By Reynaldo Cruz Díaz
During the current installment of the Cuban Baseball National Series, there have been a number of players who have actually found themselves leaving their teams for several reasons. Contracts overseas–sanctioned by the Cuban Baseball Federation or not–and other causes have diminished the already compromised quality of the Cuban baseball domestic tournament with more absences.
Matanzas, Pinar del Río, Industriales… the team list goes on and on, as players try to look for better opportunities to mitigate their dire financial situations. The salaries in Cuban baseball are very low, and any contract, even in non-baseball countries like Italy, will bring them much more money than what they are subject to make if they had stayed playing for their provinces.
Realities in Cuba have changed dramatically over the years, and baseball is nothing but a very accurate picture of the country’s society. The same way some of the best professionals are pursuing government-provided opportunities to live and work overseas, even if such opportunities are just a little above what they make in Cuba, baseball players are taking any chance they can and leaving the National Series half way.
The most lucrative contracts the Cuban Baseball Federation has managed to negotiate are the ones in Japan’s NPB. Nevertheless, players will welcome getting hired by teams in Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Italy… Other scenarios like the United States’ organized baseball leagues, other Caribbean circuits and other Asian countries outside Japan are for now out of the question.
At the same time, the FCB has failed to provide or find opportunities for players to go overseas and develop the grassroots source, leading to defections from the National Series-level players to the very 16U teams. With many teenagers leaving the country for the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico or elsewhere, the cycle for the future of the league is incomplete and uncertain.
There is a trend to believe that there is no solution for Cuban baseball, that the quality of the National Series will continue to plummet and that the Cuban National team is doomed for the very near future. The level of play of the domestic tournament has decreased significantly every year, and has been taking a nosedive since the number of defections went berserk after the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Once the number one aspiration of many players, being part of the National Team, has become a priority, but to use the trip as a launching pad for pursuing a professional career with a salary worthy of their skills, something that has been denied to every Cuban player who stays on the island. The National Series, the main source of talent for Team Cuba, and the best form of entertainment for Cuban baseball fans, has become a ghost tournament that changes the rules arbitrarily every year, and even within the very competition.
With such lack of responsibility and organization, training cycles are completely altered, and players face different regimes more than once a year, depending on whatever new change the Cuban baseball apparatus decides to impose. Such instability leads to injuries, exhaustion, and even health issues. There is a reason why the serious baseball leagues in the world, like the MLB, the NPB, the Mexican League, and the KBO have so much prestige: they really take some serious thinking and discussion with players before imposing so many changes year after year.
Some may think that Cuban players are only after the money when they leave their National Series teams to honor a foreign contract, and there might be some truth to it. Yet, the picture is much bigger than that: low salaries, difficult travel conditions, hard fields, day games in the sun mostly, and the list goes on.
Can anyone blame them?