Despite a rash of defections the past few years, Cuba surprised many when it advanced to the second round of the World Baseball Classic. Young and old stars are combining to keep alive the island’s proud baseball tradition and take the team back to the Final Four.
But what lies ahead for Cuba, its relationship with Major League Baseball, and the future of the island’s talent development system is uncertain, all the more so in a post-Obama, post-Fidel moment. That uncertainty was growing even before the 2016 United States presidential campaign threw a political curveball with the election of Donald Trump.
This is a story we’ll be following with great interest at La Vida Baseball. While there are a lot of unanswered questions right now, we thought it made sense to provide an overview of where the game has been — and where it is headed.
A COUNTRY AND A SPORT IN FLUX
Q. So what’s the state of baseball in Cuba right now?
A. There has not been professional baseball in Cuba since 1961, when Cuban leader Fidel Castro outlawed professional sports and transformed the island’s baseball circuit into a national amateur league.
Since then, the Serie Nacional, the Cuban National League, has undergone several changes in terms of its format and schedule. Fidel’s death in November silenced the more impassioned baseball enthusiast of the Castro brothers, and perhaps the strongest advocate of maintaining the amateur Cuban baseball system.
Q. How does the current system work?
A. We’ll get to that in a second. But before we do, you need to understand how the immigration of Cubans to the U.S. has affected things up to now.
Cubans have had a privileged status among immigrants seeking entry into the U.S. since passage of the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966. The CAA recognized Cubans as political refugees and shortened the amount of time they could become permanent residents in relation to other migrants. The act has undergone multiple revisions, with Cubans gaining residency within a year. What has remained is the Cubans’ unique status as political refugees and thus eligible for preferred entry. That is, until the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations commenced.
Former President Obama’s move to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014 spurred considerable discussion about the impact it might have on all Cubanos — from those living on the island to those of Cuban descent in U.S. communities. The two sides are separated by more than just a body of water. Depending on the terms established by the two governments, normalization could give Cubans in the U.S. the opportunity to provide more economic assistance to relatives on the island. But it could also impose a more structured immigration process, reducing the number of Cubans entering the States.
Q. But it’s not like Cuba didn’t have a talent drain before, right?
A. Right. Some were already concerned about the dilution caused by the increased number of defections in recent years, as detailed in La Vida contributor Peter Bjarkman’s Cuba’s Baseball Defectors, as well as in his column about the Gurriel brothers in early March. For them, open relations that might translate into greater economic exchange — especially if the U.S. embargo sustained through the Helms-Burton Act (1996) was altered — could result in Major League Baseball directly signing Cuban players without anyone needing to defect.
Q. This reminds me of that José Abreu story.
A. Abreu recently testified at the federal trial of sports agent Bartolo Hernández in Miami that he ate pages from a Haitian passport acquired for him by an alleged smuggling ring, revealing the clandestine peculiarities of Cuban defections before normalization. Abreu needed a passport that would permit him to board a plane bound for the U.S. from Haiti in October 2013. However, once in the air, Abreu did not need to, nor would he want to, try to enter the United States with a Haitian passport because the “wet foot, dry foot” policy then in effect permitted Abreu to simply declare himself a Cuban seeking asylum once he arrived. Having a Haitian passport with an assumed name in his possession would have meant him entering the U.S. illegally (with falsified papers) and thus subject to deportation.
CUBA VS. THE U.S. VS. MLB
Q. Let’s go back to my question about how the current system works.
A. The Cuban system of talent development is entirely socialized; that is, parents do not bear any financial cost in the training and development of their children into elite athletes. Cuban athletes are identified for their potential in different sports as preteens, as young as 10 to 12 years old. Kids attend INDER schools (Instituto Nacional de Deportes, Educación Física y Recreación or the National Institute of Sport, Physical Fitness and Recreation), where they typically spend half their day in classes and the other half training.
In this system, young Cuban athletes do not give up their traditional education in the pursuit of their athletic dreams, which is quite distinct from what has evolved in the Dominican Republic. INDER-trained baseball players feed the system upward, competing for spots on national teams at various ages (under-14 and under-20) and ultimately the Cuban national team, which represents the island in worldwide competitions such as the International Baseball Federation tournaments, the Olympics and the World Baseball Classic.
Q. If that’s how it is now, how would normalization between the two countries change this?
A. Many MLB officials hope for the creation of a talent development system where they control Cuban athletes from a young age. MLB teams would like to sign Cubans as amateur free agents when they are 16 years old, much like MLB rules allow for much of Latin America. Teams would likely establish a baseball academy structure in Cuba akin to what they do in the Dominican Republic, which is a hallmark of their approach. In the D.R., after a prospect is signed, he enters a baseball academy where he receives on-field training and, equally important, nutrition per MLB standards.
Q. If MLB gets its way, it sounds like the young prospect system gets decimated.
A. Yes, young Cubans would no longer participate in the Cuban national leagues. Such a dilution of talent could accelerate the end of Cuba’s baseball circuit and even the dismantling of its talent development system. This is of particular concern, for it rings familiar with what happened over a half-century ago when MLB began signing African-American players without compensating the Negro League teams, thus prompting the collapse of the black baseball infrastructure in the U.S.
Q. What do Cubans think about this?
A. Cuban baseball officials and fans are concerned about the sheer survival of the game on the island. If the talent development system that has been in place for a half-century is dismantled because of a more direct relationship with MLB, this likely dooms a league that produced current MLB stars like José Abreu, Yoenis Céspedes, Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman.
Q. What’s going to happen next?
A. The election of Donald Trump has yet to add any clarity to this situation. Coincidentally, the attention given to U.S.-Russia relations since the 2016 election and the first months of the Trump administration has once again put Cuba on a back burner, which is similar to what happened during the early years of Fidel Castro’s rule. But within the context of MLB and the possibility of an influx of a fresh and consistent source of talent, there is no bigger issue than what comes next in Cuba. Much will depend on whether the Trump administration continues what Obama started.
Similarly, we do not know how much pressure MLB commissioner Rob Manfred or his office is exerting behind the scenes to open Cuba or to work with officials of the Baseball Federation of Cuba. For now, there probably will be fewer baseball defections to the U.S, but there are likely still other baseball players who will defect to other places such as the Dominican Republic to pursue their dreams.
Featured Image: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Getty Images