Cuban players were the best in major league baseball last year, and their rise will further thaw the frozen relations between our countries.
The impact of the new Cuban players last season was "unprecedented", in the view of Baltimore Orioles owner John Angelos, whose team played a series in Cuba and Baltimore in 1999. "We took the Orioles there not to get defectors but as a vehicle to get Americans to be aware of the common ground," he told me. The common ground is widening.
There have been individual Cuban stars in the past, like Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, but never a bloc like last year's:
- Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins and Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers finished first and second in the rookie-of-the-year competition;
- Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds, known as the Cuban Missile, throws up to 105-mph, the fastest in baseball history;
- Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland A's won the 2013 Home Run Derby.
"That's a phenomenal four for four," comments Angelos, "People won't miss that." Another Cuban star, Jose Abreu, holder of the island's home run record, has signed with the Chicago White Sox for the coming season.
The rise of Jackie Robinson in 1947 raised the white comfort level, and reduced some guilt, in America's race relations. Will the inescapable visibility of these new Cuban stars make more Americans wonder why Cuba itself remains so stigmatized in US policy? Nothing might ease the normalization process better than Cuban players demonstrating in American ballparks how well they can compete with the best. If Cuba's most recent group of 21 defectors formed a team of their own, it's a fair bet they would be in the World Series.
Current US law promotes the Cold War stereotype that Cuban ballplayers are heroic defectors from communism. Whatever they personally think of the aging righty Fidel Castro, aspiring Cuban players now are forced to defect and renounce their citizenship because the US embargo prohibits transfers of any Yankee dollars to the island. The absurd reasoning behind this policy is that if Major League Baseball pays millions for Cuban ballplayers they will be subsidizing the Cuban regime. After fifty years of the embargo's failure, the idea that the Communist Party would stay afloat on MLB dollars is frankly absurd. Why should Cuban players have to abandon their own country and their families and pledge never to send any of their salaries home?
Puig was forced to defect to Mexico under hazardous conditions. Cespedes and Abreu fled to the Dominican Republic. Chapman ended up establishing residency in the European microstate, Andorra. They were offered individual deals ranging between 30 and 62 million, with the Dodgers paying Puig $42 million for a seven-year contract. These are players who learned baseball on rock-strewn fields with worn-out shoes, where fans throw back foul balls. Their salaries were twenty collars a month. Who wouldn't risk their life for 60 million dollars to play in the major leagues? As a result of this de facto human trafficking, Cuban baseball is being gradually strip-mined like a colonial possession for the big leagues. In the Revolution's early years, the Cuban national team won three gold and two silver medals in five Olympics, but since those times Cuba has declined in competitions. The national team lost 5-0 to an American college team last year. One reason is that there were 21 Cuban-born players in the MLB.
Fidel's son Antonio is the 43-year old vice president of the International Baseball Federation. He is urging that Cuban players deserve the right to play in the major leagues without having to defect, that they should entitled to the salaries they earn, and continue being members of Cuba's national team. The Raul Castro government recently moved to lift the cap on players' salaries and permit their athletes to sign MLB contracts without needing to defect.
It's time for the United States to stop stealing Cuban talent and encouraging illegal defections. The MLB should level the playing field and step up to the plate.