By Reynaldo Cruz
The official media outlet for the Cuban Sports Ministry (Inder, for its Spanish acronyms), Jit, tweeted the news that the United States government has granted the license for some Cuban major leaguers to suit up for the National Team in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, to be played in March 2023. The information came days after the very same media outlet complained and accused the United States of torpedoing Cuba’s participation in the event.
#Cuba podrá disponer de atletas MLB en el V Clásico Mundial de #Beisbol— JIT Deporte Cubano (@jit_digital) December 24, 2022
El Gobierno de #EstadosUnidos ha emitido un permiso que no debiera existir. #BaseBall https://t.co/QY2Ol6sKlb pic.twitter.com/Muus1Tp7mR
Reuters, which has become the foreign media in Cuba to first release any news related to US-Cuba relations and politics, echoed the words by Cuban Baseball Federation President and National Commissioner Juan Reinaldo Pérez Pardo, who said that: “This is a positive step, but it needs to be said it was the only just solution.”
The report also noted that:
“Cuba has asked several players who in recent years had defected from the Caribbean island – long famed for its baseball talent – to represent their home country in the event.”
And continues by saying:
“A U.S. embargo of the Cold War era and more recent sanctions prohibit or complicate business and financial transactions with Cuba. The rules make it impossible for a Cuban ballplayer to sign with a U.S. team without defecting from Cuba.”
However, they did fail to mention that when Cuba reached an agreement with Major League Baseball by the end of 2018, they did not honor it they way they were supposed to, starting with the fact that the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB, for its Spanish acronyms) remained under the tight grip of Inder and the Cuban government. They also created an infamous list of players that were “available” for the US market, thus restricting some for political reasons, discrimination, personal vendettas, or simply a biased opinion about the quality of the players. At the same time, and although it was never openly expressed, they kept players from being duly represented and tried to function as agents, something they have done with every contract with Japan’s NPB, while treating players as their possession.
Reuters also forgot to bring to readers the fact that the US has not been the only villain in this story: professional baseball was banned in the island for decades, and it was not until the end of 2013 that they started allowing players to sign professional contracts overseas. The Federation and the Cuban mainstream media also berate players who leave the country by calling them traitors and defectors while also questioning their patriotism, character, ethics, and human integrity. At the same time, those who get caught trying to leave, end up having to do it again because they get suspended to a minimum of two years: that, for an athlete, is basically the end of their careers.
The fact that many athletes were ignored by the FCB after they had expressed their desire to join their team for the WBC and other events like the Caribbean Series or the Tokyo Olympic Qualifiers (which saw Cuba miss the Olympics for the first time since baseball became a medal sport in 1992) was also not mentioned.
Even with this case, the FCB has only reached out to a select group of players, ignoring those who have spoken out against the Cuban government and those who left the Cuban National Team before, during or after a competition. This in itself is a contradictory stance: while criticizing that “politics” has been used by the US to get in the way of sports, they have used politics to keep players from going back home and visiting their relatives.
However, some players have decided to brush off the mistreatments, offenses and discrimination to fulfill their dream of playing for their homeland, stating that they are not doing it for the Federation, but for their people. Others, still hurting because of recent incidents, or supporting the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players (ACPBP) and its quest to pitch an independent team to the WBC, have refused to follow along. Legally, the ACPBP cannot represent the country, as it is a right held by each Federation, as stated by the rules World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC), who co-organizes and sanctions the event.
Cuba dominated international competitions since their victory in the II Amateur World Series held in Havana’s Estadio Cervecería La Tropical in 1939. Ever since, and for 20 years before the Fidel Castro-led Revolution, they would either win or be a contender. Back then, competition was fierce among amateurs, as most Cuban stars would then go on to sign with the Cuban Professional Winter League, in Major League Baseball, or other countries.
After pro baseball was banned following the 1960 Caribbean Series win, Castro started the National Series with the goal of pitching a powerhouse of “amateurs” (the players actually did not have any job other than playing baseball) to beat the Americans and prove Socialist superiority. For a time, it worked almost perfectly.
With the advent of professionals to international play in 1999, victories became harder and they ended up losing the Sydney Olympics to Team USA. The 2006 World Baseball Classic put them at the top of the baseball world, but the 2009 issue saw them fall out of the finals of a major event for the first time since the 1959 Chicago Pan Am Games. The increase of defections, prompted by the success of many players in the Majors, began to drain all the talent away, and made it impossible to manage a stability in rosters, something that had been a trademark for over four decades.
Now, the Federation aims to try to at least prevent the worst possible scenario, which would be full elimination in the first round, the obligation to play a qualifying tournament and possibly missing the 2027 installment. These thoughts, impossible and laughable as they might have seemed in 2006, look like the strongest possibility today.