As an avid reader of baseball, I thought it would be interesting to dig deeply into my own roots of being a fan of Cuban baseball and get an expert’s take on the subject. That is, Cubans playing baseball from Cuba who have immigrated to the United States through other countries. To further convey this idea and tie it into the justice issue of human trafficking, I was able to contact Mr. Peter C. Bjarkman, an expert on Cuban baseball who was willing to share his thoughts on the topic. We thank Peter for his insight to this topic and how it relates to the current influx of Cuban stars to the United States and Japan. Since then “Brothers in Exile,” an ESPN 30 for 30 episode has aired.
October 5, 2014
MS: What is it that makes the Cuban ball players that have defected from Cuba to the United States so attractive to MLB teams?
PCB: Cuban players have been very much on the radar screens of MLB teams for several decades now, especially after 1999 (starting with the Pan American Games in Winnipeg that year) when wooden bats and top professional players (including major leaguers) were first introduced to international tournaments; even after to better pros came on the scene the powerful Cuban squads continued their high level of play and even their half-century-plus domination in those international events. The recent interest was also piqued in the late 1990s with the big league successes of the half-brothers Liván and Orlando “El Duque” Hernández (and also José Contreras in the early 2000s) on the big league scene.
But of course the real focus on the Cubans began with the initial appearances of the handful of even higher quality Cuban stars in the last few years – led by Aroldis Chapman (100-mph-throwing Cincinnati reliever), Alexei Ramírez (top defensive shortstop with the Chicago White Sox) and finally Yoenis Céspedes (winner of the MLB All-Star Weekend Home Run Derby the past two summers). The growing phenomenon was ramped up a further notch by the sensational debut of Yasiel Puig with the Dodgers last season and then the explosive arrival of AL top rookie José Abreu this summer in Chicago.
The short answer to your question is a simple one: it has long been known by those who regularly watch the Cuban game that the Cuban National Series ranks alongside the Japanese leagues (Central and Pacific) as the two best pro circuits outside of MLB itself. An island nation with a population the size of New York City, Cuba has been a rather amazing producer of great baseball talent over the decades. (Precisely why is so much talent produced by Cuba? That is a complex question/answer that is dealt with at some length in my 2007 book A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006). But up until the last half-dozen years the cream of the crop among all this talent has remained unwilling to leave their homeland. Now that worsening economic conditions on the island have motivated more of the top stars to risk “defection” for promised big league riches, the Cuban presence and impact in MLB has begun to grow by leaps and bounds.
MS: Based on your research and experiences, why do Cuban ball players attract such high salaries compared to the Dominican and Venezuelan players signed at 16, and American players who are drafted out of high school and college?
PCB: The youngsters signed out of the Dominican or Venezuela, or even those plucked from US high schools or colleges, are in almost all cases still promising “prospects” but hardly polished or mature professional players. (They are raw teenagers with obvious skills but no pro experience.) Thus no club is going to risk multi-millions on a prospect that has potential but is also a definite risk and will thus not have immediate big league impact. But these top-level “defectors” from the Cuban national team or Cuban League (called the Cuban National Series) have been scouted across a number of years and have already demonstrated mature MLB-level talents.
And now of course there is still another factor that is serving to spiral the whole phenomenon out of control. MLB front offices command almost unlimited bank rolls to invest and also feel great pressures to remain at the forefront of a highly competitive economic marketplace. The unexpected and truly sensational debuts of Yasiel Puig (who was not even that big a star in Cuba) and Abreu (who was indeed Cuba’s top slugger) – along with the radar-gun-smashing performances of Aroldis Chapman that have garnered so much media attention – now have everyone in MLB front offices thinking (hoping? even believing?) that each new “defector” may possibly be the next Puig or the next Abreu.
No free-spending MLB club wants to gamble on being left behind in this frenzied hunt for the next truly big prize. This explains the recent $72 million contract just inked by Boston’s Rusney Castillo (admittedly a potential quality big leaguer, but in my view not nearly the equal of either Abreu or Puig) and even higher numbers being rumored for still-unsigned outfielder Yasmani Tomás (a greater risk still, with lots of undisciplined offensive talent but major gaps in his total game). And finally, player agents are taking advantage of this signing frenzy surrounding the Cubans and usually trying to amplify the luster of some of these recently arrived defectors (e.g. Yasmani Tomás) beyond all reason. Each time a former member of the Cuban national squad arrives on the open market we hear that he is the best thing to come along in decades – which is often a considerable stretching of the truth. Eventually (and probably soon) a few of these top-dollar signees (like Alex Guerrero with the Dodgers or Miguel Alfredo González with the Phillies) will fail to pan out as expected and the out-of-control spending frenzy will ease up a bit.
MS: What is the official/unofficial stance of the Cuban government regarding players who have left for a chance to play in Major League Baseball? What steps are they taking to allow for players to seek opportunities elsewhere?
PCB: The Cuban government and the Cuban Sports Ministry has always taken the stance officially (and publically) that such players are “traitors” to the country and to the system that has raised them and therefore they are rarely discussed in the official media and they have not been allowed to return freely to their homeland. In the last two years the policy has been modified slightly and players like Contreras and El Duque have been permitted to return home for visits after seven years (from the time of their departure), and only after they have retired as active MLB players. Also as part of these recent policy shifts by Raúl Castro and INDER, we now have those big-name players who have departed and become major stars in the North American professional game (e.g. Abreu, Chapman, Céspedes, Puig, etc.) being mentioned on Cuban radio and television sports talk shows (something that would never have occurred only a decade back). For several decades both the ball players who “defected” – and also retired former stars (like ace pitcher Maels Rodríguez or Olympic hero Antonio Pacheco) who left Cuba only after their careers ended – have had their names and records still carried in the official Cuban record books and annual published baseball guides. But their names until recently were marked with an asterisk and the footnote that they had “left the country”. Now even that asterisk notation has been dropped.
The Cuban government (in a much-discussed and often misunderstood decree of September 2013) has now taken some largely futile steps to stem the loss of star players. These changes include a minimal upgrade in pay (including larger bonus for national team stars who may now earn as much as $5,000 a year) and also a program of placing some selected top stars overseas (so far exclusively with the Japanese leagues) where they can earn major salaries during the summer and then return to Cuba for the National Series season in the winter. This past season long-time national team star Freddie Cepeda earned $900,000 with Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants; although 80% percent of that contract went back to the Cuban sports ministry, Cepeda’s own take of nearly $200,000 makes him a very wealthy man in Cuba. The overseas placement of players actually began in Summer 2013 with star slugger Alfredo Despaigne and three other veterans being loaned to the Campeche Mexican League club. But that plan was quickly sabotaged by Organized Baseball (MLB) which has a working agreement with the Mexican League that requires Cuban players (because of the Helms-Burton laws and the US economic embargo of Cuba) to abandon their Cuban citizenship and take up a third country residence. So Cuba has now refocused their policy exclusively on Japan, and top stars Despaigne, Freddie Cepeda (as mentioned) and Yulieski Gourriel have been playing for Japanese clubs this current season, with plans to return to Cuba in October/November.
The new Cuban policy does not allow for players coming to the USA or to MLB for two obvious reasons. First the US Treasury Department rules connected with the embargo policies will not allow Cuban players to return their earnings to Cuba (and thus the Cuban government has no incentive to ship players out to North America). More important still, MLB clubs would never agree to the players returning home for full seasons of winter league play (thus risking injury and overuse). The latter condition is crucial for the Cuban authorities because their entire motive is to continue a strong domestic league for their fans and even more importantly to build a strong national team to defend and promote their socialist sports system with victories at international tournaments.
It might also be noted here that the attitude of the vast majority of Cuban baseball fans is quite different from the attitude of the government. Anyone who saw the Anthony Bourdain “No Reservations Cuba” Travel Channel episode knows about that after witnessing the scene with me and Bourdain debating local baseball in Havana’s Central Park with fans who mainly wanted to talk about El Duque and Chapman and what they were doing in the big leagues. The “man-in-the-street” in Havana, and elsewhere in Cuba, takes huge pride in these “defectors” and sees them as demonstrating just how good Cuba’s baseball is. In other words, everyday Cubans see them not as threats to the system (the government position) but rather as great symbols of Cuban national pride and achievement.
MS: Paint a picture for us of how Cuban players attract the interest of scouts in the United States. What are the ways those players gain entry into the United States?
