The Cuban Baseball “Defectors” – An Insider’s Revelation on the True Story

Cuban defectors

Presentation at SABR 44, Houston, Texas (August 1, 2014)

Cuban-born big league headliners, in large part refugees from the largely mysterious “Behind the Sugar Cane Curtain” Cuban League, are now one of the hottest stories – if not the hottest story in today’s Major League baseball. The intriguing “Cubanization” of MLB was heavily underscored by this month’s All-Star Game in Minneapolis that featured five Cuban-born imports for the first time in nearly a half-century. Yoenis Céspedes has underscored the outsized Cuban presence with a pair of highly visible Home Room Derby titles – the first repeat winner since Griffey Jr. at the close of the 1990s. Also this month, Odrisamer Despaigne (only a minor star back in Cuba) came within an eyelash of tossing the first no-hitter in San Diego Padres ball club history and the first ever by a Cuban big leaguer. As we gathered here yesterday morning, the talk of MLB trade deadline activities was an unanticipated blockbuster deal sending Jon Lester from Boston to Oakland for the slugging Yoenis Céspedes. And yesterday afternoon José Abreu continued to tear up the American League with a trio of base knocks that have inched him closer to a major league hitting-streak record for first-year players. 

Last summer it was Yasiel Puig who grabbed the headlines with a torrid June call-up debut month that fell only four hits shy of matching DiMaggio’s May 1936 debut standard. This spring and summer Jose Abreu has been overhauling the record books for big league rookies, currently pacing the Junior Circuit in homers, RBIs, slugging and total bases and seriously threatening the rookie home run and RBI standards. A handful of Cubans have been very much in the public view since the head-spinning $30-million contract landed a few years back by Aroldis Chapman. The meat of this story is the outsized attention that such a small number of Cuban imports are having. Only 16 Cubans have appeared in the majors so far this year, 14 of those being so-called “defectors” from the current Cuban League. Compare this to the touted Dominicans (83 Opening Day roster slots) or Venezuelans (with 59). And the story promises to grow substantially before summer’s end. There are several top prospects (Erisbel Arruebarrena and Alex Guerrero in Albuquerque and Aledmys Diaz at AA with the Cardinals) currently in the high minors. Cincinnati has recently signed one of the best arms to come out of Cuba (Rasiel Iglesias the Cuban closer from the 2013 WBC). And a name soon to be on everyone’s lips is an outfielder named Rusney Castillo (2011 Panama Baseball World Cup MVP and batting champ) currently working out for scouts in Miami. The wild speculation on everyone’s lips is “just how much talent is still on the Communist island awaiting ‘liberation’ to big league clubs?”

The Cuban baseball talent font has always been acknowledged, though politics and clashing social systems have for decades kept the door closed on domestic Cuban baseball and thus kept most stateside fans largely in the dark. Cuba dominated international tournaments for a half-century, but there was always a very large caveat about these victories. For 50 years Cuba won or reached the finals of every major international tournament (a string that ended with a second round elimination at the 2009 WBC), but those triumphs before 1999 all came in the aluminum-bat era and were earned against largely university amateur squads. Cuban exiles in the USA were particularly unwilling to acknowledge the quality of the current Cuban League, seeing the glory era on the island as ending with the disbanding of organized baseball-affiliated winter league play in 1961. But the first MLB WBC seemed to put some of those doubts to rest. Now an increasing wave of “defectors” have thrown open the window on Cuba and its seemingly endless supply of high-quality talent.

This “defector phenomenon” has been as clouded in misconception as has almost all of Cuban baseball’s vast history. The Cuban baseball story is crammed with endless mythology – inaccurately told tales that never measure up to careful factual analysis. From a fantasy notion that pre-revolution Cuba provided a racial paradise (the popular island amateur league was in fact an “all-white” affair until World War II) to the undying legend of Fidel Castro as pro pitching prospect (a myth finally destroyed with my own A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006), down to notion of Cuban stars virtually playing under armed guard on international tours in the first decade of the current century, the misconceptions continue to abound. And no aspect of 20th or 21st century Cuban baseball has been more wildly misreported or consistently misunderstood than that involving the misinformation spread by popular US press accounts concerning the “defections” of recent impact stars like Yasiel Puig, Alexei Ramirez, Yoenis Céspedes and dozens of similar skilled ball-playing island refugees.

