While greeted with unwarranted early optimism, a late 2014 potential thaw in five decades of U.S.-Cuba Cold War tensions seemed to promise a bonanza for talent-hungry big league ball clubs, as well as a long awaited Cuban tourist boom and unlimited free-market opportunities for American corporate enterprises.
But to date, expectations have proved to be widely overblown and all evidence now suggests that any immediate U.S.-Cuba thaw is neither very likely nor such a “hot deal” as anticipated for North American professional baseball clubs.
Timed to correspond with the two-year anniversary of Barack Obama’s bold initiative aimed at reopening long-dormant diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba’s Castro regime, MLB (Major League Baseball) Productions recently debuted its long-forthcoming documentary film entitled Cuba: Island of Baseball—perhaps the most thorough analysis by North American media of that island nation’s proud and often-misunderstood alternative sporting universe.1
The hour-and-a half MLB Network film produced and directed by Alfonso Pozzo and Danny Field effectively and often dramatically captured the personal sacrifices, emotional struggles, and mixed triumphs of several dozen former Cuban League and national team star sluggers and hurlers who over the past decade have abandoned their homeland, culture, and sometimes even their families to seek the financial rewards of celebrated careers on North American big league diamonds.
Also revealed in stark relief was the colorful world of Cuban baseball left behind by such recent big league headliners as Aroldis Chapman, José Abreu, Yasiel Puig, and Yoennis Céspedes—an alternative socialist model that over the past half-century produced powerhouse teams capable of thoroughly dominating the world of international Olympic-style tournaments.
But for all its revelations and audience impact, the MLB documentary also had its noteworthy drawbacks and regrettable if not surprising shortcomings. Ignored entirely was the uglier side of the recent MLB-Cuba pipeline saga, a sordid tale involving ballplayer smuggling orchestrated by Miami-based crime elements and facilitated by Mexican drug cartels; extortion threats to escaping Cuban ballplayers and their families; and huge kickback payments to MLB-sanctioned player agents involved in orchestrating illegal escapes from Cuban territory and marketing fleeing players to free-spending, talent-hungry big league clubs. It was obvious that these were explosive issues, involving blatant human trafficking of potentially valuable athletes, and thus subjects that the MLB-sponsored network did not wish to air.2
Also left on the cutting room floor was the inevitable reverse side of the story involving the desperate if largely ineffective efforts by Cuban sports ministry officials to salvage their prized national baseball institutions and ward off approaching encroachments of the talent-hungry MLB juggernaut—takeovers like those witnessed over the past half-century in the nearby Caribbean countries of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
UNWARRANTED INITIAL OPTIMISM
There was runaway and—at least in retrospect—largely overblown optimism for imminent policy changes on both sides of the Straits of Florida in the wake of Barack Obama’s unexpected December 2014 détente overtures. But to those who closely monitor the Washington-Havana scene, that optimism seemed not only unwarranted but also mostly a matter of idle media hype, if not outright wishful thinking.
After more than five decades of failed diplomacy and heated Cold War rhetoric, Obama officials and the Castro regime—under the guidance of Fidel’s brother Raúl since 2006—finally appeared poised on the verge of a historic diplomatic breakthrough. But two years down the road and after the replacement of the Obama government with a more conservative Republication Trump administration, a long-anticipated thawing in political and economic discourse now appears destined to move at its own snail-like pace. The fate of the Helms-Burton embargo legislation still hangs in the balance, and even if dialogue has commenced the path forward nonetheless remains strewn with troublesome obstacles and unforeseen twists and turns.
While many initially focused on long-coveted, unfettered Havana tourism and an explosion in North American corporate commerce, the shared national pastime of baseball in both countries was also an early theme of speculation. Cuban baseball had of late become a hot topic north of Miami, and the coveted Cuban talent market had virtually exploded on the North American sporting scene once a small but impactful wave of defecting refugees from Fidel Castro’s mighty baseball machine enjoyed rather sensational overnight success on North American professional diamonds. Yasiel Puig’s explosive debut summer in Los Angeles, Aroldis Chapman’s record-breaking triple-digit fastballs in Cincinnati, Yoenis Céspedes’s hefty slugging feats in first Oakland and later Boston and New York, and José Abreu’s American League rookie onslaughts in Chicago, all fueled speculation about unlimited player talent resources ready to be tapped behind the Cuban sugar cane curtain.
It was also evident from media commentary in early 2015 that most Americans in the streets and in the Fourth Estate held the same distorted view of baseball’s future regarding Cuba as they did of a potential island tourist boom and expansive new free-enterprise business deals with the long-isolated communist island. Fans as well as the sporting press and even MLB club officials were already dreaming, even before press ink was dry on the Obama overtures, about the launching of a building boom of Caribbean plantation-style big league academies and the consequent unleashing of a steady flow of Cuban talent onto big league rosters. What was clearly not understood was how the realities of pending diplomatic relations might actually stem the “defector tide” and ironically benefit the Cuban baseball establishment far more by restricting the burgeoning Cuban ballplayer pipeline.
