Sports

Road to the major leagues from Cuba still a dizzying one

Yasiel Puig is among emerging Cuban baseball stars, but their journey remains under political, economic pressure

L.A. Dodgers rookie sensation Yasiel Puig was one of 21 Cuban-born players on major league rosters in 2013.
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

ATLANTA — Yasiel Puig’s parents, Omar and Maritza, were in attendance last week at Turner Field when their son and the Los Angeles Dodgers started a playoff series against the Atlanta Braves. But the Puigs’ journey there was one that, despite becoming more common, remains squeezed by political and financial pressures on both sides of the 90-mile strip of Atlantic Ocean that separates the U.S. and Cuba. 

Puig and Oakland A’s outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who dazzled in his debut last season and won this year’s Home Run Derby, are headliners in this fall’s playoffs. They are two of the 21 Cuban-born players on major league rosters in 2013, and while the league has seen its share of Cuban stars over the year, Puig and Cespedes reflect a trend that has seen what seems like one or two new players to make a splash in the majors every year for half a decade. Despite a recently announced relaxing of regulations by the Cuban government, which will now allow its players to play in other countries, not much is expected to change for Cuban players looking to make it in America.

“I’m not allowed to talk about Cuban prospects. It’s a baseball rule,” said Stan Kasten, president of the Dodgers, which signed Puig to a seven-year, $42 million contract. “Every week we see another guy scouts rave about, so it appears there is talent. They play baseball there on a very high level.”

Jaime Torres, Puig’s agent and a representative of several Cuban baseball players who defected to the U.S. to show off their skills and reap million-dollar bonanzas in the big leagues, considers himself an enemy of the state, suggesting he’d be welcome in Cuba just long enough to be put in leg irons.

“They have a cell waiting for me for representing these players,” he said.

Torres — whose office is in Boca Raton, Fla., and who said he is half-Cuban — said the money the players make should be allowed to flow freely back to their home country to improve infrastructure.

Peter Bjarkman, a U.S.-based scholar of Cuban baseball, takes the opposite view, saying the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, in place since 1960, and the cojoining policy of Major League Baseball, is ruining Cuban baseball. Bjarkman said Major League Baseball is greedily strip-mining Cuba’s biggest resource — its talented young players — and harming the game.

Yet the two men agree there will be no thaw between the two sides, even with the recently publicized laws by Cuba’s National Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER) to allow Cuban baseball players to play overseas. The ruling is not going to suddenly lead to an influx of Cuban superstars like Puig and Cespedes in the big leagues. The law will allow Cuban baseball players to play in Europe and Asia — not the U.S. — and their contracts and salaries will be tightly controlled by the Cuban government.

In addition, under the INDER policy, the players will have to return to Cuba in the winter months to play for leagues there, a requirement U.S. major league teams would likely find intolerable, considering their financial investment in players.

“To get here to the United States, nothing is changed,” Torres said. “There are still a lot of hurdles to get over. No. 1 is the U.S.-Cuba embargo. A Cuban national cannot work in the United States and send money to the Cuban government. That law in Cuba requires that players that sign with the foreign club have to negotiate through Cuban government. That alone will make it impossible.”

It’s a step, Torres said, but not much of one in reality. Bjarkman agrees.

“As long as there is a U.S. embargo of Cuba, there is not likely to be any ‘normalization’ with baseball or any other phase of Cuban-American relations,” Bjarkman wrote on his blog.

Embargoed

The embargo wall many Cuban players want to climb over to play baseball in the U.S. is instituted by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which “administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries.”

It is an onerous policy that many feel is designed to force a regime change in Cuba and influence the country’s culture and politics. The U.S. government insists the communist government oppresses the Cuban people. The Cuban government insists capitalists would oppress the working class if allowed to reappear unabated after 55 years.

To get into the major leagues, a player must first get off the island and establish residency in another country — Mexico and Haiti are in-vogue sanctuaries — and then petition the U.S. government to unblock him so he can negotiate with a major league team.

Torres has instructed Puig never to talk about his contract because he says it might endanger relatives living in Cuba. Kasten said Puig’s father, mother and sister live in Florida. They attended two games in the National League division series in Atlanta, but Torres would not permit a reporter to talk to them.

It is a myth that Cuban-born players in the major and minor leagues are restricted from sending earnings back to the island. OFAC regulations say “remittances” can go back to “close family members” but not to the Communist Party or government entities.

“Of course money goes back from players. Of course it does,” said a major league international scout who asked not be identified because his team has not authorized him to speak to the media on the subject. “A lot of exiles send money. As long as they have family there, they are going to send money. That’s how Cuba survives. The ballplayers (in Cuba) are privileged and make $60 a month. Imagine what the people who don’t play baseball are paid … They are dependent on people sending them money.”

Fredi Gonzalez, manager of the Atlanta Braves, was born in Cuba and left with his family in 1966 when was 3 years old, on one of the last “freedom flights” out of the country. He smiled wide when asked about relations possibly improving and Cuban ballplayers more easily being allowed into the U.S.

“It would be a good thing,” he said.

Cuban 'pressure cooker'

Cuban baseball has seen better days, which is a primary reason Cuban players are going to be allowed to play overseas. The national team needs money for equipment, and it needs to stop the bleeding after the departure of so many stars. The players may be mollified into not fleeing for the U.S. if they can make more money.

“The announcement and the changes specified were aimed largely, if not almost exclusively, at disarming an increasingly tense situation on the home front and thus letting some of the potentially explosive steam out of the pressure cooker that is the current National Series scene,” Bjarkman wrote.

He says he is drawn to the Cuban game because it has not been commercialized like U.S. baseball and remains a sport of the common man in Cuba. Indeed, baseball there exists not to enrich the businessman but to thrill the people. Baseball is baseball, not a vehicle to glom money from fans.

Torres, however, said Cuba could reap economic benefits for its people, as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have for years, if the embargo were relaxed on both sides of the water.

“It would help incredibly. Just look at how much the Dominican Republic or Venezuela depends on the earnings of players. Most of that money goes back to that country,” said Torres, who certainly stands to benefit if he could represent more players from Cuba. “Pick a player, like Sammy Sosa. They build a big house for themselves, then a house for their mother and father, which means they are buying construction materials. They are hiring laborers and architects, and after the house is finished they are hiring maids and people to wash the car and take care of the property. They invest and buy a restaurant or shopping mall. All of it multiplies.”

Torres is skeptical of Cuba’s new policy, wondering how long the government will allow players to earn a plausible salary overseas in Japan, Mexico and Asia.  

“I have seen this before in the ’90s, with allowing them to go to Japan,” Torres said. “The reason they did it then — and the reason they are doing it now — is to calm them down and prevent them from defecting and giving them hopes.

“The Cuban government then became unhappy that those players they allowed to play in Japan did not have to depend on the government, so that program was eliminated. They want to control you and make you dependent.”

Bjarkman adamantly rejects such fierce debunking of the Cuban model.

“If you see things from the Cuban perspective, they happen to want to protect their own national baseball (important to the society and the Cuban people and the only remaining independent baseball universe completely free from MLB contacts),” he wrote in an email. “They also believe that athletes should remain loyal to the system that grew and nurtured them.

“We may all disagree with (Cuba’s) stance here (in the U.S.), but how far do we go in imposing our political system and philosophy on other countries?”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter