With Improved Relations, Are The U.S. And Cuba Ready To Play Ball?

Mar 24, 2015
Originally published on March 25, 2015 4:57 pm

It has already been a messy game at Havana's Latin American Stadium, the premier baseball stadium in Cuba. The home team, the Industriales, has given up five runs in the first inning; a shortstop fumbled a ball, an outfielder failed to hustle and an easy out became an extra-base hit.

The home crowd isn't deterred. The vuvuzelas, those ear-splitting plastic horns, still swell when an opposing batter reaches two strikes.

Ismael Sené, a former intelligence agent-turned-baseball historian who was in the stands cheering the Industriales, isn't too worried. The opposing team, Alazanes de Granma, has been playing terribly lately as Cuba's winter league season winds down.

In large part, Sené says, Granma was struggling because some of its best pitchers had defected recently to the U.S. They'd left their team toward the end of the season to try their luck in the major leagues.

Like the rest of the country, Cuban baseball has been in crisis. But as the U.S. and Cuba have moved to normalize diplomatic relations, hope is bubbling that the rapprochement could bring new opportunities, stop Cuba's top talent from fleeing and perhaps lead to reconciliation between those who've left and those who've stayed.

Sené looks out at the field. Baseball is a different game here in Cuba: There are no hot dogs or Cracker Jack for sale. Instead, the vendors hawk pork sandwiches, popcorn, coffee and plantain chips. There is no advertising in the stadium. No sky boxes. No seventh-inning stretch. Instead, there's a fifth-inning break when the umpires are served hot coffee.

How bad are things, right now, in Cuban baseball?

Sené says the starting pitcher, who had just given up the five runs, was pitching on just one day of rest, when four is the norm. The groundskeeper tells us if it rains, as forecast, they won't cover the infield, because the tarp is full of holes.

The hope for Cuban baseball, says Sené, may ironically reside up north.

"If we reach a kind of agreement with the United States in which they will enforce that our people have to follow the rules and have to fulfill their contracts," he says, "that will be the best thing that can happen to our baseball."

A Cautious Opening To The U.S.

Back in December, President Obama and President Raul Castro of Cuba gave simultaneous speeches on live television.

The leaders announced that after more than 50 years, the two countries would re-establish ties and that sometime soon the American flag would fly over an embassy in Havana and a Cuban one would fly over an embassy in Washington.

It wasn't long before headlines about the potential for baseball diplomacy began appearing. There was speculation about how quickly MLB scouts would flood the island and whether Cuban athletes could finally head north legally.

Peter Bjarkman, who has written books about the history of Cuban baseball, says all of that speculation has been off the mark.

"The conventional wisdom has been that Cuba will become the next Dominican Republic, where Major League Baseball has set up academies," says Bjarkman. "I doubt that's going to happen in Cuba."

The Cuban government, Bjarkman says, has always used baseball as a political tool.

"In Cuba, baseball is everything," Bjarkman says. "It's the one place they've won big propaganda victories overseas. They beat the Yankees at their own game and for years dominated international tournaments."

So, Bjarkman says, it's unlikely that the government will just throw open the door. Plus, he adds, the sport's governing body on the island, the National Institute for Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, or INDER, is stacked with revolutionary hard-liners, who Bjarkman can't imagine will sign off on a system that would turn the Cuban league into a de facto farm system for the majors.

"Cuba has already foreshadowed what can happen with the U.S.," says Bjarkman. Over the past few years, Cuba has developed a posting system with Japan: In other words, the Japanese league pays Cuba for the right to negotiate a contract with its players, who are also required to play in the Cuban league for a certain number of years.

There is one wild card in all of this, however.

Cuban baseball is in a deep crisis. With a recent exception in the Caribbean Series, Cuban baseball teams have put up disappointing performances internationally. The money problems that ail Cuba are also affecting baseball: Equipment is subpar and the stadiums are in disrepair.

And then there's the problem of defections. Of course, some of Cuba's top players have fled, but Bjarkman notes that many young players, who will very likely never see a game in the majors, also have left, in search of the dream.

"There are estimates that about 350 Cubans are out there right now, looking to get signed," Bjarkman says, "and that is affecting the quality of the game at home. In fact, they've had to take some desperate measures in the last few years."

For example, the Cuban league has 16 teams, but midway through the season it collapsed to eight in an effort to strengthen the level of play. Still, the defections have continued and the money problems have forced INDER to cut back on international competition.

New diplomatic relations with a historic enemy could prove a lifeline too difficult to resist.

A Fan's Call To Put Politics Aside

There's a spot in Havana's Central Park known as La Esquina Caliente, or the Hot Corner.

It's a baseball reference, of course. Like third base, this corner is full of line drives — in this case, verbal ones.

Architecturally, it's a magical corner: It's tree-lined and the buildings that surround it are handsome examples of the island's colonial past. The capitol building — essentially a replica of the U.S. Capitol — is just across the street.

On a recent day, Leo Vigil Plutin sits on one of the benches, holding court, looking like the elder statesman of the park. He always wanted to be a baseball player, he says, but he couldn't run and he couldn't bat and he couldn't catch, so he settled for playing piano instead.

He is nothing but optimistic about the potential for a new relationship with the United States.

It's no secret, he says, that Cuban baseball players are risking their lives on rafts for a chance to play baseball in the States.

"That's why we want the relations to be normalized, so the U.S. can set up academies like they did in the past," Plutin says.

Before the revolution, white Cubans used to play in the U.S. big leagues. Black Cubans used to play in the Negro Leagues. Americans used to play in the Cuban leagues.

It all dissolved in one of the world's most acrimonious divorces, after Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista and sided with the Soviet Union.

"Right now, and unlike every other country, we go to the World Baseball Classic with a purely Cuban team that hasn't played professional ball," Plutin says. That means that the Cuban team went into decline in the early 2000s when the Olympics allowed professionals to enter the game, and that Cuba hasn't fared well at the classic, which began in 2006.

Maybe it's not his position to opine, Plutin says, but it's time to start letting those star players who have fled to the U.S. come back home and play on the national team.

In other words, put the politics aside, he says, so Cuba can start winning again.

Official: Cuba Ready To Sit Down At The Right Time

Heriberto Suarez Pereda's office is appropriately proletarian. He's Cuba's commissioner of baseball, so it is also appropriately located in the bowels of Latin American Stadium.

It's about 10 feet by 12 feet, with plaques and a picture of the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez on the walls and a baseball game on the analog TV set.

The commissioner says the Cuban Adjustment Act — a U.S. law that grants special, instant legal status to Cubans who set foot on American soil — has harmed Cuban baseball.

"It gives Cuban players rights that other players don't have. For example, a player from any other country who may leave their country at a young age would have to wait a certain amount of time before playing in the [major leagues]," he says. "Cuban players are given a fast track and I think there is a political component to that policy."

The Cuban Adjustment Act, he says, encourages defections.

He says that there have not been talks with Major League Baseball yet. But he's hopeful about a better relationship and an end to the embargo.

"The blockade is irrational," he says. "Sport is a vehicle for the love between nations, and we should allow that to flourish."

As he is escorting us out of his office, Pereda apologizes for not having much to say. He says that he doesn't want to get ahead of the process, but that Cuba is ready to sit down with Major League Baseball, when the time is right.

We ask him whether this kind of talk signals a softening on Cuba's part. Does it mean that perhaps one day the Cuban stars who have made it big in the majors, like Yoenis Cespedes and Jose Abreu, would be welcomed back on the national team?

Two current stars in Cuba, Yulieski Gourriel — arguably the best player on the island — and catcher Frank Camilo Morejón, say they don't judge those who left.

"They won't stop being our friends, brothers and compatriots," Morejón says.

And Gourriel, who with Cuba's permission plays in Japan in the summer, says he would love to play in the U.S. with Cuba's permission.

"Look," says Pereda, the baseball commissioner. "For Cubans, baseball has always been political. It's a war and some of those guys left in the middle of a battle."

The implication is that they were traitors.

Pereda pauses and then softens his stance a touch.

"We'd have to find out why they left and what they've said since they left," he says. "And we'd take it from there."

The Cuban Style Of Play

By the sixth inning, it's clear that the game has turned into a train wreck for the Industriales.

Granma has another man on base and is already leading by a few runs. The batter positions himself for a sacrifice bunt, and that's when Sené gives up.

"That is the cancer of Cuban baseball," he says. Even when a team has a clear command of a game, it still plays small ball, always absolutely conservative even when the situation calls for a little adventure, a swing for the fences on a fastball that's just outside the plate, perhaps.

Sené reaches into his pocket and pulls out a little leather-bound notebook. Inside, he has sheets of paper, scrawled with numbers and abbreviations.

Sené used to be a revolutionary. He once got caught trying to smuggle weapons from Miami to Castro's guerrillas years before the revolution triumphed. After decades of diplomatic and intelligence work, Sené retired and became a baseball expert.

He has methodically calculated the stats of how many sacrifice plays National League and American League teams made last year and compared them with Cuba's Serie Nacional, Cuba's baseball league.

Cuba, he says, is sacrificing at an exorbitant rate and it doesn't make any sense.

"This is the most dogmatic baseball in the world," he says.

The Granma batter lays down a beautiful bunt that rolls toward the first base side just far enough to get the runner safely to second. The next batter hits a single into the outfield, where the Industriales' outfielder fumbles it. The runner on second scores; the sacrifice works this time.

"The pace of change in this country has to pick up," says Sené. "There has to be more reform."

Sené, who still considers himself a Communist Party loyalist, means that in the political sense as well as in the baseball sense. The league has to shrink further to encourage better play. It has to come to terms with the United States and also come to terms with itself.

That's already happening, Sené says. For example, late last year, Cuban officials and a group of historians, including Sené, were finally able to induct an inaugural class of ballplayers into a newly formed hall of fame.

A debate about whether to induct players who had left Cuba for the majors — including legends like Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso — had paralyzed the process.

But last year, they reached a compromise: They would induct five players from the pre-revolution professional league and five from the amateur, post-revolution league.

It's a symbolic move. But for a country so long divided over supporters and detractors of the socialist revolution, it seemed like a hint, perhaps, of what's to come in Cuba.

By now, the lights in the stadium have come on as the sun dips below the horizon. The crowd has stopped cheering to encourage every strikeout. The men selling fried plantain chips have stopped making their rounds. And the fans, who had been blasting vuvuzelas behind us, have finally quit.

The Industriales, the Cuban equivalent of the New York Yankees, end up losing 11-4. They will go on to lose the final five games of the season, missing an opportunity to qualify for the postseason.

Update at 3:18 p.m. ET. on March 25: In order to clarify which Cuban players played in the Major Leagues before the revolution, we have tweaked a description in this story by stating that "white Cubans used to play in the U.S. big leagues," as opposed to just "Cubans."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In December, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced their plan to normalize diplomatic relations. So far the immediate aim of the U.S.-Cuba talks is modest - turn interest sections into embassies. But hopes for the process run high in Havana where I spent a week earlier this month. And those hopes touch on a great range of issues and aspects of everyday life, including one Cuban obsession - baseball.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL BAT)

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Foreign language spoken).

SIEGEL: This Little League stadium is in a big Havana sports complex. A sprinkling of baseball mothers dots the sheltered stands. They watch their sons compete for slots on the Havana team in the under-12 national championship. The signs over the dugouts reflect the binational origins of the Cuban game. Over the dugout along the first baseline is the word visitadores - Spanish for visitors. Over the dugout along the third baseline are the words home club. Cuban baseball is the offspring of a mixed marriage that dissolved in one of the world's most acrimonious divorces. Cubans used to play in the big leagues, black Cubans used to play in the Negro leagues and Americans used to play in the Cuban leagues. Now even the hint of a reconciliation reverberates here and excites Cuban baseball fans. The Little League coach, Luis Hernandez, told me that a national team will play in a worldwide under-12 tournament this year in Taiwan. But relations with the U.S. remain limited.

Cuba can't play in the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania in the United States.

LUIS HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: "There are talks going on right now to reestablish relations. We hope that they'll lead to that kind of exchange. We think we can do it. Why not? From a sports standpoint, we have no problem with it."

SIEGEL: That's my colleague, Eyder Peralta. The kids come to this field every afternoon after school to play and practice for three hours. The passion for baseball can animate Cubans long after their dreams of hitting home runs in Cuban professional ball have faded into the pop flies and ground outs of real life. I went to meet some older baseball fans a few miles away in the center of Old Havana.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGEL: We're in El Parque Central - Central Park - of Havana, surrounded by some very elegant old buildings, hotels. And a few yards away, after a row of palm trees, you find a knot of men who gather every single day, and they gather here to talk, to argue. One man says, you know, in the absence of a working Internet, this is where people exchange their opinions and where they get news.

They call this place La Esquina Caliente, which is Spanish for the Hot Corner, which is baseball slang for third base. The normalization of baseball relations with the U.S. could mean Cuban players going to play in the states legally. It could mean U.S. teams setting up baseball academies to train young players. I asked Pablo Diaz, a 30-year-old phys ed teacher and Hot Corner regular, whether Cuba needs academies like those.

PABLO DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says that Cuba doesn't need them. Everyone needs them because it'll fix the deficiencies that Cuban baseball has. So it needs better training, which academies like that would bring. And also it would bring money, which Cuba needs.

SIEGEL: Next stop - Havana's Latin American Stadium, home to the Havana Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball. It's also where Heriberto Suarez Pereda has his office.

