Cuban baseball: we are what we are

A visit and a possible future.

Foto: Jorge Luis Baños

A year since the announcement of the start of the process for the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States, for many it seems (it seems to me) that the concrete advances achieved are below the expectations and needs of the countries and, above all, of the Cuban population, which has barely received the practical benefits of the new political relations with the northern neighbour.

It is true that in the diplomatic field an important step was taken with the opening of the two countries’ embassies in their respective capitals, that there have been high level visits and the interest of U.S. politicians and businesspeople to approach the island has been evidenced, in addition to some concrete agreements. And all this is plenty, taking into account the situation that existed before December 17, 2014.

 

But now, precisely before the first year of rapprochement has ended, an event has taken place that at least, to me, seems historical (despite my rejection of so much of the condition of “historic” that is usually given to any event): because the technical and courtesy visit to the island of a delegation of the U.S. Major Leagues, which included a representation of the Players’ Association, is a landmark in the rapprochement between the two countries.

 

But the emphasis of this landmark, that which makes it truly historic, is that four Cuban players active in the Major Leagues were part of the delegation, three of which were seen playing by the country’s fans in their domestic tourneys and formed part, in addition, of the national team in several international events. Three of the unmentionables.

 

Barely two months ago, when the final game of the annual championship of the Major Leagues, its World Series, was played, we baseball lovers were greatly disappointed: contrary to many forecasts and previous signs, it was decided to not broadcast the games of the defining championship and, only when it had concluded and all the interested persons knew the results, the final game of this spectacular and competitive meet was broadcast.

 

During the week in which the majority of the series’ games were played, the sports channel of Cuban television, which had even increased the frequency with which it broadcast Major League games, placed in its nightly broadcast an entire series of events and features, even repeated ones, while Cuban fans were waiting for a benevolent decision that would allow us to have, with relative closeness and through a normal means, the possibility of enjoying those final games of the championship between the two best teams of the tournament.

 

It is not necessary to be too discerning to guess that one of the reasons to not broadcast in their moment those games had to do with a still heated situation: and it is that in each one of the vying teams there was a Cuban player of those who for years have been called “defectors,” exceptional stars and mainstays of their teams (as they had been in their teams in Cuba): the ex-Industrialesteam member Kendry Morales, now a member of the Kansas City (over whom the veto had been previously lifted), and the ex-Granma tean member YoenisCéspedes, a member of the New York Mets, both of them men of the Cuba team.

 

A few years ago, already in the Sunday space of Tele Rebelde International Baseball, in addition to broadcasting U.S. Major League games, it was allowed to broadcast games in which some Cubans played. In the beginning they were barely mentioned, or their being Cuban was left out; after this they have been mentioned, their origin has been recalled, but there has barely been talk about them and their past on the island. However, with respect to what occurred four, five years ago, the sole fact of showing those players who had “defected” or “escaped” from Cuba was a sign of the new times of more tolerance and ability to adapt. But with the 2015 World Series we suffered a hard setback.

 

In any case it was evident that something was changing: from the attitude of not recognising them, making them invisible, erasing them from the country’s memory, now the Cuban players inserted into other circuits at least existed and on occasions were visible. And it could not be any other way if the aim was to broadcast another baseball, because the diaspora of Cuban baseball players throughout the world (more than 100 have left the island during this year) made it almost impossible to broadcast a game in which one of them did not appear.

 

But now the unmentionables, even the most unmentionables, have returned to Cuba as representatives of the Players’ Association to support talks between the Major Leagues and the Cuban Baseball Federation which it seems has a precise objective: to seek the ways to normally insert Cuban talents in the U.S. professional tournaments of the MLB system.

 

The return to Cuba of figures like José Dariel Abreu, YaselPuig, Alexei Ramírez and the less known Brian Peña (he emigrated when he was barely 19 years old and was not a figure on the island) as goodwill ambassadors of the Major Leagues is an event that, two months ago, when it was decided to not broadcast the 2015 World Series, few Cubans would have imagined possible.

