A Tale of Two Cubas

A record 170 Cubans are projected to start 2022 in a Major League organization. Many of these players built their prospect status appearing for Cuba in World Baseball Classic tournaments. The Cuban Government and Baseball Federation have taken a hardline stance though. They exclude players that leave from competing in future WBC competitions. The next World Baseball Classic is scheduled for 2023. Recent developments have created excitement that Cuba’s best professional baseball players might be involved, as their own entity.

The proposed Association of Professional Cuban Baseball Players (ACPBP) is aiming to unify the majority of professionals playing outside Cuba. They are petitioning to field an entry in the upcoming Baseball Classic. The initiative is being spearheaded by Mario Fernández. I haven’t been able to find much information on Fernández but he has garnered the support of some big Cuban names. At the initial press conference he was flanked by Orlando Hernández. Rene Arocha, Ariel Prieto and Luis Tiant have also gotten behind the push. They represent some of the biggest pitching names to have defected from Cuba and played in the Majors.

The World Baseball Classic falls under the auspices of the World Baseball Softball Confederation in partnership with MLB. MLB has influence on the tournament and obviously drives great interest with the inclusion of its players but doesn’t control the showcase event. The WBSC formed in 2013 with the merger of the then governing bodies of baseball and softball. Based in Switzerland the WBSC is the recognized overseer of National baseball competitions. Their membership recently grew to an all-time high of 86 countries.

Baseball Nations are ranked via points. These points are awarded in myriad WBSC sanctioned friendlies and tournaments. This includes the Baseball World Cup for age brackets U-12, U-15, U-18 and U-23 and the most heavily weighted Premier 12 competition. The World Baseball Classic is just a notch below the Premier 12 in the amount of available ranking points. Nations also vie for sizeable prize money in these tournaments which would be earmarked for investment in National baseball infrastructure.

Cuba dominated the Pre-WBSC International baseball world and was frequently ranked first in the World. That dominance peaked with a 2nd place finish in the inaugural WBC in 2006. Since then it has been decreasing returns in performance and increasing defections of top talent. Cuba currently sits in 9th place in the WBSC rankings. This is largely buoyed by garnering points in the U-12 and U-23 competitions. They have been eliminated earlier in each subsequent WBC. Cuba has had embarrassing losses to improving but former also ran Nations such as the Netherlands.

There has been much public debate over how Cuba would fare if they were fielding their actual best players. Could Cuba reclaim past glory by including previously mentioned pros prohibited from competing by their former government? Over the past few years there has been much official discussion and even a few announcements of progress in this arena. However often due to politics these announcements have been just that, a declaration without action.

2018 saw an agreement to create a legal path for Cubans to MLB. It was subsequently struck down by the sitting U.S.government. Cubans still represent a large group of immigrants to America annually. They have many legal methods to find their way to the States. Baseball players though typically have to establish residency in a third country before signing with a Major League squad. Certain players are using more conventional immigration methods. This includes claiming asylum or applying for a green card after 1 year of residency. All to say, if a Cuban player wants to get out they can find way. It is frequently difficult but returning to Cuba is even more difficult.

2019 saw WBSC and Cuba reach agreement on a deal where the WBSC would effectively broker repatriation for Cuban ballers. This could have created the path to them joining the National team. The language of the agreement appeared to open the door for MLB’ers as well. The closest this came to fruition was the inclusion of Henry Urrutia on the initial roster for Cuba’s Olympic qualifying squad in 2021.

Urrutia spent time with the Orioles but more recently has plied his craft in Mexico. Ultimately Urrutia never joined the squad which competed in Florida in June of 2021. Some reports blame his commitments to his pro team. Others say Cuba never made any overtures beyond including his name on the original press release.

The key negotiator for Cuba in both scenarios was former Baseball head Higino Velez. Velez passed away in May of 2021. Although few would describe him as massively progressive, he was at least outwardly open to these discussions. Cuba has been trying keep their heads above water during the Corona virus pandemic. Having to replace key leaders such as Velez has not made life easier. They also lost no less than 15 key players who walked away from the Olympic qualifier and U23 tournament in 2021. There is more pressure than ever from a discontent Cuban baseball populace to fix their national sport. The Baseball Federation appears to have few arrows in their quiver amidst mounting pressure from the Government itself to clamp down on dissension.

The top Cuban names in professional baseball have almost unilaterally lent their support to the Association. 2020 American League M.V.P José Abreu created a bit of a stir initially saying he would only play for a unified Cuba. Whether he hadn’t researched the initiative or public backlash caused him to double back he has since said he would support the exiled Cuban squad. The proposed roster is chock full of talent and at least from a batting perspective would compete with the powerhouse baseball nations of the world. The majority are current MLB’ers. A few spots are reserved for former MLB’ers now playing in the Far East in players such as Leonys Martin and Odrisamer Despaigne.

The WBSC has stated their mandate is to represent their Nation states. This isn’t surprising but isn’t certain if a definitive stance. Adding that much star power to the World Baseball Classic would no doubt increase the prestige and appeal of the tournament. However as previously mentioned the WBC is not the WBSC’s main focus. It is a massive opportunity to sell tickets, TV programming and baseball overall but although a tent pole event is just one of many ranking tournaments run by the Baseball governing body.

This would potentially create a scenario where there would be two Cuban entities as the Cuban National team selected by the Cuban Baseball Federation would also be competing. The irony is that a unified Cuban squad would likely look very much like the proposed Association squad. This is no discredit against the current players still in Cuba.

Very few of these players would push the pro players for a roster spot. Would the WBC be willing to amend their rules and make an exception for Cuba? The likelihood is no other Nation would choose to take this path and dilute their roster depth. The world baseball landscape is more cluttered than ever and countries need all of their best talent to compete.

The desire exists for Cuba to send their best to face the world. There are however many moving parts. It seems for every step forward there is always an entity that can say no. When the Cuban Government and Baseball Federation say yes to progress the U.S. government says no. We recently saw Cuba leave the Caribbean Series over Visa issues. They claim this was a roadblock put in place via the Caribbean federation at the behest of the United States. It should also be stated for every concession the Baseball Federation has made they still cling steadfast to attitudes of the past.

Yuli Gurriel playing baseball while in Cuba
Yuli Gurriel with Industriales via Phil Selig

Yuli Gurriel of The Houston Astros was recently denied entry into the country. Typically defectors must wait eight years away before applying to visit Cuba. Some reports peg this number as being reduced to five years. All to say it appeared Gurriel was within the confines and denied based on petty politics. Other pro players have been able to return to the island but perhaps risk repercussion by associating with the Association. This may have fuelled Abreu’s initial refusal. Cuba is a political mine field due to sixty years of cold relations with the United States.

Despite the divide between Cubans on and off the island one unifier is baseball. The majority of Cuban baseball fans want to see Cuba reascend the International baseball mountain. If the ACPBP’s sole goal is their inclusion in the WBC I suspect they will fall short. There are just too many hurdles and political bodies standing in their way. If however they create a unified voice for Cuban professional baseball players and put pressure on all sides of the debate they might prove to be a powerful entity. Until then baseball increasingly represents A Tale of Two Cubas.

Phil Selig

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