From the celebrated (and later debunked) 1998 accounts of “El Duque” Hernández braving shark-infested waters on a flimsy raft, down to recent distorted accounts of Cuban League “defection”-inspired suspensions imposed on future MLB stars Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Céspedes and Yasiel Puig, tales of harrowing and heroic escapes by coveted Cuban Leaguers have universally strayed far from actual events – suffering self-serving embellishments often crafted by gold-digging player agents or gleeful South Florida exiles looking for any blow against the Castro regime. A fresh look is needed – one that clarifies some actual details related to Cuba’s baseball pipeline.

Nothing brought the Cuban issue to center stage faster than the breaking stories this past spring about the details of Puig’s flight from the island. Most are familiar with the outline of the story that broke in LA Magazine (authored by Jesse Katz) and its implications of MLB being at least guilty of closing a blind eye to human trafficking of high-ticket Cuban prospects. Puig was smuggled to Mexico with apparent aid from Zeta drug cartel members and for a brief time his future and very life were seriously threatened. When Puig reached Mexican shores as a virtual prisoner and the price was jacked up for his delivery to a potential player agent, other organized crime elements from Miami virtually kidnapped him from the original smugglers. There is now still a reported price on Puig’s head as the resulted of the Zetas being stiffed. Details remain sketching as they do in the case of Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin you underwent a similar harrowing trial several years earlier. And there are further ugly sides as well to the departure sagas of both Puig and Cespedes. Puig escaped Cuba after being suspended from the Cuban league on the heels of a shop-lifting incident during a national team tour in Rotterdam; Céspedes fled Cuban authorities after being implicated in a fatal auto accident on the island the very week when Puig was failing into disfavor. And ESPN “30 for 30” has prepared a documentary entitled “Brothers in Exile” to kick off their fall season that will explore in vivid detail the backstory and dramatic circumstances surrounding the Cuban departures of Liván and half-brother El Duque.

The phenomenon is not a new one and began in earnest a couple decades back. René Arocha was the first to walk away on a national team tour in Millington, Tennessee in 1991. Roland Arrojo followed suit in Atlanta on the eve of the 1996 Olympic Games, and that second major departure led to suspension of a popular “Friendly Series” with the USA collegiate all-stars that was only jump-started again in 2012. Danys Baez was only a raw 20-year-old prospect when he was lost in 1999 during the Winnipeg Pan American Games. Liván was the first big catch, followed by his half-brother El Duque and then by Contreras who surprising walked out on a 2003 national team training camp in Mexico. But it was only with the $30 million windfall handed to Chapman that the Cuban story really became household conversion.

But the recent wave has now changed the playing field both here and it Cuba. Outside of the small blips by Contreras (with his 13-0 unblemished international tournament record) and the Hernandez Brothers (with their subsequent MLB post-season MVPs), there had been no sweeping of the stateside headlines like the one now witnessed with Chapman, Puig, Abreu, Céspedes and company. Back in Cuba itself the few who left were quickly replaced, confirming Fidel’s boasts that if someone does want to be here we have three more that are better. But the flood tide of escapees has now definitely weakened Cuba on the domestic front in two respects. The loss of many non-prospect youngsters has weakened the depth of league rosters and caused a revamping of National Series play. In order to strength competition Cuba’s national series now involves a split campaign with half the clubs dropped at mid-year and top players concentrated via a supplemental draft on the remaining eight clubs, And for the first time top players are leaving in multiple numbers, embarrassing the government and disillusioning the fans. From the 2013 quality WBC team Abreu and Arruebarrena are gone from the infield, Yasmani Tomas (provider of the late hit that almost beat the Netherlands and thus almost propelled the Cubans to the final in San Francisco) is now in the DR waiting to be signed, and Odrisamer Despaigne and Iglesias among several others are gone from the talented mound corps