THE UGLY UNDERBELLY OF CUBAN RECRUITMENT
Within months of Obama’s historic policy shifts on the Cuba question, there were already plenty of ominous clouds darkening the horizon. Foremost was a rather ugly “backstory” to the Cuba-related baseball events that most observers vaguely comprehended but few fully understood. On the heels of the Obama announcements, the breaking scandal surrounding Dodger rookie sensation Yasel Puig’s Cuba escape had already come to light, first revealed in some detail in April 2014 with simultaneous reports from ESPN reporter Scott Eden and Los Angeles Magazine journalist Jesse Katz. Spirited out of Cuba for a promised windfall portion of an expected big league bonanza contract, the future Dodger had been held captive in Mexico, fought over and re-kidnapped on Mexican soil by rival Miami and Mexican smugglers, and threatened with physical violence before finally inking his lucrative contract in Mexico City.
Tales of similar human trafficking were soon discovered to spread far beyond the Puig saga alone and involved—among the more celebrated cases—future big leaguers Leonys Martin (in Mexico) and Yoenis Céspedes (in the Dominican Republic). Within the next year, MLB officials would be faced with uncomfortable truths surrounding dozens of Cuban recruits earlier greeted with bank-breaking bonus contracts ($30 million for Chapman, $42 million for Puig, $68 million for Abreu, and a record $72 million for so-far unproductive Boston prospect Rusney Castillo).
Human trafficking issues provided front page news again in March 2017 with the conviction of player agent Bart Hernández on conspiracy and alien smuggling charges. At the time of the original Hernández indictment by federal prosecutors in February 2016, unsealed court documents revealed that José Abreu had paid $5.8 million of his White Sox signing bonus to smugglers who in turn handed over $160,000 to the driver of the boat carrying the star ballplayer and family members to Haiti.3
An earlier human trafficking trial has already landed a second pair of agents/smugglers in prison after an extortion suit filed by current Seattle outfielder Leonys Martin charged the pair with virtually imprisoning the future big leaguer in Mexico and attempting to extort higher payoffs through threats to family members also held captive in Miami.4
MLB’s relation to Cuban players abandoning the island involves a complex set of circumstances that can only be briefly summarized here. The lack of an MLB international draft (resulting in all Cuban “defectors” being considered as “free agents”) meant devious plans by often unscrupulous player agents hoping to cash in on the new-found talent market.
Miami-based and MLB-sanctioned player agent Joe Cubas (a Cuban-American holding strong anti-Castro views) had by the early 1990s developed a plan that remained the accepted strategy for two decades. Enticing such early defectors as Rolando Arrojo, Osvaldo Fernández, and Liván Hernández to abandon the island, his modus operandi was to establish third-country residence for his Cuban clients in order to meet MLB requirements for avoiding the player draft in place for U.S. collegiate and high school players, and also to circumvent U.S. Treasury Department policies prohibiting financial payments to Cuban citizens. OFAC (Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control) policies on Cuban players only complicated the issue with their own third-country residency requirement resulting from existing Helms-Burton embargo legislation.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred also early on sent all the wrong messages to Cuban officials in the wake of the Obama détente overtures. Manfred was quick to label Cuba as “a great market for us” in two respects—a source for untapped big league talent to be harvested and a location “to do business on an on-going basis”—a message certain to raise red flags for a Cuban government whose historical mission had been built around rejecting control by the great capitalist juggernaut to the north.
A long history of Cuba-U.S. baseball estrangement came about not only as a result of the political divide between the two nations, but also because of a Cuban baseball philosophy that rejected play for corporate profit and opted for a league built on a socialist model eschewing any form of player free agency. Cuba, over the past half-century, constructed a unique baseball enterprise strongly at odds with the North American model—one that saw sport as the “right of the people” and structured its league around building powerhouse national teams to demonstrate Cuban superiority in international competitions.5
By the time of Obama’s surprise announcement, the Cuban government had already been wrestling with two related challenges eroding its long-proud baseball enterprise. To counter the erosion of talent brought by increased player defections, the 90-game season was split into two halves, with only eight teams reaching the championship round and stars from eliminated teams drafted onto the rosters of round-two qualifiers. The effort here was to tighten competition and, in turn, strengthen the quality of top Cuban stars for national team service. In a second effort, this time aimed more directly at stemming defections, a handful of top veteran Cuban players were loaned out to the Japanese League and allowed to personally pocket 80 percent of their lucrative Japanese contracts.6
The history of Cuban defections has been significant for a quarter century, although a front page story only in the past half-dozen years. Cuban ballplayer departures were largely non-existent for the first three decades of the Castro era, then slowly emerged in the decade of the 1990s with the shocking departures of a quartet of national team star pitchers: René Arocha (1991); Osvaldo Fernández and Liván Hernández (1995); and Rolando Arrojo (1996).
