After a long list of failures for Cuban baseball, Villa Clara’s defeat at the Caribbean Series seems like the classic topping off that shows the true colours of the abyss. Unfortunately, it was the Villa Clara team’s turn to pay the consequences, a team renamed for the occasion as Azucareros, heir to a tradition of struggle in the playing field since the 1960s. But, as more than one has said, perhaps that defeat was the best thing that could have happened so as to stop daydreaming.
Coming in second in the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 created the illusion that the following events proved were only partial and the defeats didn’t stop. But since in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, the Cuban team went to Isla Margarita still with the same old infantile story of “we’re going, because it can be done.”
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the years in which the Cuban teams swept to victory in international tournaments. So many thing have happened that to name them all would overflow this commentary, but let’s not forget that professional players did not participate in them, that baseball had not spread as it has now, that the local diaspora had not started and that sports received huge financing here, among some of the principal elements.
But, was everything going well when they were winning? Of course not. I don’t remember a single national baseball team, starting in the 1980s in which there had not been injustices; exceptional baseball players like Julio Germán Fernández, Javier Méndez, Lázaro Junco, or Romelio Martínez, for example, suffered them. Afterwards, the victories erased everything, or almost everything, because the affected players did not forget.
When the mass retirement of 1990s took place – one of the greatest mistakes ever committed – several of these talented players, still in full shape, retired. That is why the then Havana province team lost an offensive power that it never recovered and national baseball received a very hard blow.
The talent drain began in that decade, a diaspora that in more than 20 years has seen many of our most talented baseball players leave; some – a minority – were able to establish themselves in the Major Leagues; others tried their luck in diverse leagues; none of them has ever been able to join again their country’s team, as happens in the rest of the nations that lend out their players to foreign professional organisations. Until yesterday, the diaspora baseball players were described here, by the leaders of the sports organisation and by the official press, as deserters, traitors and treated as “non-persons.”
The fear of desertion has been present in each Cuba team; it has marked all the teams. That fear has prevented us from enjoying the victories of our compatriots from the diaspora and has maintained us captive, forcing us to see only the home team, not another league. Such a blockade on information also has been damaging for sports itself, for the ball players, who were prevented from learning, from being informed.
For years I asked myself why, starting in the 1990s, only some Cuban pitchers had been able to remain in the Major Leagues and no position player had been able to do so. Another two questions thus derived from this: could it be that our baseball players get there with so many technical deficiencies? How much are the trainers responsible for this?
The times in which “Natilla” Jiménez, Roberto Ledo, Andrés Ayón, Gilberto Torres, Arnaldo Raxach, Conrado Marrero, Fermín Guerra and other former professional players trained and directed in the national series are long gone, as well as in the different categories of the so-called pyramid. They contributed a wealth of invaluable knowledge. Their absence left an enormous void.
When Cuba became disconnected from the professional baseball organisations its sources were limited to human resources from within, contrary to the rest of the countries whose leagues use foreign players, trainers and umpires. They are circuits in constant movement that feed from one another, compared to ours. But since we think we are the centre of the universe, that we are the best, is also a national “sport”, since we thought we didn’t need anyone to teach us anything.
Curiously enough, now professionalism, demonised here until a while ago, is called “trade,” a word whose first definition in the Spanish language is “usual occupation.” And in what do our players occupy themselves?
As to what happened during that recent Caribbean Series, it could have been worse for Villa Clara, because numerous star players that played during the local championship in the Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Dominican Republic teams, were not present. The much-talked-of issue of the reinforcements, actually, for those teams is a question of spare players, contrary to Villa Clara where five of the eight position players they took are in the payroll of the national team.
Such erratic criteria like saying that a Cuba team should be taken to the Caribbean Series – distorting the norms of the tournament – are heard around these days. It is always the same: looking towards another place, as if reality did not teach anything.
Paradoxically, in the face of so many signs of our baseball’s decline, during the last Major League season, for the first time in more than 50 years, eight position players, trained here, played leading roles; one of them won the homerun competition of the Star Game; another should have been – his numbers said so – a golden glove and another was nominated as the Rookie of the Year. It should be asked: and if those players were part of the national team?
The process of changes currently under way in Cuban society also encompasses sports; several measures, like new payment regulations for athletes and technicians, the possibility of being hired by foreign leagues, or greater incomes for prizes in international competitions, are proof of this. Their implementation should contribute a higher motivation for athletes, including baseball players.
Motivation, information, promotion, organisation into a hierarchy, are urgent tasks for Cuban baseball, which has lost its roots among young people just as soccer has gained a great space; where before children’s baseball teams played, now see soccer balls rolling. A sport whose practice is decreasing and which, in the long term, is becoming weak.
Winning the next Caribbean Series should not be Cuban baseball’s goal, but rather growing in a broad sense, coming down to earth. (2014)
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