month. Besides, these baseball players won’t be there for the “spring training” either, because they’ll be playing in the National Series and the Caribbean Series, in San Juan. So, it’s easy to understand the difficulty level when it comes to taking Cuban baseball players to professional teams.

Cuba’s sports authorities explained that they are going to modify the National Series’ schedule, but they’ll do it in 2017, in an effort to “foster the presence of the athletes in foreign leagues and have them playing in national and international events”, Antonio Castillo Macía, Chief of Baseball Competitive Projects, said.

The promising announcement for Cuban baseball was issued a year and half ago; nevertheless, the hiring process has been too slow, with lots of obstacles. In 2015, only five baseball players will go to Japan; while others will stay in Cuba, with an impatient patience, waiting for bureaucratic snags to be reduce so they can finally prove their worth in a higher level.

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