Team Cuba WBC 2023: Job One Not Job Done

The World Baseball Classic is still a bit top heavy. Cuba ran into a buzz saw of a United States lineup and was eliminated in the Semi-Final 14-2. That dispatching is disappointing but making it there at all is not. It represents Cuba’s best placement since 2006 and of course a step forward with the incorporation of select Pro players.

The 2023 WBC brackets appeared a bit uneven entering the tournament. Most everyone had Japan advancing from Region 1 with much debate over who would take the 2nd spot. Region 2 was loaded with the U.S, Dominican, Venezuela and Puerto Rico all considered threats to win the tournament. Or at least make it to the semi-final. The States held up their end of the bargain while Mexico proved a Wild Card in advancing to the Final Four.

Just like I predicted Cuba took the one seed in Pool A of the 2023 World Baseball Classic. Wait, what’s that you’re going to say I didn’t predict that all five teams would tie with identical 2-2 records? I didn’t predict that Cuba would drop the first two games including a stunner in extras to Italy? Most, myself included thought Cuba had dug themselves too big a hole and looked lifeless. A four game round robin format means you have to show up and show out.

Luis Robert w Team Cuba
Cuba WBC 2023: Luis Robert with Team Cuba via Phil Selig

Mass defections and the rise of International baseball overall has seen diminishing returns for the former Apex Predator on the world stage. After two games Cuba was staring down the barrel of their most embarrassing WBC elimination. This wasn’t supposed to be the case, after all Cuba had finally welcomed alienated Professional countrymen into the fold. The roster represented an interesting mix of MLB’ers on the rise, players on loan to Japan, former studs trying to hold on, stars of the diminishing National Series and a few names that might be featured in a where are they now segment.

The Cuban baseball federation isn’t naive even if they keep their cards close to the vest. They know the country is still an incredible baseball incubator. The difference is they are essentially surrogates. They carry the baby to term but increasingly adoptive parents are raising the child.

Phil Selig Cubadugout- From Revolution to Glacial Pace March 2021

The inclusion of the exiled represents a massive step forward. A step that just two years ago felt purely aspirational. But of course a step infused with politics. International and interpersonal politics. The interpersonal where any player that had left while representing Cuba and some that had been vocal in public forums about Cuba need not apply. Of course players from the National Series would be invited despite more dynamic talents being available. The international where the United States prevented MLB’ers from visiting the island. This would preclude them from training in advance or celebrating on the other side.

Cuba WBC 2023: Yoelkis Guibert via Phil Selig

Did Cuba get hot or did the arms they faced go cold? Was jet lag or the the late incorporation of the offshore members an issue? Was it all of the above? Entering the matchup against Panama a country with a Professional League and one that of course has produced the likes of Rod Carew and Mariano Rivera it looked bleak. Panama is one of the countries that has improved their baseball infrastructure but has hardly been a WBC power. Panama proved good for what ailed Cuba and Cuba would go on to outscore their next two opponents 20-5. Concurrently and evidenced by the entire pool going 2-2, every other outcome was in Cuba’s favour.

Is this truly doing Cuba any favours though? The number 650 has been quoted by Tyler Maun during the game broadcasts. This represents the number of player defections, dating back to at roughly 2015. This is the first time there has been any sort of recognition of this sum by anybody in the Cuban Baseball leadership.

Crass calculations would show with close to 30 players in MLB of late and 155 in Minor League systems that roughly 1/3 are or were in the Pro pipeline. That means that 2/3 left likely to pursue a baseball future but ultimately more for lifestyle purposes.

Reynaldo Cruz Diaz is originally from Holguin and spent many years in Havana as an independent photographer and journalist focusing on but not limited to baseball. He left Cuba in 2022 and made his way to the United States. Reynaldo frequently collaborated with Yasel Porto a former TV host in Havana whose contract was not renewed when he was vocal against the decisions of late Cuban Baseball President Higinio Velez. The two saw their access to stadiums and players increasingly restricted.

Many players have decided to join the team because for many of them it was a dream to play for their nation. Despite the politicization of the game in Cuba, they sustain that they are playing for their country and not for the government. Others have refused to do it because they feel that by joining they are either condoning the totalitarian regime or simply betraying those who were not called because of their political position. It is very clear that they deliberately left Yasmany Tomás off the roster because he said he did not want to be involved in political propaganda.

Reynaldo Cruz Diaz – Cuban Journalist now based in Connecticut

Cruz would expand and say

The best way to improve baseball in Cuba is entirely in the hands of the Cuban Baseball Federation, and of course, the Cuban government. Governmental involvement in the Federation is suffocating for players. Making political propaganda out of everything related to the game was in Fidel Castro‘s playbook, and it has been carried to this day. The main reason why the MLB agreement was sunk was precisely because the FCB was not and would not be an independent body. Officials are appointed more for their political position than for their efficiency at getting the job done. For that reason, they will not go out of that line, and will make decisions based on politics so they can keep their jobs and the privileges that come with them.

How does incorporating select MLB’ers improve the overall baseball landscape? The Cuban Baseball Federation at least in their negotiations with MLB have been more progressive than the Cuban Government overall. How much influence does baseball and the baseball leadership truly have though? Many players are leaving because at the top end they think they can make more money than ever imaginable if their Major League dreams come true. MLB is the paramount of talent and earnings nobody can compete with that. However, as much as you have to believe you can be the next big thing the numbers show that for most they are leaving because they can’t live the life they want staying in Cuba.

Even the patience of those who might have the best arrangement this side of an MLB contract is being tested. Take a player such as Ariel Martinez, a member of the WBC squad. He has been playing in Japan for the past few years and returning to Cuba. The scarcity of basics and consumables on the island has reached a point where even in making a speculated $550,000 in 2022, what good is it if there is nothing to procure? Martinez has expressed desire to spend more time out of the country.

Cuba WBC 2023: Ivan Prieto with Granma via Phil Selig

Ivan Prieto can stake claim to being the first Cuban to leave during a World Baseball Classic. Prieto is the starting catcher for Granma and was with the WBC squad as bullpen catcher. He reportedly jumped into a car driven by his brother instead of returning to the team hotel after their loss to The States. Some estimates have pegged that 3% of Cuba’s entire population has left since the start of 2022.

The games in Miami wouldn’t be without some controversy. South Florida is home to the largest Cuban population outside of Cuba and the political epicentre of anti-Cuban government descent. Protesters appeared outside the stadium and some sporting “Patria Y Vida” and similar messages made it into the stadium. Meaning Country and life, it is the rallying cry of those who support the movement that saw Cubans take to the streets in Cuba in July 2021. It is believed many are still incarcerated from what the Cuban government describes as riots but many on the ground and much footage illustrate as raising their voices.

Despite all that though we still see many players lining up to represent their country and for many to spend as much time on the island as possible. This could be more credit to the bonds of family than country, but perhaps however it be humble there is no place like home as the old adage claims.

At the very least Cuba cements some much needed funding for their baseball infrastructure, although a consistent cash infusion is still needed. Their performance is also a much needed morale boost for the players, coaches and fans. They can stake claim to being the fourth best baseball nation in the world for a while. However, the divide is still obvious as the nations that are backstopped by majority MLB’ers are still ahead. Ultimately Cuba must continue reforming their approach in politics and baseball. Ultimately Cuba must recognize this fourth place finish is Job One and Not Job Done.

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.