By Reynaldo Cruz
In October, 2021, baseball became National Cultural Heritage in Cuba, a long overdue decision after the game had lost popularity in the second most storied baseball nation in the world. For almost three decades, Cuban fans have been having the pleasure of watching the best soccer leagues on the planet while Major League Baseball has been kept off the country’s households.
Several people did their best to ensure that flame continued to be alive, but little did they accomplish. The government-run mainstream media and TV networks was completely reluctant to let professional players fill the screen with their mammoth home runs and blazing fastballs, as those would serve to lure the players of the honest Cuban Baseball National Series to sign professional contracts.
For years following the 1959 Revolution, Cuba began to vault itself into not the elite of international baseball, but into the sole position of the TOP of international baseball. Following the 1961 Amateur World Series triumph, the Caribbean nation would secure a spot in the Gold Medal Game of every international competition until the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Professional baseball was banned in the country, following the July 25, 1959 incident, when, at the turn of midnight, forces of the Ejército Rebelde (Rebel Army) in the stands of the Gran Estadio de La Habana started a celebratory shooting to commemorate the first July 26 after the Fidel Castro-led Revolution.
The reckless behavior had a disastrous outcome: Rochester Red Wings third base coach Frank Verdi was hit in the head and Havana Sugar Kings Leo Cárdenas was razed in the shoulder. Verdi survived because he was wearing a hardliner under his cap and because the bullet didn’t hit him directly, but when it was coming down.
However, the game was halted when players sheltered in the locker rooms in mortal fear for their lives. The next day, Rochester manager Cot Deal—who had been ejected from the game before the disaster, withdrew the team from the Cuban capital.
That ultimately led to the withdrawal of the Triple A franchise from Havana, while MLB players were banned from playing in the Cuban circuit. Fidel Castro responded by suspending professional baseball in the country after the 1959-60 Winter Season and the victory of Cienfuegos in the 1960 Caribbean Series.
The “triumph of free baseball over slave baseball” was procclaimed by Castro, who would then go on to become a fixture in baseball games, Cuban national team training camps, while also being the first to welcome their heroes.
For ten years, following a defeat in the round robin against Team USA in the 1987 Indianapolis Pan Am Games until the Gold Medal Game against Team Japan in the 1997 Intercontinental Cup in Spain, Team Cuba steamrolled over the opposition, running undefeated in every official international competition over that stretch. Yes, that includes two consecutive Olympic Games (Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996), although there was a humiliating moment when they were handed a four-game sweep in the 1995 USCT-Cuba Friendly Series held in Millington.
However, things began to change after the defection of star pitchers René Arocha, Osvaldo Fernández, Liván Hernández, Rolando Arrojo and Orlando “El Duque” Hernández. The success of the Hernandez brothers served as proof that Major League Baseball was by no means unreachable for Cuban National Series Players. This was cemented when they lost in extra innings and won in convincing fashion against the Baltimore Orioles in 1999.
Defections started piling up, although it only took a spectacular second-game finish in the 2006 World Baseball Classic for Cuban players to realize they could play. For the first time, they played in an MLB-studded tournament, and although they failed to win the championship, they did leave a very solid impression.
After failing to win the 2008 Sydney Olympics and being eliminated in the second round of the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Cuba as a team has provided little if no joy to its fan base. Over the last 13 years, only the 2010 World University Games in Japan (walked off by Alfredo Despaigne against the USCT), the 2010 Intercontinental Cup in Taichung and the 2015 Caribbean Series have provided any joy for the fans.
Meanwhile, in the best baseball scenario on the planet, the likes of José Abreu, Aroldis Champan, Yuli Gurriel, Yoan Moncada, et al, have been drawing attention to the Island in the United States. However, Cuban sports fans have fallen behind, having heavy doses of European Soccer both on the sports channel and the news. As a result, they can name all the players from three or four clubs in the Spanish League and would struggle to name a dozen MLB players.
Little has the Cuban Baseball Federation done to honor the category of Heritage baseball holds today. For over sixty years, Cuban Baseball has been without a steady Hall of Fame, and the initially successful attempt to bring it back to life in 2014 was severed a year later by the very baseball brass due to the presence of players who did not meet the political standards imposed by the government.
Even today, baseball authorities show little care for what should be their first and foremost responsibility, allowing endless inconsistencies in the National Championship calendar, sloppy opening and closing ceremonies, and poorly designed uniforms, among other things, while exercising complete and suffocating control over the lives and words of players, coaches and umpires.
Cuban baseball, a true heritage of the island since the 1860s while having an organized championship since 1878, deserves better. For now, politics stand in the way of development, and prevent people from seeing how beautiful baseball actually is.
Cuban accomplishments in International Tournaments (All tournaments held, whether Cuba participated in them or not):
4 World Baseball Classics
6 Olympic Games
39 World Cups (Amateur World Series and then World Cup)
17 Intercontinental Cups
19 Pan Am Games
23 Central American and Caribbean Games
5 Summer Universiades