By Reynaldo Cruz
The creation of the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players, which will be officialized Tuesday, poses more uncertainty than clarity in the horizon, given the official status of the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB for its Spanish acronyms) as the governing body of the Cuban National Team for international competition, and its animosity toward anything that smells US professional baseball.
For over two decades, since professionals emerged in the international scene, Cuba has repeatedly declined to use nationals with residence in other countries, dual citizenship and contracts in other leagues, including organized baseball. For a time, it worked, as Cuba continued to win a large percentage of the international tournaments they played in, mainly the major ones, with the exception of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
In 2006, with a second-place finish in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Cuba saw the country’s international supremacy plummet on a yearly basis, until the disastrous second-round elimination in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. After that, the popular request of adding Cuban major leaguers or minor leaguers to the rosters for the major international competition rose day after day, and the Cuban Baseball Federation turned deaf ears.
Politics have ruled the bulk of decisions made in Cuban baseball since Fidel Castro seized power of the country in 1959 and professional baseball was abolished following the 1959-60 Winter League. More times than we can count, a player made it to the Cuban National Team simply due to the admiration of the “Boss”, and not precisely his quality. Truth to tell, it is obvious that those players Castro liked were more than good enough to make it to the team and succeed.
With the increase of defections, caused by the success of some Cubans in the MLB, the lack of resources to play the game in Cuba, the horrible conditions in which some of the great players actually live, and the many struggles of the Cuban regular population–of which ball players are obviously a part of–have all led to a considerable decline in the quality of Cuba’s domestic tournament. This decline has seen its biggest effect upon the results of the Cuban National Team, to the point of losing games in official tournaments against teams with little to no baseball tradition or history.
In that sense, many Cuban players, including many major leaguers, have expressed their will and desire to suit up for Team Cuba, mainly to help keep a victorious international tradition alive. Such tradition, unlike what you may hear from some Cuban baseball officials, did not start after Castro’s Revolution, but in 1939, when Cuba won the first of many Amateur World Series they would win before 1959–and after.
During the 1980s and well into the late 1990s, Cuba competed in a general sense of advantage. Back then, defections were not very frequent, and seasoned veterans–who WERE NOT amateurs, but SEMI PROFESSIONALS who got paid for jobs they didn’t do–steamrolled over the very young opponents they would face, many of them college students. Even so, some victories did not come with ease, as some countries, particularly the US and Japan, were constantly posing threats to Cuba’s reign.
The collapse of Cuba’s house of cards has been met with inaction and indifference from the Cuban baseball powers-that-be. Refusing to admit their failure as a system, and letting politics–and politicians–dictate how and why decisions are made, deciding on the whats, the whos, the whens, wheres and hows.
So, the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players comes looking for a solution, trying to bring the reputation of Cuba as a baseball nation back to the top. But it will be met by rejection, criticism and demonization from the Cuban authorities. They will see it as a challenge and an attempt to “attack Revolutionary sport”, and they will claim that a political agenda is behind it, whether it is true or not. The ones who truly follow a political agenda will accuse anyone who presents a different view of doing exactly that.
Although the FCB will paint itself as victims of political malice, the truth is that their incompetence and that of the National Direction of Baseball (DNB for its Spanish acronyms), the ruling body for domestic baseball in Cuba, has been proven over and over. Blaming defections on the lack of resources for the international results has been a common and boring speech that nobody who knows baseball and Cuba for real actually believes anymore.
There is, however, a slight margin for cooperation. Even though the Association will be inaugurated in Miami, a hotbed for opposition to the Cuban regime outside of the Island, there might be some difficulty to get things done without the approval of the FCB. The World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC), the ruling entity of international competition, is on very good terms with the FCB, and will do nothing to jeopardize that relationship.
At the same time, there is no system that allows the emerging Association to take over competition of the Cuban National Team, for every tournament they have qualified for has been under the umbrella of the FCB. Besides, the same country will not be allowed to pitch two teams to international competition. Notwithstanding, many retired Cuban MLB legends will be at hand, and the Players Union and the Major League Baseball Player Alumni Association will at least have to sit with them and listen.
What can be done, and it is unlikely going to be accepted by the FCB, is lobbying with MLB and the MLBPA to put pressure on the Cuban authorities to allow MLB players to take part in the World Baseball Classic. However, such pressure has to be placed with extreme care: the FCB holds the legal rights over the qualified spot for the World Baseball Classic, and the already fractured relations between them and Organized Baseball can reach the point of no return.
The intentions, in spite of the way the Cuban baseball authorities might react to the creation of the Association, are good. What remains to be seen is how much they will be able to do and what her connections will be. Building bridges with an FCB that has constantly attacked the expat players might prove to be the most difficult mission ahead of them. If they decide to take it and manage to succeed, it would be a huge victory.