Feb. 16, 2010: Cuba facing big-league baseball crisis
Exodus of star players to the majors could endanger the game’s future in socialist country
February 16, 2010
By Morgan Campbell
On Friday afternoon, scouts from half the teams in Major League Baseball converged at a stadium in Cancun, Mexico, to watch a single player’s private workout, wondering if the man could match the mystique.
The man is Leslie Anderson, a 6-foot-1 chiselled Adonis of a baseball prospect who hit .381 in his final season in Cuba’s National Series. He’s a first baseman with speed and a cannon arm who can also play all three outfield spots. At 27 (or 28 depending on your source) he still has productive years ahead and his agent, Jaime Torres, says Anderson could sign with a big-league team this week.
And the mystique is the one surrounding players who, like Anderson, spring from the famed Cuban baseball system, a regime that identifies talent early and grooms it in special sports academies, then turns it loose on the world.
Between 1939 and 2006 Cuban teams reached the finals of 48 international tournaments, winning 38, and reaching 40 straight finals heading into the inaugural World Baseball Classic, where they finished second. Fidel Castro’s communist government outlawed pro sports in 1961, but the national team’s unmatched international success seemed to trumpet the triumph of socialism on the baseball diamond.
But that system now finds capitalism sapping its strength.
The Cuban program has endured a steady trickle of defectors since 1991, when Rene Arrocha joined the St. Louis Cardinals, but the number of players leaving the island to pursue pro careers in the majors has swelled in recent years, topping out at over 20 in 2009.
The best-known defector, the Cincinnati Reds’ $30-million pitching prodigy Aroldis Chapman, walked away from a team hotel during a tournament in Holland last July. Anderson quietly boarded a boat for Mexico just days before the World Cup in September.
Satisfied that he wouldn’t use his major-league salary to fund a hostile Cuban government, the U.S. government recently “unblocked” Anderson, freeing him to join a big-league team immediately.
All Cuban prospects endure the unblocking process, but it doesn’t discourage them.
And if reports trickling out of Havana this past weekend were true, even more players may want to leave Cuba.
Miami-based sports blog Terrenodepelota.com reported Sunday that Red Sox president Larry Lucchino is in Cuba’s capital searching for talent. The team claimed he’s there on a charity mission, but said he met with the head of the Cuban league, then watched a game.
Combined with a multimillion-dollar contract for Anderson, a big-league club’s presence on the island would send shock waves through Cuba’s baseball community, and signal still more players might join an exodus that could change the face of top-level baseball in two countries.
“The more players that leave, the more that get good contracts, that information definitely filters through Cuba immediately,” Torres said. “If someone … gets $8 million or $10 million for a three- or four- year contract, (the players back in Cuba) aren’t dumb. That’s a lot of money. A lot of pesos.”
The exact number of major league-ready players in Cuba is tough to pinpoint, and estimates vary even among people who follow the 16-team National Series closely.
Vancouver native and retired teacher Kit Krieger is Canada’s foremost authority on Cuban baseball. He owns a company that conducts baseball-themed tours of the island. If the Cuban government ended its ban on pro sports, and if the U.S. dropped its trade embargo, Krieger says 50 Cubans could make big league rosters immediately.
Torres takes it further, saying if Cuba ever became an open market for ballplayers, Cubans would outnumber Dominicans in the big leagues within five years.
Either way, increasing numbers of Cuban players are no longer willing to wait for normal relations with the U.S. before chasing their big-league dreams, and just about everyone involved agrees on the main factor fuelling the trend: Money.
Major League Baseball offers a lot of it, while the Cuban government offers none.
The cash-strapped government can still afford to discover and develop players, says retired Carleton University economics professor Archibald Ritter, but the pro sports ban ensures nobody in Cuba gets rich playing baseball there.
“Cuba can sustain a high level of baseball,” said Ritter, who spent five years running a joint economics program between Carleton and the University of Havana. “What they can’t do is pay the players something that makes them happy, that makes them willing to stay.”
