Thawing of Cuban-US relations will put focus on future of island’s baseball players

Excellence of the national team has always been a source of pride to the Castro regime

Hundreds of Cubans wait in line to apply for tourist visas to visit the US at the American Interests Building in Havana, this week. Photograph: Meredith Kohut/The New York Times

Hundreds of Cubans wait in line to apply for tourist visas to visit the US at the American Interests Building in Havana, this week. Photograph: Meredith Kohut/The New York Times

 

One of the many myths floating around about Fidel Castro during the most severe years of Cuban-US estrangement is that he almost became a New York Yankees baseball player. The story was that Castro had try-outs in 1951, almost a full decade before he transformed his country into the exotic, socialist enclave it became. The tale was pure hokum but reflected the omnipotent image cultivated by the Cuban leader and the general notion that the island is simply teeming with baseball players who are naturals at America’s pastime.

What made Thursday’s declaration by Barack Obama of a resumption of ‘normalised’ relations with Cuba so stunning was that it seemed to happen so casually and easily: a half-century of isolation changed by the stroke of a pen. The negotiations may have been slow-burning and intense behind the scenes but when the world turned its lights out on Tuesday night, it was still as 1959 in Havana. By Wednesday evening, the city was alive to new possibilities and movement between it and its gigantic neighbour, even as America’s most prominent Cuban-American politician, Florida’s Republican senator Marco Rubio, castigated Obama’s decision to appease a regime guilty of “state-sponsored terrorism”.

But the readjustment in attitude and outlook has been instant. One of the first American entities to issue a statement about the development was Major League Baseball, with a clipped declaration that it had would monitor the events closely. It was hardly surprising. Major league baseball scouts are not permitted to search through Cuba’s leagues for potential stars and since the revolution, professional sport has been banned in the country. The excellence of the Cuban national baseball team was there to serve as a source of pride for the regime, rather than to make its practitioners rich.

Vast promise

Geography has given Cuba-US relationship it’s turbulent and dramatic connection. The island sits just 90 miles of the US mainland – thus ideally positioned as a location of menace and threat when Kennedy and Khruschev played double-bluff during the 1962 missile crisis. But for decades before that, it had been a frequent stopping point for American sailors who, along with Cuban students returning from the US, brought baseball to the island. The baseball link was well established by the time Castro came to power: Cuba had its own league as early as 1878. But just as the proximity to the United States introduced the game, the short hop across the ocean also convinced Cubans that the danger of leaving – by makeshift raft, by cigarette boat, by the dubious and dangerous arrangements of smugglers – was worth risking their lives and worth the pain of not knowing if they would see their families again.

Yasiel Puig thought so. The account of his departure from Cuba in 2012 is grippingly chronicled by Scott Eden in ESPN’s terrific online story from last April, No One Walks of This Island. Even his journey, by foot – along the wetlands by day and the beaches at night, avoiding crocodile swamps, police and coast guards, journeying across the Bay of Pigs to a given point where a boat was to magically appear and collect them – is an enormous travail. It would have been easier to turn back.

Prodigious talent

Exodus gained momentum

cabezas sucias,

Whether it increases the Cuban influence in major league baseball is a different matter. When Bill Clinton attempted to soften mutual attitudes during his second term in the White House, an exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban national team was held in Havana in 1999. The game is a source of equal fascination in both countries. But the idea that Cuba is suddenly going to become a rich hunting ground for scouts seems unlikely. The Cuban authorities will be keen to protect both the quality of its national team and to ensure that its brightest stars don’t desert the Cuban league in droves. The finer points of how the MLB conducts business with Cuba is just one on the endless list of matters to be solved now and it may well come down to the oldest solution and one which Cuba desperately needs: cash. It is hard to see how Cuba will stop its best stars from jumping to the most glamorous and richest baseball league in the world.

The new relationship will almost certainly bring an end to the dangerous and dramatic night escapes which brought so many Cuban exiles to the United States. And it may take some time but the conciliation may give both Cuban and American baseball fans a chance to honour not the phantom career of Castro but the contribution of Minnie Minoso, who in 1949 became the first Cuban to play in the major leagues and the first ever black player with the Chicago White Sox. Becoming a seven-time All-Star, he made his last appearance for the club as recently as 1980. But at 89 years old, he is still waiting for a call to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Not even the Pope can swing that one.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.