Cuban players emotional as MLB, MLBPA come to agreement with Cuban Baseball Federation
Some risked their lives on makeshift rafts with friends and family. Others defected while at international tournaments with the Cuban national team. Others escaped via speedboats. Quite a few were smuggled out and exploited, paying heavy prices early and, in some cases, long after they debuted in Major League Baseball.
Almost all of them, it should be noted, left their beloved island to chase their major league dreams while knowing that they may never see their families again.
After paying such heavy tolls, some current and former Cuban big leaguers were moved to tears Wednesday when MLB, the players’ union and the Cuban Baseball Federation announced a deal to facilitate the signing of Cuban players.
Under the proposed agreement, Cuban players will no longer need to defect to sign with MLB teams, as they did during the final two decades of the Fidel Castro regime. Two years after Castro died, MLB, the union and the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) have agreed to a system that was greeted enthusiastically by Cuban big leaguers.
“This is a just and good deal for Cubans so these kids can leave without having to cross the sea to chase their dreams,” said former Cuban national team star José Contreras, who pitched 11 years in the majors after defecting in 2002.
Contreras, a former All-Star and World Series champion with the White Sox, learned of the agreement Wednesday night when he received a call from former Cuban national team teammate Yobal Dueñas.
Contreras got off the phone with Dueñas and immediately rushed to verify the news on the Major League Baseball Network. To his delight, Dueñas was right.
“It’s a great day for baseball,” said Contreras, a special assistant to the White Sox general manager. “It’s a really great day, especially for Cubans. Wherever we find ourselves, we’re waiting for this step.
“The Cuban is a beisbalolista like every Latin American, like Venezuelans, Dominicans, Mexicans and Panamanians.”
The FCB agreed to release players at least 25 years old with at least six years of professional experience each off season if they wish to sign with MLB teams. FCB amateurs who are at least 18 will also be released to sign during MLB’s July 2 international amateur signing period.
By ending the need for Cuban players to defect, Cuban players may now find safer routes to the majors. White Sox All-Star first baseman José Abreu expressed his gratitude to commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark.
“Words cannot fully express my heartfelt joy and excitement in learning that Rob Manfred and Tony Clark have reached an agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation,” Abreu said.
“Knowing that the next generation of Cuban baseball players will not endure the unimaginable fate of past Cuban players is the realization of an impossible dream for all of us.”
“Dealing with the exploitation of smugglers and unscrupulous agencies will finally come to an end for the Cuban baseball player,” Abreu continued. “To this date, I am still harassed. The next generation of Cuban baseball players will be able to sign an MLB contract while in Cuba.”
Cuban defectors throughout the majors have long suffered in silence. In the late 1990s and earlier parts of this century, Liván Hernández, his half-brother Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, Rolando Arrojo and many others feared that their families would suffer retribution from the Castro regime after they defected.
For that reason, they chose their words carefully when discussing their thoughts on Castro or Cuba.
Others such as Abreu and the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig feared retribution from the men who helped smuggle them out of Cuba. In some cases, Mexican drug cartels were reportedly involved in the racket, applying the real threat of violence.
Regardless of their differing routes to America, they all felt the loneliness of leaving their entire families behind. In Contreras’ case, he left his then-wife and two young children, ages 2 and 11, when he defected while at a tournament in Mexico in 2002 before signing with the Yankees in 2003.
Contreras didn’t see his then-wife and two children until two years after he defected. Moreover, it took him 11 years before he saw his father, mother and eight older siblings before he returned to Cuba in 2013 for the first time since he defected.
“Truly, nobody understands it,” Contreras said.
“I can explain it, but nobody would understand. Only people who go through that know what it’s like. I had to leave in Mexico, leave the national team. I spent 11 years without seeing my entire family.”
Many empathize, especially Latino ballplayers from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Panama, who also share the difficult immigrant experience while climbing up the minor leagues to reach the majors.
Unlike those players, though, Cubans knew they couldn’t return home until those barriers started coming down in recent years.
If this agreement is approved by the Trump administration, there will be much to celebrate for Contreras and his fellow Cuban defectors in baseball.
Eventually, the Cuban national team may also benefit and regain its stature as one of the world’s premier baseball powers if players no longer have to abandon their island to reach the majors.
“I’m very happy, very happy,” Contreras said. “I think it’s good for baseball. Everybody knows about Cuba’s situation. It’s a Third World country. It would be good for those young men to come and try their talents and go back.
“Now their family and friends will be able to see them. The level of Cuban baseball may also rise like the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s so we can dominate the international game again if they mix players here with the ones back home.”
Featured Image: Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty Images Sport
Inset Image: Roberto Schmidt / AFP / Getty Images Sport