Recent Defections Have Cuban Baseball Hurting
I saw a piece on Sports Illustrated’s news wire page which reports that Cuba just got humiliated in the Caribbean Series, being the only one of the five participating teams eliminated in the first round of the tournament.
A bit of back story here: Cuba dominated the Carribbean Series in its early years, winning seven championships in 12 years between 1949 and 1960 and never finishing lower than third. After 1960 Fidel Castro banned Cuba’s further participation. Cuban baseball under communism became the dominant force in amateur baseball, but a Cuban team has not won an international tournament since 2005. The reason most likely is that the defection of top Cuban players to the United States and MLB has gone from a trickle to a flood in the last decade.
At any rate, the top teams from the Winter Leagues of Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and this year Cuba for the first time in 54 years met to hash out bragging rights and national honor in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean region. The Cuban Naranja de Villa Clara were handily beaten by the Mexican, Venezuelan and Dominican teams, only managing to eke out a 2-1 victory over the Puerto Ricans. However, the Puerto Ricans beat the Venezuelans and the Dominicans, leaving the Cubans as the only team to win only one first-round game. Even the government-controlled press in Cuba had to admit that the Cuban team was completely outclassed and deserved to be eliminated.
Cuba is trying to address the defection problem by allowing some of its players to play in foreign countries other than the United States. Four Cubans have been allowed to play in the summer Mexican League in the last two seasons, including most notably Alfredo Despaigne, and three aged Cuban stars were allowed to play in Japan about a decade ago.
However, it’s hard to see how allowing Cuban stars to make 80% of $5,000 or $6,000 a month for a couple of months playing in Mexico each summer is going to discourage any of them from defecting when Jose Dariel Abreu just signed a deal that guarantees him $68 million. Abreu’s contract is only the biggest one to date: numerous other defectors have signed hefty seven and eight-figure deals to play with MLB teams in the last three or four years.
I don’t think its a stretch to argue that big-money defections to the U.S. and the resulting decline in Cuban baseball is a major political issue in Cuba. Cuba is an absolutely baseball-mad country, which is the main reason its best players have long been so good. When each of their big stars defects and gets a contract that the average Cuban probably cannot even comprehend (salaries of $20 to $30 a month are typical), it’s got to undermine what little faith Cubans have in their country’s economic and political systems. There isn’t much the Cuban government can do to spin or suppress the information either, because the news is simply too big to keep hidden.
I’m more convinced than ever that there will be big changes in Cuba during the five years after the last of the Castro brothers finally kicks the bucket.