Iván García, 15 June 2015 — One rainy fall afternoon in 2013, a children’s coach warned me that if apathy, corruption, and bad work continued, within five years baseball could become an exotic sport for collectors and the nostalgic.
Sitting in the concrete stands in the small baseball field at Thomas Alva Edison School, in the La Vibora neighborhood of Havana, the trainer made a prediction that I thought was exaggerated.
Baseball was his passion. From age ten he had been involved in the selection process for building national teams. A serious injury ended his playing career. He graduated with a degree in physical education, and had trained and coached school teams in the 10th of October neighborhood with remarkable success. But he didn’t like what he saw.
“The Municipal Baseball Commission doesn’t give anything. Let alone pay me a salary. Only when we became champions did they come up with a box of sandwiches for the boys’ snack. The coaches and parents do everything. Weed the field and patch it, get balls, gloves and bats. And pay for making uniforms. Many parents do it for two reasons: if your son doesn’t show up here, he’s off in the street with its harmful consequences: drugs, prostitution, and gangs engaged in stealing. If by his talent he is able to succeed, then the strategy is to leave Cuba and to join any professional league in the Caribbean or the United States,” explained the coach.
Sadly he told me how many children he had trained who at age 15 or 16 left the country with their parents. “In eighteen months, more than 20 young players left the country. It’s a tragedy. If we stay on this road, baseball will become just another game. Football [soccer] will surpass it. These people (the directors) are killing the national sport,” he said sadly.
I must confess I was a bit more optimistic. I thought the steady leak would lessen after the regime authorized players to sign with foreign clubs.
I guessed that the Asian professional leagues would hire a couple dozen players, who then wouldn’t be forced to risk their lives to leave their homeland.
But the apathy among the federation officials has been like a containment dike. Two years later, only three players have been recruited in Japan. And four in an independent league in Quebec, Canada.
Already this season, after a group of scouts from Japan and other Asian leagues visited Cuba, there was speculation that they would recruit around a dozen baseball players.
But negotiations didn’t flow. You might think that Asian clubs aren’t interested in Cuban raw material. I don’t believe it. A more selective league like MLB has signed more than 40 Cuban players who left in the past two years.
National commissioner Heriberto Suárez himself acknowledged that in the past two years around 60 players have fled. And he came up short. A few days later, another group of players escaped the island.
All categories are represented: little league, youth, and adults. No second-rate players leave. No way. It’s the most talented who aspire to play in the best baseball in the world.
And the news is not which ballplayer has left, but which one hasn’t gone yet. Established stars like José Abreu, Rusney Thomas Castillo, or Yasmany Tomás are easy picks.
But the stampede has been joined by promising players like Joan Moncada, Yusnier Díaz and recently two of the best pitchers, Cionel Pérez and Norge Luis Ruiz.
Every day there’s a new rumor. The absence of big stars was notable at the old Del Cerro Stadium during preselection training looking toward the Pan American Games.
And among the standouts, fans are betting on predictions of how much longer they will remain in Cuba. The disastrous policy on contracts doesn’t only affect baseball.
Arturo Dispé, a talented young soccer player, said in a radio interview that he lost the opportunity to try out for a second division club in France because he didn’t get permission from the local federation.
Dispé had paid for a plane ticket to travel to the club at the end of the month. But the mandarins of Cuban football decided to include him on the national team that will play a “friendly” game with the New York Cosmos on June 2.
In front of the microphone the boy tried not to be pessimistic. “I hope to have another opportunity,” he said. Not everyone thinks alike. Maybe the managers of sports and the nation, accustomed to governing without an expiration date, forget that the life of a high performance athlete is fleeting.
General Raul Castro, with his timid economic reforms of coffee without milk, and his favorite slogan, “slowly but surely,” has managed to win over politicians and entrepreneurs from the United States and other countries through liberal feints and fakes. Not so the ballplayers. Slowly and surely, they are jumping the fence.
Photo: Yasmany Tomás (born Havana, 1990) now plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks. His six-year contract is worth 68.5 million dollars. Taken from “Cuban Play”