HERIBERTO SUAREZ PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: (Speaking Spanish) Robert Siegel.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: Suarez is Cuba's commissioner of baseball, and his office is appropriately proletarian. It's about 10 feet by 12, with plaques on the walls and a baseball game on the analog TV set. The commissioner says Cuban baseball is harmed by the Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants special, instantly legal status to Cubans who set foot on American soil.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "It gives any baseball player who's playing in an international tournament the ability to leave and then gain residency within a year."

He says that it gives Cuban players rights that other players don't have. For example, a player from any other country that might leave their country at a young age would have to wait a certain amount of time before playing whereas a Cuban is given a fast-track into this and he believes that there is a political component to that decision.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: "The Cuban Adjustment Act," he says, "encourages defections." The commissioner says there have not been talks with Major League Baseball yet, but he's hopeful about a better relationship and an end to the embargo.

PEREDA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: So he says the embargo is irrational. It doesn't make any sense. "Sport is a vehicle for the love between nations, and we should allow that the flourish."

(SOUNDBITE OF VUVUZELAS)

SIEGEL: Welcome to a Cuban baseball game. I went to see the Industriales host Granma in an important late-season game.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Spanish).

SIEGEL: There were at least 10,000 fans there seated in the Cuban style. Granma fans sat along the first base side; home team fans sat along the third base side. And behind home plate are the VIPs and people like me who buy tickets with convertible currency - the money you buy with dollars, not the pesos that ordinary Cubans are paid with.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: There are no hotdogs or Cracker Jacks for sale, but vendors do hawk pork sandwiches, popcorn, coffee and plantain chips. There's no advertising in the stadium, no sky boxes; no seventh- inning stretch either. Instead there's a fifth-inning break when the umpires are served hot coffee. It is a winter season, and when it's over the two best players in this game go to play in Japan. Granma's slugger, Alfredo Despaigne, and this player...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Spanish) Yulieski Gouriel.

SIEGEL: Industriales's 29-year-old third baseman, Yulieski Gourriel, who's regarded as the best player in Cuban baseball.

Do you wish you had a chance to play in the major leagues?

YULIESKI GOURRIEL: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says, "of course." He says, "it's every player's dream to play in the place that plays the best baseball in the world, that everybody knows that's the major leagues. And with Cuba's permission we'll do it."

SIEGEL: The problem for Cuban baseball is how many players have gone without Cuba's permission. Instead of making the equivalent of about $40 a month in Cuba's low-income, highly subsidized economy, they have fled in droves to the USA. I watched the Granma-Industriales game with a longtime fan of the game, baseball historian Ismael Sene, a retired intelligence officer. He told me defections have weakened the Cuban league. One team has lost 15 pitchers to defections. Granma lost two pitchers just a couple of weeks ago. Sene says there aren't enough good arms to fill the pitching staffs of the league's 16 teams. Cuban baseball, he says, has to change. For one thing, it has to shrink.

ISMAEL SENE: First, we have to change ourselves, the organization of our baseball.

SIEGEL: Oh, my. Despaigne - it looks like he's hit a double off the left-field wall. He's knocked in a run - and second and third.

Sene says the pitcher can't throw three strikes. He says also that Cuba should put its players under contract, the way the Japanese do, and require them to play a few years in Cuba. Sene says the defection problems could go away in two or three years if that happened.

SENE: If we reach a kind of agreement with the United States in which they will enforce that our people have to follow the rules and have to fulfill their contracts - that will be the best thing that can happen to our baseball.

SIEGEL: The dearth of pitching figured in this game. While Granma's staff did surprisingly well, Industriales started the same pitcher who had closed the game two nights before and he was hit up for five runs in the top of the first.

SENE: The game is over.

SIEGEL: It's a groundball to third, throw to first; he's out. Eleven to 4, Granma beats the Industriales. Well, we didn't see a pitching duel, but we saw a fun ballgame.

SENE: Yeah (laughter).

SIEGEL: OK, thanks a lot for being with us.

SENE: No, thank you.

SIEGEL: Cubans are realistic enough to know that their best players will not stay on the island. But many told me they'd like to see their national team include players who are playing in the majors. Would the ones who left be welcomed back? The baseball commissioner told me it would depend on what they did before leaving. It's a war, he said, and they are traitors. But Frank Camilo Morejon, the catcher for the Industriales and for the Cuba national team, took a sympathetic view.

FRANK CAMILO MOREJON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "I don't think it's ever been a taboo and it hasn't affected the Cuban team. The players who have decided to stay have always tried to play their best. We give everything for our country, but that doesn't mean that we disrespect those who make that personal decision. We're not against that - on the contrary. They won't stop being our friends, brothers and compatriots."

SIEGEL: Whether they can take the field again with those friends without having to leave their country is now a question for the diplomats. And the health of Cuban baseball is riding on the answer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.