But the true impact of a surging phenomenon was not felt until after 2010, launched with the $30 million thrown at “The Cuban Missile” Aroldis Chapman after his abandonment of a national team in the Netherlands.The uptick in star-player losses had three essential causes, one being the escalating paydays for top-level Cubans like Chapman who made the grade once they reached big-league pay dirt.
A second factor was a sagging Cuban economy in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. But most impactful was the inevitable collapse of the national team in international events and the resulting changes in ballplayer and fan morale. Once big league and top minor league professionals entered Olympic-style tournament play after 1999, the Cubans no longer won each and every international outing, and fan pride back home was suddenly better stoked by the big league achievements of escaping Cubans (those labelled “traitors” by the government) than by repeated disappointing and unaccustomed gold medal round on-field defeats.7
AN OBSCURE FUTURE
A year before the Obama overtures, the Cuban authorities were already taking major steps—such as the minimal farming out of a handful of top stars to Japanese clubs—in an attempt to address the troubling talent drain. But they were fighting a losing battle: defection numbers surged to 23 in the year following the Beijing Olympics gold medal loss, remained steady at 25 over the two following years, then exploded to more than 150 between 2013 and 2015.8
After Obama’s overtures, the Cuban reaction seemed to be more confusion than anything else; there appeared to be no plan in place for dealing with the changing landscape promised by potential détente with longtime adversaries. A posting system of the type employed by the Japanese League in its dealings with MLB ball clubs seemed a likely solution for the Cubans, but so far it hasn’t emerged.9 But neither has there been any Cuban willingness to meet MLB even halfway. It is clear that entrenched Cuban authorities will not relinquish their system quickly, if at all.
There were a few compromises, like the MLB goodwill visit of December 2015 (during which a handful of defectors employed by big league clubs were allowed to visit, but only with their movements on the island severely restricted) and the single exhibition match with the big league Tampa Bay club that coincided with Obama’s March 2016 island visit. All else—and most especially talk of island MLB academies or a clear route for Cuban stars to move freely to MLB clubs—has largely ground to a halt.
Major League Baseball has also largely remained on the sidelines while facing its own uncertainties surrounding the handling of Cuban free agents.The recent human trafficking trials have remained an embarrassment and have exposed a large degree of at least indirect MLB complicity. No MLB officials or individual ball club scouting departments have directly orchestrated the ongoing defections. But at the same time, MLB bosses have not developed policies to end them either. That may be about to change since MLB is seriously considering much-needed international draft policies, which some naysayers see largely as a cost-saving measure and a slap in the face of the Dominicans and Venezuelans whose own signing bonuses will be significantly lowered once true free-agent status is lost. But such a policy will, if instituted in almost any form, bring relief to both the struggling Cuban League (by at least diminishing the lure of insanely escalated contracts for those who chose defection risks), but also to big-league general managers who have lately seen so many over-hyped Cubans fail to live up to excessively inflated contracts.10
By almost any conceivable measure, the future remains rather bleak for a once-proud Cuban baseball enterprise. The Cubans will not simply toss over their deeply entrenched anti-capitalist system on either the baseball, economic, or political fronts. Washington must eventually approach Cuba as an equal hemisphere partner and abandon long-held visions of the neighboring nation as a convenient plantation for easy exploitation.
But much irreparable damage has been already done, especially on the baseball front. And such a turn of events now seems even less likely under a Trump administration seemingly dedicated to American exceptionalism and apparently driven by conservative notions of renewed economic isolationism.
Few signals have so far emerged of either MLB honchos or Washington politicos foregoing a plantation mentality espousing imperial ownership of Cuban national resources. All too few signals have emerged of any change of heart or strategies in either Havana or Washington, and even if a workable accord is somehow miraculously reached, the Cuban talent drain has already been so severe that rebuilding will be, at best, a slow and painful process.
Cuban baseball will never again be what it once was: an isolated universe able to harvest its immense player talent exclusively for domestic use. The best hope for the Cubans now is perhaps only avoiding becoming the second Caribbean baseball wasteland on the home front—a fount of athletic talent for foreign export only—after the fashion of either the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.