Damian Blen knows things weren’t always that way.
These days he’s a youth coach who lives in Burlington, but in 1986 he was a quick-footed middle infielder who at age 16 graduated from a state-run sports school to a roster spot with the famed Havana club, Industriales, the Cuban equivalent of the New York Yankees. That year future major-leaguers Rey Ordonez and Orlando Hernandez joined him as Industriales rookies.
During his seven-year National Series career, Blen made exactly what players make now – nothing. The second half of his career spanned the “Special Period,” that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Without Soviet subsidies the Cuban economy sputtered.
Still, defections remained rare, and mainly confined to big-name players. Rolando Arrojo left in 1991, followed by Ordonez in 1993 and pitcher Ariel Prieto in ’94.
“When I played it was different. We didn’t think too much about leaving the country,” says Blen, 39. “We didn’t think about making a lot of money as a ballplayer.”
As years passed, the slow leak of top talent continued – Orlando and Livan Hernandez, Danys Baez, Jose Contreras all left one by one. But none of those departures inspired a surge like the one that has occurred over the last 18 months.
Krieger says three players’ departures – Angels star Kendry Morales, Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar and White Sox prospect Dayan Viciedo – changed players’ minds about leaving Cuba.
Neither Morales nor Escobar was a full-time starter in Cuba, but each has excelled in the majors. And Krieger says eyes across the island opened wide when Viciedo signed with the White Sox.
Touted as Cuba’s next great shortstop, Viciedo entered the National Series as a 15-year-old in 2005, and hit 14 home runs the next year. From there, Krieger says, his production declined, yet after defecting in 2008 he still signed a four-year, $10-million (all figures U.S.) deal with Chicago.
“Viciedo had a very significant impact on the thinking of Cuban players,” he said. “They thought, `If he can get $10 million, then what am I worth?”
Three weeks ago, right-handed pitcher Yuniesky Maya headlined a group of six Cuban prospects working out for major league scouts at the Chicago Cubs’ complex in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.
Blue Jays assistant GM Tony LaCava wouldn’t confirm whether Jays scouts attended that workout or any others involving recent defectors, but didn’t quite deny that the Jays were interested in further exploring that talent pool.
“Needless to say, we’re scouting every available player that comes on the market,” he said, coyly.
The effect of the brawn drain on the quality of Cuban baseball is evident on the field.
After taking silver at the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, Cuba finished outside the final four in 2009, and at the World Cup in September finished second to a U.S. squad made up of minor leaguers.
Meanwhile, seven games from the end of the National Series season, 81 players are batting at least .300, with 20 hitting .340 or better.
Krieger says stats that gaudy illustrate a talent gap that only grows wider as defections mount.
“The great hitters see too much lousy pitching and the great pitchers see too much lousy hitting,” he said. “That doesn’t bring out talent.”
In a January interview with Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, Morales said the level of play in Cuba had declined since he left in 2004. Torres says if this trend continues the type of player leaving Cuba will transform, becoming less like the polished veterans seen now and more like the raw teenagers teams sign in other Latin American countries.
And while both sides could benefit from some sort of compromise, none seems forthcoming.
Torres would like to see the Cuban government treat baseball players the way it does touring musicians, allowing them to earn money abroad then taxing that income heavily. He says players would love the idea, but knows the U.S. government would reject it because it violates the trade embargo.
And the notion of selling players is also a non-starter.
Ritter points out roughly 30,000 Cuban doctors are currently working in Venezuela, sent by their government in exchange for cash and cheap oil from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
“If they could get Mr. Chavez to buy ballplayers, that would be great,” he said.
But forcing teams to pay the national federation for the right to negotiate with players would violate both the embargo and the socialist principles of the Cuban government.
“For (Fidel or Raul) Castro to say `we’ll sell you’ would say capitalism is better than socialism,” Krieger said. “As long as they’re around, that’s not going to happen.”
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