Why then do the players leave, especially now and in such larger numbers? I have long objected to the term “defector” since it tarnishes the true background story. Some in the Miami exile community love to see the departure of players as a blow against the hated Castro regime and a triumph of democracy and the free market over socialist models of government control and exploitation of underpaid “slave” athletes. We can never know the true complex motives for an individual player opting to leave home for MLB riches. I have personal relations with these players and I don’t push the envelope by inquiring for intimate details of their own wrenching choices. Players have multiple reasons for the decision to abandon home, but that decision is assuredly never “politically” motivated. It always has two more obvious roots: (1) desire for economic security, and (2) a wish to test oneself against the very best. Canadians who cross the border for higher auto industry salaries are never called “defectors” nor are Mexican laborers who desire to improve their economic lives in the agricultural fields of Texas or Georgia. These Cuban players become “defectors” because of a Cuban government policy that brands them as such. And also because of OFAC and MLB policies that now require them to seek a third country residence. (We can only imagine the outcry in the North American press if FIFA suddenly decided because of US foreign policy misadventures that US soccer plays could only be eligible for European or Latin American soccer contracts by renouncing their US citizenship.)

Why do most of the best players remain at home? Again the reasons are just as complex. Before Chapman, the dream of professional riches was largely a rumor back in Cuba. And with Cuban teams dominating international play the national team stars were huge heroes at home. But these players on the island are now have constant cell phone and Facebook contact with teammates that have left. And leaving the island is now simply easier to do. Both the economy and playing conditions have worsened at home, upping the level of motivation for escape. Cuban ballparks are in bad shape. The national team doesn’t dominate and the idolization at home is diminishing as Havana fans pay more attention to the glamorous exploits of Abreu or Puig than to local stars. (Remember the parallel shift to following Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn that swept black communities back in the late 1940s.) And the league at home is no longer such a challenge after a few years for an Abreu or a Cepeda or a Gourriel who finds himself facing rosters with fill-in pitchers tossing 85 mph lollipops. But there is also the issue of family attachments, of ingrained national pride, and of the risks involved in gambling on an uncertain future. Note that with a few exceptions, most of the top names have left when doors already had closed for them in Cuba. Puig and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (Phillies) and Céspedes were already suspended. Chapman and Guerrero and Alexei Ramirez had already played themselves off the national team. El Duque had no future when he was banned in a cloud of suspicion on the heels of Liván’s defection. Only Abreu and Contreras were true surprises and then not such surprises after all since they had little left to accomplish in the sliding domestic league.

Why does the Cuban government remain unyielding about player exchanges with MLB? There is of course the ideology which is a carryover from Fidel – the assumption that a pure socialist system must see sport (especially the national game) as a right of the people and not a commercial enterprise. But the story is somewhat more complex. The Cuban National Series is a vital institution which is a societal binding force and an instrument for staffing national teams whose victories promote the system and its ideology. This is the best league perhaps outside of MLB, a true alternative baseball universe, and the only one with purely native players. It is a treasure not only to the Cuban government but also for many of us who have seen it. In Cuba you can indeed go back to a simpler baseball world with grass fields, small parks, and no ballpark noise outside of the crack of the bat and the spontaneous yells of the fans.

There is a very close and instructive parallel here with the history of the North American Negro Leagues. No one would want to reverse history and there is no argument in favor of segregated baseball. But when Jackie Robinson came to the big leagues there was a huge negative impact on black communities throughout the land. Hundreds of ballplayers lost jobs and businesses in black league cities were dealt death blows. Cuba is now facing the same fate. When the doors do open wide to MLB the Cubans will be left with no more native domestic baseball than what is found now in Puerto Rico, the DR or Venezuela. That is what they struggle to avoid.

How do the players leave the island? This is a question that cannot be answered in detail at present. Players must protect families, former teammates, future escapees, and associates at home that may have assisted their flights. Each case is different, but all now apparently involve payoffs to Cuban coast guard officials and a mountain of inside corruption prompted by a failing Cuban infrastructure. We now know much about Puig and also about El Duque and Contreras. But we know only the outline of the inside story about Abreu or Iglesias or Rusney Castillo. For the moment it will have to remain that way.

