BY LINDA ROBERTSON
Yusseff Diaz follows the Cuban baseball league and the Big Red Machine national team from afar with the same passion as an astronomer following his favorite stars.
Diaz, who lives in Hialeah, owns a collection of Cuban baseball memorabilia and uniforms, has a Facebook page dedicated to the sport and watches games on Cuba Vision TV and the Internet.
Diaz, Havana-born and a Mariel refugee, dreams of the day he can return to his hometown and see Cuban players in person. But he worries that by the time he gets there, the storied Serie Nacionalwill no longer exist.
The caliber of the game on the island has steadily deteriorated over the past 25 years as players have defected to the United States, where about 200 have made it to the majors or minor leagues. Last season, 24 players who left Cuba in their prime held spots on major-league rosters, with contracts worth a combined total of nearly $450 million, and five were selected for the All-Star game.
Rusney Castillo became the highest-paid Cuban player in history when he signed a $72.5 million deal with the Boston Red Sox in August. Money is a powerful lure for athletes stuck in a stagnating socialist economy and playing at dilapidated stadiums with rationed bats and frayed gloves.
The dual announcement by President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro that the two countries plan to restore diplomatic relations after 54 years of lingering Cold War animosity could open the underground pipeline of Cuban talent. Players who must sneak off the island — usually by pledging part of their future salary to smugglers — could find themselves free to negotiate with major-league teams if the U.S. trade embargo ends and Castro releases them from their obligations as government employees.
“Cuban baseball players could be the ones who bring an end to communism,” Diaz said. “When they get to the majors, fans on the island follow their careers closely and learn what it means to make a lot of money. The revolution has endured so long because there are no millionaires, except for the elite one-percenters. Belief in the revolution gets weaker and weaker when the people see these players getting rich.”
Speculation on the future of Cuban baseball is as rampant as that on the potential of Yasmany Tomas, who signed for $68.5 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks, or young infielder Yoan Moncada, expected to sign soon after holding a showcase for scouts in Guatemala.
But no one denies that the talent drain has hurt the 16-team Cuban league. Fidel Castro, who abolished professional sports in 1961, declaring sport to be “a right of the people,” used to shrug when a player defected, saying Cuba had three more to replace any traitor.
Castro relied on loyal athletes like boxer Teofilo Stevenson, who famously said, “What is a million dollars worth compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”
The success of Cuba’s national baseball team, dominant in international tournaments, was like that of Cuba’s other athletes — out of proportion to the country’s size. Sport was a vital source of pride and a dependable instrument of propaganda. Militantestars such as runner Ana Fidelia Quirot could be counted on for their medals and rhetoric about the glory of the revolution.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the termination of its subsidies to Cuba caused the fade of the glory days. Castro’s system still churns out champions but not with the same regularity or fervor.
Cuba’s 15 medals at the 2012 London Olympics were its fewest since 1976. Baseball players haven’t been able to resist the challenge and lucrative contracts of Major League Baseball, whose clubs are flush with TV revenue. Five players from Cuba’s 2013 World Baseball Classic team left last year, among them slugger Jose Abreu, signed by the Chicago White Sox for $68 million and named 2014 American League Rookie of the Year.
“Cuban baseball is on limited life support,” said Peter Bjarkman, a Cuban baseball historian, author and BaseballdeCuba website editor who is a regular visitor to the island. “They’ve maintained an isolated league and tried to prevent players from being tempted by money. But the world is changing fast.”
Cubans have been playing in the Major Leagues since the early 1900s. Baseball is the national pastime and passion. As rosters have thinned, it’s gotten tougher to replenish them, and the game has lost some of its popularity.
Havana’s Industriales— the Yankees of Cuba — and the Cienfuegos Elefanteshave been hit hard by defections. After Alexei Ramirez left in 2008, the national team had Hector Olivera to take his place, but Olivera left in September, and his young heirs, Moncada and Andy Ibanez, followed.
Pitcher Aroldis Chapman’s defection in 2007 during a team trip to the Netherlands and his subsequent signing with the Cincinnati Reds for $30 million accelerated the flow of exits. Adeiny Hechavarria, Dayan Viciedo, Leonys Martin, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig followed in successive years, with Alex Guerrero in the large 2013 class of defectors that included Abreu.
