Team Cuba Death by 150 Paper Cuts

Team Cuba Death by 150 Paper Cuts is an article I originally wrote in March of 2017 in response to Cuba’s ouster from the the World Baseball Classic. It was originally for my Facebook page “Phil In The Blanks: Cuba Baseball”.

The fact that we’re even talking about semi meaningful baseball games in Mid March is good for the growth of the game, especially internationally and for markets that otherwise wouldn’t be described as hardball hotbeds.

Cuba once the dominant amateur baseball super power in the universe has seen this grip slip, perhaps the greatest force being the advent of the World Baseball Classic in 2006. The inclusion of professional baseball players at the time meant the exclusion of a few big names, but the reality was still that Cubans held pride in playing for their nation and still placed respectability on this shifting world stage.

Cuban National Team visits Canada June 2016 via Phil Selig

Major League Baseball’s answer to the Olympics has been held roughly every 4 years since, and in Cuba’s changing culture 4 years might as well be 4 decades. The push to grow the reach of baseball worldwide has meant some creativity with the construction of some of the teams. Israel’s only requirement being that players be of Jewish heritage and similar to the Italian team is effectively another entry from the United States. Team Netherlands is comprised of many Major Leaguers who have spent as much time in Holland as I have, I hope to make it there some day.

Windmills are supposed to be reserved for whip pitch and wood for bats not shoes, but the reality is the Team wearing Netherlands on it’s jersey has had Cuba’s number for a while now. Ironically team Netherlands should probably apply to play in the next Caribbean Series with most of it’s players coming from Dutch colonies such as Curacao and Aruba. The Netherlands have now knocked Cuba out of the World Baseball Cup in 2011, the 2013 World Baseball Classic and now embarrassingly with a 14-1 mercy ruled victory in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

Even if we shouldn’t be surprised it is still shocking to the baseball fanatics of Cuba, but the reality is as valiant the effort might have been, this Cuban team is as close to being Cuba’s best as the Netherlands contingent are to being truly Dutch. The flow of defections out of Cuba has now reached farcical proportions. The 16 team Cuban National Series carries 30 players per roster so in a typical year 480 players compete at the highest level on the island, estimates are that in 2016 alone 150 of the islands best found their way off the island.

Oscar Valdes– Catcher Industriales (Havana) 2015

Anecdotally, in my own travels and experiences since the beginning of 2015 I’ve seen the migrations of many. Oscar Valdes (Catcher Industriales) who I reached out to via Facebook to share my photos, the young player is currently in the Dominican playing there with ambitions of making it to the U.S. and represents the reality that most of the defectors fly under the radar and the move is often about chasing a dream, but frequently ends up being just that.

Alexei Bell- Quebec Capitals 2015 via Phil Selig

Later that summer due to a series of moves the Cuban Baseball Federation thought might quell some of the tide by allowing players to be loaned to foreign leagues and pad their bank accounts at the same time, Yuniesky Gurriel and Alexeis Bell visited Ottawa as they were playing for the Can-Am League’s Quebec Capitales. Bell is now in the Texas Rangers system, having broken away under the cloak of darkness for one last chance at riches in the Majors. Yuniesky appears via Instagram to be in Florida with his brothers Yulieski and Yunito. This situation is interesting, Yuniesky due to age is no longer considered a prospect, in fact Yulieski is on the fringe which may have driven him and the youngest brother to leave during last years Caribbean Series, with the brothers signing with the Astros and Blue Jays respectively.

Yulieski Gurriel- Industriales (Havana) 2015

Many thought that the Gurriels were the barometer for whether a deal would be reached with M.L.B their defection shocked the island. This may have woken the slumbering leadership though, as they may have finally realized that dangling the carrot of playing for country and unified family was not enough to convince talent to stay. There is faint rumour as well, that Yuniesky was allowed to join his brothers after, and he is apparently attempting to make a go in the minors.

The Cuban National Team that visited Ottawa in the summer of 2016 was selected likely trying to balance competing with trying to return to the island with as many players as they left with. This was met with middling returns as the team finished a few games over .500 on the tour and only one player, Lazaro Ramirez broke away. More players have followed suit since, including Luis Robert, now considered a top prospect in the world, but rumbling are he may have been granted permission to pursue opportunities in the States.

The desire for change exists, however Cuba isn’t paranoid for wanting to hold onto power in this instance. The Dominican Republic once had a thriving professional league, and baseball is still incredibly popular on the island and the amount of professional talent they produce is incredible, however the island has become more of a baseball farm. The Cuban National Series and baseball in general is still designed for the people to enjoy. This is largely because of the lack of access to the M.L.B product, and understandably U.S. professional baseball would sooner see Havana cheering for the Yankees instead of Industriales, but 50 plus years of Cold War hostility will not be eliminated by cash, right away.

Classic American Car sits outside LatinoAmericano Stadium (Havana) 2016

This most recent embarrassing loss to the Netherlands adds fuel to an already burning fire, that being at the very least allowing Ex-Pat Cuban Professionals to play for Cuba in future World Baseball Classics. Cuba ultimately might be trying to hold onto something they have already lost, at the very least they could re-assert their dominance on the world stage. Clearly the Golden Age of Cuba as an autonomous baseball power are over. The defections of the big names mentioned hurts but just the shear volume of players leaving has resulted in Cuba bleeding out via Death by 150 Paper Cuts.

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.