 

Without going into what the presence of that baseball embassy from the United States represents as an overcoming of a past in which Cuban players who left the country were rejected (they were considered stateless) and condemned to the most compacted oblivion, I believe that the healthiest thing to do is to perceive what this visit and those Cuban players can mean for the future of our baseball.

 

And not just because it can be the beginning of the end of turbulent relations, in which many Cuban baseball players, to be able to play in high-level U.S. games, had to give up their residence in Cuba and claim that of another country; not because during the talks possible direct contracts of Cubans were discussed (since it seems they were) if the blockade is lifted or through special licenses, if this embargo continues for more years; not only because, when returning to Cuba, when their presence in Cuba was talked about, the last justifications are dropped to not allow that their compatriots see them play wearing the shirt of the clubs in which they are currently playing; or because the reality (and realism, even pragmatism) have opened a hole in the wall of separation and negation.

 

Now, when those baseball players have been in their homeland and the federations of the two countries take a giant step toward more harmonic relations, what pretext can be brandished to not show them and their comrades playing baseball, to not broadcast higher level baseball games?

 

I sincerely believe that what happened during these days in December, one year after the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States began, has much to do with the future of the island and of what has been for a century and a half a sign of its cultural and spiritual identity: baseball. And the fact is that the current crisis of this sport is closely related to the economic conditions that drive dozens of players to seek a foreign club with which to carry out their activity, the principal reason for their decision to leave (and of the Cuban authorities, at least for the time being, of making them invisible). But at the same time the current state of Cuban baseball also has direct consequences with their future perspectives, with what baseball will be (or not be) for Cuba in the upcoming years.

 

While I am writing these lines, on the corner of my home in Mantilla, where I played so much baseball with my barrio friends, a group of boys today play football. The same happens in many other streets in Cuba and in each possible space, for example, of Havana’s Sports City…. Those boys and youngsters run for hours after a ball, because they dream of being like Messi, Cristiano, Neymar, Suárez or Casillas. What many of them do not know is that their dream is just that, a dream. Because despite so much effort and dedication, many years will have to go by, even several generations, for Cuba to produce elite football players. Among those boys there could be a solitary genius, like José RaúlCapablanca (World Chess Champion from 1921 to 1927) or like Ramón Fonts (1883-1959, winner of five Olympic fencing medals). Everything is possible.

 

However, until now, such a miracle has not occurred, has never occurred. But they play, dream and profess their fanaticism for the Barça, the Real Madrid, the Mourinho Chelsea or the Guardiola Bayern Munchen, while each week national television feeds them the hope by broadcasting dozens of football games, also professional, of the greatest quality, at the highest competitive level,which ranges from the World Championships to the European national leagues.

 

But when those youngsters see the four or five baseball games television offers them, they have to make do with a competition that has stopped being what it was and which, feelings of belonging apart, says little to them of what a baseball game can be.

 

On the night before I wrote these lines, the game that kicked off the championship between Industriales and Ciego de Avila was of lamentable technical and defensive quality, just to mention one example. If realism and pragmatism are imposed and the barriers that prevent the massive and direct consumption of theworld’s best baseball (in which increasingly more Cubans are playing, like Abreu, Puig, Ramírez, Peña…orKendry, Céspedes, Chapman, Odrisamel, Iglesias, Yunel, etc., etc.) are dropped, it is still possible that something as essential to Cuban identity as the mass, daily, faraway practice of baseball will be reborn and revived, and many shirts with the surnames of Messi or Ronaldo or Neymar are changed for those of some Cuban or Venezuelan or U.S. baseball player, but a baseball player.

 

A baseball player who becomes the idol of that young man who perhaps can become a great player, like hundreds, thousands Cuba has given in its long and proud history of love for baseball and, then, definitively does not miss the visceral relations of our country with that sport through which the spirit of the nation was also forged and thanks to which, moreover, we are as we are and what we are: Cubans. I still have hope, increasingly more today, and expect that others do so as much as I do. (2015)

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