José Abreu, the Big Picture and the Political Strife

By Reynaldo Cruz Díaz

Chicago White Sox first baseman and 2020 MVP winner José Abreu has ignited social media with his recent statements to Ernesto Jerez of ESPN Deportes. In less than two minutes, the Cuban slugger expressed his refusal to play for a Cuban National Team organized by the ACPBP (Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players).

The recently created ACPBP has voiced its clear intentions of putting pressure on MLB and the MLBPA to field an independent Team Cuba for the 2023 World Baseball Classic, something that, given the fact that it is an event sanctioned by World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC), which recognizes the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB for its Spanish acronyms), seems very difficult. At the same time, the Association has openly rejected the idea of welcoming players who play under the Cuban sports system to the team, stating that they want a “free team Cuba”.

Of course, Abreu can read the politics in those statements. Although most of the Cuban players who were forced to, one way or another, leave the country, have many reasons to be upset with the Cuban government and the Cuban baseball authorities, the players who have decided to stay in Cuba are not responsible for any of that.

The barricaded position by the Association is by no means different from the discourse and the actions made by the government-run Cuban Baseball Federation. More than once, the Cuban government has blamed Major League Baseball and the United States government for the fact that Cuban major leaguers do not play for their nation in the World Baseball Classic or other major competitions.

However, their mask fell to the ground and shattered when they excluded former major leaguer and current Mexican League outfielder Henry Urrutia from the roster, even though the Las Tunas-born player had openly expressed his will to play for the team. It is obvious that the Cuban baseball authorities, following the close manual dictated by the Cuban government, don’t want to have major leaguers on their team, even if it means international humiliation. After all, they will definitely use that humiliation as a tool to blame the US government and the fact that Cuba does not have a deal with Major League Baseball–a deal that many of the people who now support the ACPBP openly opposed back in late 2018 and early 2019.

What remains a mystery is the reason for the FCB to undermine every possibility for their nationals established in other countries to participate with their team. We can’t do anything but speculate, but one of them could be that they see danger in the interaction of those players with the ones still in Cuba, who could then feel tempted to leave the country. Another one could be how exposed the quality of Cuban baseball would be while major leaguers train alongside National Series players, making it virtually impossible for any of the players who are still in Cuba to become a starter in the tournament.

In any case, those two reasons are childish. It is not rocket science: any Cuban player outside of Cuba is doing money-wise and sports-wise WAY better than if they were still in their home country. And the other reason… when you fail to win even regional tournaments and lose a game against a team like Germany (no disrespect intended) it is OBVIOUS that your league and your system are a failure.

Abreu, while talking to Jerez, expressed:

“There are comments about a team people in Miami want to create and I said I am not going to be on that team, because I respect the players who are in Cuba.”

“Pito”, unlike many people, may have gotten the big picture. The political agendas of both the Cuban Baseball Federation and the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players are identically meant to foster division. It is not necessary to be a scholar to understand that such agendas do nothing but create rivalries and mistrust between players who are in Cuba and players who chose a different path. In the end, they are all caught in the crossfire caused by the interests of a few handful who have never really wanted the slightest change in the status quo.

He also added:

“… Believe me, I am Cuban and in the end we all know the political things that exist, which we should not be talking about because we don’t know, but I would like to be in a unified team with the players who are in Cuba and the players who are here.”

The truth is that the ACPBP would have looked better (and smarter) if they had said they wanted to contribute to Cuban baseball by joining efforts with the FCB. Yet, having started things up in Miami was the first indication that any possibility of dialogue was out of the table. In the end, they shouldn’t have been so naïve to believe that their crusading efforts would get anywhere beyond a romantic idea of a free and independent Team Cuba.

At the same time, they served the Cuban authorities pretty well. As soon as the Association came to be, the Prensa Latina site published a piece in which they made the Cuban government’s position very clear:

“The Universidad del Deporte cubano condemned the umpteenth attempt to stain the Island’s athletic environment, with the imminent creation of a group in the United States that intends to delegitimize baseball in the Caribbean nation today.”

Not hard to read between the lines. If the Association had done things through a different angle, the reaction of the Cuban sports authorities would have been the same. It looks like they were actually hoping for something like the ACPBP to come along so they had a new villain to blame things on and to divert attention from the actual problems. The politically tailored article also says that:

“We will never tolerate that they attempt to manipulate such a sensitive reality as sports, especially baseball, with a political background, can be read in the statement made by a school that works in the formation of men and women of science in physical culture, as well as countless champions.”

Political background? With those words? What reality do they intend to manipulate, other than the Cuban sports system, especially baseball, is in crisis and that with the players from the Cuban National Series alone results in the WBC will be disastrous. But now, they DO have the ACPBP to blame for the absence of Cuban major leaguers from the World Baseball Classic roster.

Many government supporters in Cuba are now praising Abreu. Many who called him a traitor and a defector when he left the country. Many who refused to praise and take pride in his 2020 MVP performance. Many who are failing to see the big picture here, which is that the Cuban Baseball brass or the Cuban baseball government DO NOT want major leaguers on their national team. Their presence, given their success in the Big Show and their very likely success with the Cuban National Team in the WBC, would do nothing but prove the many failures and shortcomings of the Cuban sports system.

Abreu, who now faces criticism from many Cubans in the United States, including many of his fellow ballplayers who have been more politically outspoken, might just be sending a message to all Cuban players, wherever they are, and to all Cubans wherever they are: leave politics out of the equation and unite.

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