The most common routes to MLB are arranged by smugglers and take players via boat to Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Because of the U.S. embargo, Cuban players must establish residency in a third country before they can be declared free agents.
“Defectors used to be lower level players; now it’s the core players,” Bjarkman said. “Their departures aren’t political statements but an economic choice. And they want to test themselves against the best.
“The guys who leave miss Cuba. They are fond of and fanatic about the Cuban league and their comrades, yet they’d take the same risk again. Next to Fidel they were the biggest stars in the country. They were like gods. Now as MLB players they are bigger heroes in Cuba than the players who are still in Cuba.”
Cuban players are much in vogue among MLB general managers.
“For the cache of the Cuban players to drop, a couple guys will have to flop,” Bjarkman said.
Wild spending on unproven players Castillo and Tomas was a sort of overcorrection for teams that whiffed on Abreu, said Joe Kehoskie, an agent who has represented Cuban players.
“Cubans were way undervalued and now they are way overvalued,” he said. “The pendulum will swing when one of these giant contracts goes bust.”
The losses mean Cuba’s deep talent pool has been reduced to a puddle. Only about a half dozen players left on the island could make an immediate impact on an MLB roster, scouts and agents say, and most of them are loyalists.
“The cupboard in Cuba is almost bare,” Kehoskie said. “I was always bullish on Cuban talent but I think they’re going to run out of premium players. Cuban baseball is in big trouble because the kids are leaving, too. They have a new crop every year so what we may see are 19-year-olds worth $3 [million] to $5 million.”
Industrialesthird baseman Yulieski Gourriel and Granma outfielder Alfredo Despaigne would be in high demand but neither is expected to leave because of strong family ties to their homeland. Second baseman Jose Fernandez is Baseball America’s No. 3-rated player still in Cuba, but he and catcher Lazaro Herrera, his cousin and teammate on Matanzas, have not played in two months and did not accompany the national team to the recent Central American and Caribbean Games. Bjarkman has heard from other players that they were caught trying to defect and have been suspended and detained. Herrera’s wife was told to vacate the house he earned as a bonus.
Highly regarded prospects include outfielders Victor Mesa and Jorge Ona, shortstop Lourdes Gourriel and pitchers Vladimir Gutierrez and Norge Ruiz.
“Cuba is so fertile there’s always going to be another star, just like with Brazilian soccer players,” Diaz said. “But on many teams it’s down to Double A quality, with pitchers barely hitting 90 mph.”
Recognizing the toll, Cuba revamped its Serie Nacionaltwo years ago, splitting the September-April season into two halves. The top eight teams survive, and draft 40 players from the eight eliminated teams to supplement their rosters. Those 40 broke the tradition that players only play for their home province team.
Last summer, the Cuban league revived an old money-making incentive and rented players out to foreign leagues, as it had in the past and as the government does with thousands of coaches, doctors and engineers who work in foreign countries. INDER, the Cuban sports ministry, negotiated contracts for players to compete for Japanese teams. A similar agreement with the Mexican league fell apart because of MLB rules. Players also competed for teams in the Netherlands, Italy and France.
Yulieski Gourriel was paid $980,000 by Japan’s DeNa Stars; Frederich Cepeda made $1.5 million from the Yomiuri Giants and Despaigne earned $900,000 from the Lotte Marines. The players were required to turn over 80 percent of their salaries to INDER and return to their Cuban league teams in the fall.
The policy revision, which included increased player bonuses of $800 and salary increases to $40 per month, enabled Cuba to acquire hard currency and served as an anti-defection tool.
“A big perk of foreign travel for players is their ability to sell cigars and uniforms and pocket extra cash,” Bjarkman said. “It’s similar to the way Cuban people survive by utilizing the black market.”
Fidel Castro’s son Tony Castro, a physician for the national team and an officer for the international baseball federation, and the outspoken Victor Mesa, manager of the national team, have said the Cuban league is receptive to allowing players to compete for MLB clubs. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who spoke with Fidel Castro about opening doors during the Baltimore Orioles’ 1999 visit to Cuba, would welcome more Cuban players. But there are two impediments: Cuba would still require its players to play in its league during the winter, which MLB would reject because of risk of injury, and INDER would still require a percentage of salaries, which the U.S. Treasury Department would reject because of the trade embargo.