What are the attitudes toward “defecting” players among fans, media and former teammates back home? That is a matter has been revealed to me many times and some saw a glimpse of the phenomenon with the Travel Channel Anthony Bourdain show where I translated as Tony fielded a barrage of enthusiastic opinions at the Havana Central Park “Hot Corner” about the Cuban big leaguers. Cubans have an amazing pipeline to big league news which they follow religiously. They are proud of those who now demonstrate the quality of their baseball to the world. The players hold the same attitudes. It is THAT pride that causes the Cuban “fan in the street” to follow Puig or Abreu or Cespedes or José Iglesais. They have no interest in Canseco or Palmeiro or now José Fernández with the Marlins or, say, Adrian Nieto and Brayan Pena. They follow the Cubans they saw perform at the neighborhood park home.

Perhaps the largest myth is the one about the way Cuba guards its ballplayers. I have been asked over and again if it was not true that Cuba was not sending some of their best players to tournament. Such an assumption is of course ludicrous on the face of it. If your motive is to win abroad and there is a player you cannot trust on a national team, they why in the world keep him home? Better to clear him out as deadwood. This is largely what happened when Alexei Ramirez was given permission to visit his wife in the Dominican, or when Chapman was so easily allowed to walk away in Rotterdam.

Cuban teams overseas are all about team unity and about concentration on victory for the flag and for pride in the team unit. Security is tight, but it is always misunderstood. Players remain confined together in the hotel for purposes of concentration on baseball with no harmful distractions. I have been inside those hotel rooms and witnessed it firsthand. The security is mostly there to keep women and agents and autograph seekers away. MLB teams here are under similar security in hotels and the ballpark. One only has to be in Holland with the Cubans to see how much hotel freedom they actually have. Of course the management doesn’t want a player to walk in the middle of a tournament and ruin the chance for victory. But this has rarely happened. The players have their own code that largely has prevented this. Notice that even those who have left overseas have not done so during the tournament play. Aledmys Diaz who departed on the eve of 2012 Haarlem Baseball Week gold medal game is the single recent exception.

The Cuban-MLB story took a sudden unexpected sharp turn last fall with Cuba’s surprise announcement of revised dealings with overseas professional leagues. The main stream stateside press badly misreported the official Cuban news release, jumping to an unwarranted conclusion that after a half-century of Cold War standout the Castro regime was about to release its grip on homegrown baseball talent and begin freeing star players into the clutches of big league franchises. I was at the time on route home from Havana where I had been filming with ESPN and immediately took to the BaseballdeCuba website to clarify what INDER had actually announced at the very moment we had wrapped up interviews with Tony Castro, Yulieski Gourriel and Victor Mesa on the precise topic of the future of any MLB-Cuban League détente.

The details of the Cuban announcement were briefly as follows. There would be an attempt to entice star player loyalties by nudging up league pay and increasing bonuses to national team players. Gourriel had talked about this very plan with ESPN’s Paula Lavigne only days before. In essence, instead of being handed a token payment of a few hundred Cuban pesos monthly as licensed athletes (a system in effect since the 1962 banning of professional sports) players in the National Series would now receive a monthly ballplayer salary of $1,000 CP (rough $40 US). And the long standing practice of bonuses to national team players for certain tournaments and stellar individual performances would by amplified, meaning perhaps as much as an added $20,000 CP ($800 US) for stars like Gourriel or Cepeda. It should be pointed out that the big perk for national team members traveling internationally had always been the opportunity to sell cigars and uniform jerseys to fans for often several hundred dollars of extra pocket money.

The biggest news was the part most mangled by the U.S. media and that was the expansion of an already initiated plan to send some top stars to foreign leagues were they would receive summer salaries negotiated not by the players or by agents but by the Sports Ministry which would harvest as much as 80% of those salaries. This might be a plan that smacked of gross injustice for athletes in the eyes of those of us living in free enterprise societies. But that money reaped by INDER was not aimed at Swiss bank accounts for INDER officials but rather earmarked to keep afloat a league that gained almost no revenues from ticket sales or television marketing and also to fund national team travels. The Cuban baseball program (this is a third world country) operates on such tight budgets that the national tram only participates in various tournaments in Holland and Taiwan, to cite examples, because their bills are footed by the host tournaments. So far the Cuban government (as well as the Cuban players) has never received payment for participation in the second two WBC events because although that money was released by MLB it is still being stalled by OFAC as part of the Helms-Burton embargo.

