The 58th edition of the Caribbean Baseball Series, held in the Dominican Republic, has left a storm in the largest of the Caribbean islands, a hurricane of opinions on the national sport, turning it into an epilogue after the tournament ended. And if discussing baseball was always a mark of identity here, now – actually for a long time – those controversies go beyond the sports sphere.
Few have not given their opinion about the defeat of the Cuban team, represented by Ciego de Avila, about the players’ performance, the manager’s strategies and decisions, and about all the vicissitudes surrounding the series, including the last event: the flight of the Gurriel brothers.
We should ask if there is something different in the repercussion of this new defeat of a Cuban team in an international baseball series. The answer depends on how you look at it, on who is giving their opinions. In the sector of the specialised press the tone heightened as never before, but among the most knowledgeable fans it was a calledplay, nothing to worry about.
As is known, the Caribbean Series started off in the Cerro stadium in 1949, and the Cuban Almendares Club was the winner of the first trophy, vied for with Cervecería Caracas (Venezuela), Indios de Mayagüez (Puerto Rico) and Spur Cola (Panama). For 11 years, the winners of the Cuban league (Cienfuegos, Marianao, Habana or Almendares) left a very small winning margin for the rest of the winning clubs in their leagues because, at that time, the Cuban baseball hierarchy was unquestionably in Central America and the Caribbean.
Our baseball was so strong that when the Cuban Sugar Kings won the Little World Series of the Minor Leagues in October 1959, they were “a step away” (according to the slogan) of entering the Majors.
But the Cuban professional league only survived one year: in 1961 the national series began with amateur baseball players and a great challenge ahead. Since the quality of local amateur baseball was also very high, the transition was not traumatic, baseball got to all the provinces and a greater development was brought about.
In competitions outside the island, the Cuban teams started establishing their dominion, especially starting in the 1970s, and few titles escaped them. Only the U.S. teams (made up by university baseball players) were their real rivals.
Two things would change that panorama: the crisis of the 1990s and the arrival of professional players to international tournaments: Olympic Games, world championships and others.
The Cuban economy’s crisis in the 1990s could not leave the sport unharmed, from the grass roots to high performance. The material shortages started to open a gap in it. An unfortunate erratic event took place particularly in baseball: the massive retirement of baseball players who were still in their full faculties. That was a deep wound that had its aftermath and that has been forgotten.
Another consequence of that panorama of shortages was the start of a diaspora that hasn’t stopped. The constant loss of talents, of the best talents, has practically left destitute the most recent Cuban teams.
The diaspora in sports is not very different from that of the other disciplines (art, literature, science, technology): it fundamentally has an economic cause (even though it is not the only one). The difference is that here, since an early stage, the issue was extremely politicised, and even though at present this has changed a great deal, in the sports sphere it has not been completely banished, because a several decades-long practice that was instrumented and rooted with great strength precisely in that sphere cannot be modified from one day to the other.
The ideologising of the sport is not only visible in the treatments given to the athletesof the diaspora, because it forms part of a discourse that includes actions (making them standard bearers, their proclamations) and slogans. All that practice reverts into non-sports related stress and pressure. We do not understand the astonishment of the commentators when observing – and expressing – the pressure with which our baseball players play if they themselves have contributed to encouraging it. Cuban athletes themselves feel too much weight. That additional burden, instead of injecting them with dynamism, reduces their performance.
The leadership of baseball on the island knows it has to continue dealing with the flight of athletes, because, even with local records, it forms part of global practice: the most talented athletes are absorbed by the more powerful leagues, the ones with the greatest capital. But the fact is that here they should change the focus: instead of seeing it as a loss, it should be assimilated as earning symbolic capital for the national sport, but also as issuers of financial capital who they also are (or can be). And in the future – near or distant, it is not well known, but it will occur – many of those baseball players will make up the national team.
What is in the hands of the sports institutions is the strengthening of the development of the sport from the grass roots, something that has been rather neglected in baseball; taking advantage of the wisdom of many former players and technicians who have been forgotten; and reviewing the structure of the national series, because there aren’t players for 16 teams, but neither are there managers, technicians and umpires, nor appropriate stadiums in all the provinces.
At this point in time the provincial representationshave rather waned and teams like that of Matanzas are multi-provincial, therefore it will be necessary to return to the past, when there were less teams in the series, but not neglecting the development of those that are still not apt to play at that level.
Baseball, as the national sport, deserves greater space in TV programming, where it faces the unfair competition of soccer. The coming season of the MLB should gain a greater protagonist role when possible. This also forms part of learning, development and enjoyment. It does not seem logical that in a country of baseball, the idols of adolescents and young people come from soccer.
Cuban society is in a process of changes and sports are part of that process, as well as citizens’ questioning of the nature, justice and speed with which those changes take place. Analysing them and talking about them, without passion and prejudice, would be the right way. (2016)
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