“Cuba would love to be able to broker players to mega-million-dollar deals, but that seems like a nonstarter given the current embargo, not to mention Cuba’s approach to capitalism,” Kehoskie said. “Does Cuba really want players going off to make millions for eight months and coming home to live among neighbors who make $20 per month? Where would Aroldis Chapman spend his millions in Cuba? It’s easy for a defector to say he’d go home but if you’re living in a Ritz-Carlton are you really going back to a place with blackouts and food shortages?”
No one anticipates immediate changes to Cuba’s relationship with MLB but the thaw announced by Obama and an eventual loosening of the embargo could enable the Cuban league to sell players to MLB in a way similar to the Asian leagues, who make certain players available and charge a release or negotiation fee.
While diplomacy maneuvers unfold, the smuggling of defectors continues as “MLB’s worst headache,” Bjarkman said.
MLB could change its rules and allow Cuban defectors to become free agents once they reach U.S. shores rather than having to establish residency in a third country, but MLB has stated that wouldn’t reduce danger because defectors would still need “the assistance of traffickers” to get to the U.S.
Bjarkman suggests dropping the third-country residency policy altogether and putting Cubans in the amateur draft, thus reducing their contracts and their appeal to smugglers.
Other proposals include giving Cuban ballplayers the same special permission to travel as Cuban musicians and artists receive; selling Cuba’s 16 teams to foreign owners who would invest in stadium upgrades; instituting an international MLB draft, and, someday, placing MLB franchise academies and an actual franchise in Cuba.
MLB stays mum on the topic, other than to say its hands are tied by the embargo.
“Major League Baseball turns a blind eye to the Cuban problem because Chapman can throw the ball 106 mph and Puig can hit it seven miles,” said Miami attorney Ben Daniel, who prosecuted agent Gus Dominguez for smuggling Cuban players in 2007. “They need to fill stadiums, and so it comes back to this political artificiality: No other person in the hemisphere is treated like a Cuban ballplayer.”
Tony Perez, who left Cuba in 1960 at age 18 with a visa and his Cincinnati Reds contract, would like to see a breakthrough so Cuban players don’t have to take risks and be separated from their families.
“It’s a shame nothing has changed for 50 years,” said Perez, a Miami Marlins special assistant who recalled playing with Castillo’s grandfather and uncle in Camaguey.
Bjarkman is convinced that no matter what the future holds, the Cuban league, which once existed in splendid parallel to MLB, is doomed.
“The history of Major League Baseball has been its killing of competitive leagues,” he said. “While no one wants segregation, MLB killed the Negro Leagues, eliminating hundreds of jobs and businesses. It wiped out winter leagues in the Caribbean. Cuba will be left with no more domestic baseball than what is now found in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.”
Yusseff Diaz dreads the decline of his beloved Serie Nacional. He knows all the lore, statistics, gossip. He left Cuba in 1980 at age 4 in the Mariel boatlift aboard a shrimper called the Doubleday and spent his first day in Miami at the Orange Bowl. He was raised by his mother after his father was sentenced to prison for murder, he said. He graduated from American High and FIU and now works for the Department of Homeland Security.
His first love was the Marlins, but he began following Cuban baseball in 1999 when the Orioles played the Cuban national team and Jose Contreras struck Albert Belle out three times.
“I said, ‘Wow, they have this amazing baseball in my home country?’” he said. “Since I didn’t grow up in Cuba it fascinates me to learn about the history. I got into it heavily. They play with more devotion, more flair. They had to tell Cespedes to stop admiring his home runs. Puig will take the extra base even when he shouldn’t gamble.”
Diaz daydreams of going to Cuba, seeing all 16 teams, buying more jerseys, sitting in the stands with rambunctious fans, meeting the players he communicates with on Facebook.
“I feel pride seeing Cuban players excel in the major leagues,” he said. “But at the same time it’s sad to see the Cuban league going downhill. It’s like Cuba is losing part of its culture.”