1 MLB Network debuted their documentary on December 13, 2016. Much of the footage shot on the island was shot during an MLB-sponsored goodwill trip to Havana in December 2015, featuring league officials and a half-dozen Cuban stars who had earlier defected and were returning home for the first time since their illegal departures, as well as during the March 2016 visit to Havana by President Obama that corresponded with an exhibition match between the Cuban league all-stars and the big league Tampa Bay Rays. The second occasion marked the first post-revolution visit to the island of a sitting U.S. president and only the second appearance there of an MLB team since Fidel Castro had abolished professional leagues on the island in early 1961.
2 The story of human trafficking activities involving dozens of recent Cuban MLB imports is laid out at great length in my recent book Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). That book also unfolds the Cuban government’s position and efforts to block ballplayer defections and speculates on a number of potential solutions to an unresolved crisis plaguing MLB officials as well as the Cuban baseball brain trust.
3 That story was first broken by Jared S. Hopkins in the April 25, 2016 edition of the Chicago Tribune. Hopkins also reported on agents/handlers falsifying ballplayer immigration documents and instructing players in return to make payments to those in Cuba who arranged their escapes. My own book also discusses cases of players while still in Cuba (Chapman and Yasmani Tomás of the Arizona D-Backs, in particular) reportedly falsely fingering individuals to Cuban authorities in order to earn their way back onto Cuban national squads after suspensions resulting from initial failed defection attempts.
4 The Leonys Martin defection story and resulting legal actions are detailed in Chapter One of Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story.
5 Cuba’s national league had for decades consisted of 16 teams representing the 14 provinces (plus a team in the capital city and another in the special political entity of the Isle of Youth), players spent their entire careers on the local provincial ball club and were never traded, teams were all operated by local provincial branches of the national sports ministry and baseball commission (there were no corporate team owners), and there were consequently no foreign imports playing in Cuba.
6 The first such stars on loan were national team captain Frederich Cepeda ($1 million contract with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, making him the first million-dollar ballplayer living in Cuba), outfielder Alfredo Despaigne ($4 million-plus with the Lotte Marines), and eventual defector and current big leaguer Yulieski Gurriel (who played one season with the Yokohama DeNa BayStars). The accord with Japan was possible because it permitted the Cubans to return home in the winter for domestic league service, something not possible in any arrangement with MLB clubs.
7 During one ten-year stretch (1987-1997) the Cuban national team captured 159 straight international tournament games without a single setback; they also won or reached the final gold medal game of fifty consecutive major senior tournaments between 1961 and 2006. But this all began to change with disappointing silver medal second-place finishes in the Sydney (2000) and Beijing (2008) Olympic Games.
8 A largely accurate but inevitably incomplete list of defectors is provided in Appendix II of Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story. Most of those abandoning their homeland were either seasoned Cuban League veterans or teenage prospects from junior level national or provincial teams. Only a small percentage had real prospects for success at the top levels of North American professional baseball and the numerous young aspirants who never received pro league contracts, yet were not able to return home to abandoned families and an abandoned culture, remain another dark backstory of the Cuban defector phenomenon.
9 Under such a system the Cubans would sign their players to individual contracts (something that Cuban players do not currently have under the socialist-style sports system) and then own the rights to their athletes for a period of say five or six years. After fulfilling their contract obligations players would be free agents and MLB clubs could bid to negotiate for their services, for which they would pay the Cuban League a hefty fee. And under a full diplomatic accord Cuban players abandoning contracts at home would not be eligible to sign with MLB clubs.
10 Among the biggest Cuban disappointments have been outfielder Rusney Castillo (still a minor leaguer three years after his windfall Boston deal), former Dodgers infielders Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarrena (who both quickly washed out with the big league club after enormous signing bonuses), and failed pitching prospects Yunieski Maya (Washington), Miguel Alfredo González (Philadelphia) and Dalier Hinojosa (Boston and Philadelphia) who became instant multimillionaires before quickly proving big league busts.
Peter C. Bjarkman is a former linguistics professor and award-winning freelance writer specializing in post-revolution Cuban baseball. His seminal A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) is considered the go-to work in the field and his more recent Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) earned a Society for American Baseball Research Award. The latter work—based on the author’s two decades traveling the Cuban baseball scene and trailing the crack Cuban national team throughout Europe, Latin America and Asia—not only exposes details of human trafficking by MLB player agents lusting after high-dollar Cuban talent but also explores the rich background of Cuban baseball history and the failed saga of U.S.-Cuba relations that has led to a present crisis impacting the future of the sport in both countries. Widely considered the reigning authority on baseball in contemporary Cuba, Bjarkman has appeared frequently in North American media as an “insider expert” on the topic. He also served as Havana guide to celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in the 2011 Travel Channel episode of “No Reservations Cuba” and his Cuba adventures were featured in a November 2010 Wall Street Journal front-page story entitled “This Yanqui Is Welcome in Cuba’s Locker Room.”