Significant in the new Cuban plan was that players would not be free to seek contracts on their own, but rather INDER would place those stars it chose and would arrange their contracts. Equally important, the players were under full obligation to return at the end of the summer for service in the winter National Series and also be available for all national team duty. And the money they earned (their own 20% and the government 80%) would go back to Cuba. The former (players returning to the Cuban League) was impossible from an MLB standpoint, and the return of money to Cuba was ruled out by OFAC. Thus there was no possibility of a Cuba-MLB working agreement.

The first manifestation of the Cuban plan (already in effect in late summer 2013) was a working arrangement with the Mexican League. Last summer star slugger Alfredo Despaigne was assigned to the Campeche club where he quickly became a sensation, breaking a long standing record set (a six-for-six single game hitting outburst) by 1930’s Cuban star Martin Dihigo. Three other players also were assigned to Campeche but all three were quickly returned for underperformance or injury. But this plan quickly reached a dead end. Organized baseball made it clear to the Mexican League when Despaigne returned there this summer that ML clubs had to abide by the MLB/OFAC policy requiring Cuban players to have third country residence. In the scramble that followed the Campeche club produced a fake Dominican passport for Despaigne and when Dominican journalist Enrique Rojas broke that story on ESPN.com the league quickly backtracked and Despaigne was banned for life. That was the end of the Mexican pipeline.

Cuba still had other options. This summer INDER has opened a new agreement with the Japanese League and the result has been the shipment of three stars to the Nippon league: Freddie Cepeda to the Yomiuri Giants, Yulieski Gourriel to the DeNa Bay Stars, and Despaigne recently to the Lotte Marines. Cepeda reported received a $900,000 deal of which a fifth went into his pocket – a token perhaps compared to what his talents might have brought a few years back in the majors, but a deal making him an extremely wealthy man back home in Cuba.

Given the animus existing between MLB and the Cuban Federation there is probably little MLB could do at this point to establish any kind of working relationship that would bring the bulk of the top island stars onto big league clubs without continuing “defections”. The Cubans want (rightly or wrongly) to maintain control over their players and have them available for full National Series and national team play but the economics of MLB will simply not allow this. That is why the Cubans have explored other opinions with the Mexicans and Japanese, both of whom who have little problem with an agreement allowing stars to return to the island for winter “off-season” play.

But there certainly IS something MLB could do immediately to stop the worst offenses of the defection enterprise – such as the distasteful and dangerous human trafficking now taking place with the smuggling of players through Mexico (as with the cases of Yasiel Puig and Leonys Martin). MLB could immediately drop its policy of requiring Cubans to have residence in the third country before being allowed to sign with any organized baseball affiliated clubs.

The procedure would seem simple enough. If a player chooses to defect and leaves Cuba then MLB and the US government should allow him to seek immediate residence in the US. But as part of that arrangement the Cuban players would have to enter into the US amateur player draft and would not be allowed to negotiate as free agents seeking skyrocketing contracts. They would be limited to say a $250,000 first year contract. This would solve a number of problems for both MLB and even the Cuban Federation. If Miami and Mexican smugglers cannot put a multi-million-dollar price tag on a Cuban player’s head the smuggling enterprise will largely evaporate. Also this would be much fairer to top North American draft picks coming out of US colleges and high schools, who themselves cannot freely negotiate with whatever team they chose. And finally, if players like Abreu or Chapman had to start in the majors at $250,000 instead of $30 million, likely we would see fewer Cubans running the risk of endangering life, limb and family by dealing with cartel smugglers for a shot at the outrageous windfalls they dream of. Such a change won’t give MLB the immediate ability to vacuum up all the top island talent, as many owners and agents might perhaps wish to do. But it would let some of the pressure off the pot and perhaps point to some kind of working arrange down the road as the situation slowly evolves.

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