“What is a million dollars worth compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”
- 3-time Olympic heavyweight boxing champion Teofilo Stevenson, on why he never signed a contract to become a professional boxer
On April 2, 2019, the Cuban Baseball Federation published a list of 34 players between the ages of 17 and 25 who would be eligible to sign with major league teams. A list of players over 25 who would be able to sign was to have been sent in July. This would be virtually the same “posting system” that is used for major league clubs to sign players from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. This was all made possible by three years of negotiations between the Federation and Major League Baseball that would allow Cubans to play in the majors without defecting.
On April 9 – only 7 days later – the Trump administration nullified it. In response, the Federation tweeted “the agreement with MLB seeks to stop the trafficking of human beings, encourage cooperation and raise the level of baseball. Any contrary idea is false news. Attacks with political motivations against the agreement achieved harm the athletes, their families and the fans.” A senior Trump official said that the accord would have made the players “pawns of the Cuban dictatorship.” The administration has said it won’t change its policy until Cuba stops its support of Venezuela, which is disingenuous as there will always be an excuse to punish Cuba for daring to challenge U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
This all harkens back, of course, to the success of the Cuban Revolution on New Year’s Day in 1959, and the subsequent refusal of the U.S. to accept the legitimacy of a government that it didn’t have control of or significant influence over. Thus the total embargo that was imposed on Cuba on February 7, 1962 which made it illegal to export virtually anything to Cuba or to allow American dollars to be spent on the island. This blockade (as Cubans call it) has been in force for 57 years and while it has cost the U.S. economy $1.2 billion, it has had its intended effect on Cuba. With the collapse of the USSR in 1989, the Cuban economy was devastated, but with internal adjustments and increased trade with Europe, it has survived – but just barely.
While the government has continued to provide free education and healthcare and subsidized housing, Cubans still find themselves narrowly getting by. And although baseball remains the beloved national sport, teams have increasingly relied on donations of equipment such as bats, balls, gloves and catchers gear from visiting foreign teams to be able to continue to play games. Almost all of the ballparks are old and falling apart – many were built in the 1970’s – and the cost of lighting them and transporting players across the island have resulted in shortened seasons.
But in the early years of the Revolution, aid from the Soviet Union enabled the government to devote significant resources to the development of sports facilities. Not surprisingly, the Cuban government adopted the Soviet model of athletics, which was based on achieving two desirable outcomes: 1) mass participation in a variety of sports would make for a healthier population; 2) state development of elite athletes for success in international competitions would promote socialism as a desirable economic system. Boxing, volleyball and track and field were seen as important, but baseball – Cuba’s most popular sport – was the centerpiece. And Fidel Castro’s love of baseball was decisive.
Just five days after the rebels took power, Fidel appointed General Felipe Fuerra Matos – one of his 26th of July Movement officers – as director of the new Sports Ministry. As a result, 5,000 baseball players on 240 teams participated in a tournament won by a racially integrated team, which was unusual in Cuba. The creation of INDER – the National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation – in 1962 made island-wide organized amateur sports possible and established the baseball National Series, a league which in one form or another continues today.
As a socialist who had no love for money, Fidel decreed in 1967 that all sporting events in Cuba would now be free for all to attend, except for international tournaments. This was an integral part of Fidel’s vision: that moral incentives should take precedence over material incentives. In a socialist society, players should participate for love of the game rather than the chance to enrich one’s self at the expense of others, and sports fans should have opportunities to attend events regardless of their ability to pay. This emphasis on the importance of social values over purely individualistic ones was implemented throughout Cuba and Che Guevera’s “Man and Socialism in Cuba” is probably the best expression of this ideology. As a consequence, salaries were essentially the same for all players (and have remained so today).
Initially, they had other jobs and were only part-time ballplayers. But the popularity of baseball was such that amateurs soon became – in reality – “professionals” in that their full-time job was playing baseball. Each team was comprised of players who were born and grew up in the province where the team was located, and except for rare exceptions, they played for only that team throughout their careers. There was no trading from one team to another, as players were seen as human beings, not commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace. The government established sports academies in each province which would develop youngsters who showed particular promise. From there they would go to the Cuban minor league, and if they continued to progress, to the National Series team in their province.
While the National Series (the Cuban equivalent to the major leagues in North America) ostensibly began play in 1962, it wasn’t until the mid-’60’s that the league had established at least one team in each province. Today there 16 National Series teams: one each for 13 provinces, one for the municipality of Isla de la Juventud, and two for the province of Havana. Each team plays 90 games with the top eight teams qualifying for the playoffs. A three-round playoff concludes with the two surviving teams playing a best-of-seven game series to determine the champion. One unfortunate consequence of players being restricted to their provincial team is that the teams from the two most populous provinces, Havana and Santiago de Cuba, have traditionally been more successful than the others. In that, Cuban baseball has something in common with Major League Baseball, as a small number of teams like the Yankees and Red Sox tend to have the greatest success, although this is a function of having more money, not larger populations, than the other teams.
But the glory of Cuban baseball has always been its national team. Cuba dominated international tournaments from the 1960’s through the 1990’s, either winning them or finishing second, an amazing record that will never be equaled by any country. This included a winning streak of 159 games in a row. Peter C. Bjarkman, in his fascinating book “Fidel Castro and Baseball – the Untold Story,” asserts that “both the big-league successes of a growing contingent of defectors and Cuba’s surprise victories in the MLB-sponsored World Baseball Classic have demonstrated an undeniable truth: that this league, for much of its run, ranked alongside the Japanese pro leagues and perhaps just below the U.S. majors among the trio of highest-level circuits.” But with the allure of riches only 90 miles away, some of the best players began to brave storms, sharks and greedy human traffickers for the opportunity to play in the North American major leagues.
So, why would Cuban ballplayers want to leave their home? Is it all about the money? Well, yes. There had been players leaving Cuba before 2009, but between 2010 and 2013 four Cuban stars – Aroldis Chapman, Leonys Martin, Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu – defected and were richly rewarded by major league owners. Then the flood started: in 2014 and 2015, almost 150 Cuban players left the island for what they hoped would be big money. But not all of them found what they were looking for: according to Cuban baseball historian Peter C. Bjarkman, “more and more Cuban players were discovering the risks of flight and also realized how they were being used by greedy agents who rarely had their best interests at heart. Some have found their way back home, and a few are even reenergizing their careers in the depleted Cuban circuit.”
It should be noted that there were Cuban superstars who could have defected and signed large contracts, but decided that the adulation of their fellow Cubans was more important than the money they would have been offered. Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelan and Pedro Luis Lazo are three of the greatest Cuban players of all time and who stayed in Cuba for their entire careers. Of the three, Linares is arguably the best player in the history of Cuban baseball. Universally considered to be the best third baseman to never play in the major leagues, Linares had a lifetime batting average of .368, won 4 batting titles and led the league in Runs Batted In 4 times. Peter C. Bjarkman says “Linares repeatedly turned his back on big-league offers and personally chose to cast his lot with the Cuban socialist baseball system he so visibly represented and championed for two full decades.”
So, what are we to make of the Cuban socialist experiment in baseball? The sad truth in 2020 is that Cuban baseball is nowhere near as good as it was before the relatively recent wave of defections. If it is to be judged by the significant number of players who left, one might consider it to be a failure. But the National Series with its socialist orientation persists. Perhaps we should look at more than just individual players, but instead see Cuban baseball in the context of an attempt to change attitudes about how sports should fit in to a vision of a just society. With all its mistakes, bureaucratization and inefficiency, Cuba was able to create a socialist sports system that worked for the vast majority of baseball players and fans throughout the island instead of for the wealthy few.