Cuban Baseball Blockade

I’ve been accused of being a ‘Useful Idiot’ when it comes to Cuba. I guess that is progress as few have described me as useful before. Most of what you hear about Cuba is true and also false. Tales of Cuba often have more spin than a Gerrit Cole Four seamer. I am not here to tell you what to think about Cuba. In fact I try to avoid sharing what I think most of the time.

The one historic unifier at least for those in the Cuban sphere has been baseball. Even if the Cuban National team has not been unified. We live in hyper polarized times. Ironically as some of this erodes on the diamond it seems to be growing in the public square. Big news regarding the construction of the Cuban roster for the upcoming World Baseball Classic has been derided as a big lie by passionate Cuban exiles.

I’ll try to avoid the spin in breaking down what is occurring. Why is important? How did we get here? In my more than decade long journey through the Cuban baseball ecosystem I have usually avoided the politics and focused on hardball. I will state that I understand the hardline stance of those whose families risked everything to get to a new life. I have also been welcomed into homes and hopefully seen the real Cuba and not just a white washed tourist representation of the Caribbean island. My support is unwavering for the Cuban people. Is recent news the end of a Baseball Blockade though?

Baseball Blockade Luis Robert Ciego to Chicago to Cuba

The Chicago White Sox liked Luis Robert so much they were willing to pay a 26 million dollar tax penalty to acquire him. Juan Reynaldo Perez president of the Cuban Baseball Federation apparently liked Luis Robert so much he was willing to look past 60 years of Cold War politics to invite him to join Team Cuba in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

The preliminary list of 50 athletes hasn’t been released as of this writing but certain names have leaked. Luis Robert might be the biggest name but he isn’t the only surprising name on the list. The news is moving fast. I recently touched on the first MLB’er in Andy Ibáñez agreeing to be a part of the preliminary roster. This is a big step towards a unified Cuban National Team but leaves many questions. Ultimately why now?

I’ve dedicated space before to Cuba’s fall from the top of the baseball mountain. The World Baseball Classic launched in 2006. Although it is nowhere near as big as Soccer’s World Cup, it has become a big event and has grown baseball all over the world. Cuba was once the most dominant International baseball power in the entire world. Some will argue this was due to effectively sending Professionals to face amateurs. There was no doubt Cuban players aspired for the prestige of representing their country.

Motivated or disenfranchised Players had always found a way out of Cuba. Involvement in the WBC though gave Cubans a platform to show they could play against professionals and not just college players. Major League front offices took notice. Massive pay days convinced increasing players to risk much to get off the island. Playing for country gave way to playing for currency.

Baseball Blockade coming to an end?

A record thirty three Cubans played in the Majors in 2022. This obviously pales in comparison to other Latin countries such as Dominican Republic or Venezuela but is a growing trend. That record number at the top is fuelled by the record number of defections overall. More ballplayers are getting out and more are doing it for lifestyle and not baseball reasons. Whatever the reason, it is death by a thousand paper cuts for Cuban baseball. Check that, those paper cuts may have cut through a major artery at this point.

The stalemate between Cuba and the United States has funnelled down to Major League Baseball. Attempts have been made to create legal pathways. Perhaps we fell for the spin from both sides on certain matters though. MLB never clarified how much influence they have. It was assumed that they have say in who partakes in the World Baseball Classic. The Cuban leadership was glad to let people think it was MLB preventing Cuban migrants from playing for Cuba.

Switzerland might be renowned for their chocolate and neutrality but it has become an outlet for baseball power. The Headquarters for the World Baseball Softball Council are located there. Perhaps only Swiss neutrality could have guided this process. The WBSC has acted as an intermediary in certain scenarios or at the very least pivoted the dialogue. President Riccardo Fraccari has spent time in Havana in the past year. Although much of the mandate for his trips has been kept under wraps. There is likely no small coincidence that we have arrived with the invites to Cuban International Professionals.

Cuban Baseball Blockade

So now that Luis Robert, Yoenis Céspedes and Yoan Moncada are in the fold the roster will be a veritable Cuban MLB All-Star team right? I mentioned the growing polarization and this is where it manifests. On the island the inclusion of the players has been met with almost unilateral approval. In Miami and other diaspora outlets the response has ranged from scepticism to outrage. Earlier this spring the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players declared their intentions to enter the World Baseball Classic.

The Association grabbed headlines and had support from some big names in the Cuban baseball world. Andy Ibáñez originally joined the movement but has since been banished due to his commitment. The group is reportedly drawing a line indicating it is either us or them. Players have to be willing to cross that line which could mean ostracism from fellow countrymen. For some these are waters they have already traversed, they risked this in getting to the states. I’ll be surprised if any of the recognizable names that were associated with this project appear on the list of fifty.

Original reports indicated that players that left during official team Cuba delegations would not be invited. The players associated so far tend to corroborate this. This might seem petty or flimsy in logic but is also a continuation of past policies if only unofficially. Why was Yuli Gurriel denied entry into Cuba in early 2022? Was it because he and his brother left while representing Cuba in the 2016 Caribbean Cup? Meanwhile Robert, Moncada et al found other ways out and left but not with a team Cuba jersey in their carryon.

Should we trust any government in today’s day and age? Little yet one that has to be generous operated under the cloak of darkness. United States policy and the embargo imposed on Cuba have no doubt had damaging effects. They have also become a catch all boogeyman for the Cuban Government and all that plagues the nation. In their back pocket between now and March is always the kill switch to blame the United States. The Major League teams do still have to grant permission for players under contract to play in the WBC. Could this all be more theatrics?

Cuban manager Armando Johnson will have a tough task in picking a squad. At least he will be pulling from a much deeper pool than before. Johnson also has to be careful as many relationships could be damaged. A growing number of players that had left, signed contracts but perhaps didn’t have the MLB success they desired have repatriated in recent years. Players such as Yadir Drake, Erisbel Arruebarrena, Leslie Anderson and Yadil Mujica have all returned to the Cuban National Series. Most returned hoping it meant they would get to represent Cuba in the WBC. Do these players get bumped automatically because an MLB’er decides he wants the spot. Ultimately it should come down to who is the best man for the job but it isn’t with out traps.

Baseball Blockade Leslie Anderson w Camagüey via Phil Selig

Whatever you think of the parties involved and ultimately who is to blame for this Baseball Blockade there is no denying that the inclusion of these players is a shift in mentality. Cuba needs to do something to improve their chances in International competition and this achieves that. Before you rush to make them the prohibitive favourites, recognize that this WBC might be the most hotly contested yet. The United States hope to defend their 2017 Crown. The Dominican Republic and Japan have also hoisted the trophy and are tooled to take a run at the top again. There are perhaps five nations that enter with a legitimate shot to claim supremacy.

Cuba doesn’t need to win the World Baseball Classic but they do need to show they can still compete. Cuba as a nation needs some good news in the aftermath of Covid, further erosion of their economy and growing discontent with the populace overall. I may just be a ‘Useful Idiot’ and if you think so, you may be right. I do know that as a fan of Cuban baseball these are as exciting times as we’ve seen. Perhaps since the 2006 World Baseball Classic. If you choose not to put the politics aside, I can’t blame you but please don’t blame me if I choose to enjoy baseball for baseball’s sake.

Phil Selig

Canada’s Top Expert on Cuban Baseball. I first ventured to the island in 2012 with camera in hand and captured some of the future baseball stars of the world. I have returned many times immersing myself in the game and culture. Get inside the Dugout for a unique look at Cuban Baseball.