PCB: MLB scouts are of course not welcome (not allowed) inside of Cuba, although one can watch Cuban League games on internet television (either directly at Cubavision or through our website at www.BaseballdeCuba.com) and therefore the baseball inside of Cuba is not as “hidden” as it once was. But all MLB teams have a bevy of international scouts who trail the Cubans and other national teams to all major and minor international tournaments (including youth tournaments such as the IBAF U16, U18, and U21 world championships). Whenever the Cuban squads are playing they are the top draw for the international scouting corps and I have been at many of these events when at least 30-40 MLB birddogs are charting every pitch, collecting every stat, filming at times, and developing very detailed profiles on the top Cuban players at all age levels. These scouts have little or no personal contact with the Cuban players and never approach them about leaving (“defecting”), although there are definitely player agents hanging around these tournaments who try to circumvent Cuban security and get directly to some of the players with enticing offers
Cuban players who opt to defect do not come directly to the USA but rather seek entry and residence first in third countries like Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica or Haiti. The reason that players don’t try to come directly to the USA (in addition to the difficulty of doing so) is that they would then be subject to the MLB amateur player draft rules which would mean they could not freely negotiate high signing bonuses with all MLB teams on the open market. They would also be subject to the much more limited signing bonus restrictions placed on players in the amateur draft. Even a Cuban “defector” reaching a third country and declaring as a free agent must now meet a stipulation (if he is under 26 years of age) imposed by MLB of having played either in three major international tournaments or having played in a minimum of five National Series seasons. If these conditions are not met, huge multi-million-dollar signings are not permitted. Agents who arrange for Cuban players to escape the homeland and then represent them as clients obviously don’t want those players coming directly to the USA and thus reducing the dollars available to both the player and also his agent (who will of course get a large cut of any contract for the services he has provided).
MS: Prior to the early 2000s, there were not many Cuban players in Major League Baseball. Why has there been this recent influx?
PCB: This is any easy question to answer – “Cold War” politics. Between 1962 and the late 1990s the split between Washington and Havana slowed and almost entirely eliminated the Cuban big league presence. After 1962 the best Cuban players (virtually all the Cuban players) stayed at home; the Cuban national team won just about every amateur international tournament in sight (especially before pro players from other countries were employed starting in 1999), national team members were huge heroes at home, life was relatively good on the island before the collapse of Soviet economic support, and there were no tantalizing and enticing stories about fellow Cubans coming to America and pocketing huge salaries. As most young Cuban ballplayers saw it, there was little or no reason to leave; they all bought into the notion of the superiority and purity of their socialist sports system.
But after the ground-breaking defection of Rolando Arrojo on the eve of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and then the slow trickle beginning with the Hernández brother (both post-season heroes in MLB) and Jose Contreras, things began to change – especially when the Cuban economy went into free fall in the mid-2000s and also increased tourism to the island began to demonstrate to some of the young players the things that foreigners had and they didn’t have (cell phones, cars, stereos and big screen TVs for starters). It was the big salary bonanzas for the like of Chapman, Alexei Ramírez and Céspedes across the past five years that really turned things around. Now with the national team not enjoying as much success, the biggest heroes on the island are guys like Abreu, Puig, Céspedes and Chapman – with their big league achievements and big league riches – and that provides still further motivation for young stars to depart and follow in the footsteps of earlier successful defectors from the system.
If true big-name stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s like sluggers Omar Linares and Orestés Kindelán or pitchers Omar Ajete and Rogelio García had abandoned the homeland, we would have seen this same dramatic Cuban splash on the big league scene already occurring a couple of decades earlier.
MS: One could view the aspect of Cuban players or Latin Americans coming to the US to play baseball as exploitation by MLB or even as human trafficking. What makes this example of players coming to the US to play human trafficking and in your opinion, what makes this case different?
PCB: First of all you have to distinguish here between several different categories of players and several different routes/methods by which they have chosen to leave Cuba. There are those like Danys Baez (1999), Aroldis Chapman (2009), José Contreras (2003), Aledmis Díaz (2012), Odrisamer Despaigne (2013) and a handful (though limited number) of other who walked away from the Cuban national team while it was playing overseas. There are others (including many of the young players who got to the Dominican and then never showed enough talent to get signed, or who signed and never made it out of the low minors) who arranged to orchestrate their own often hair-raising escapes by boat off the island (similar to the many non-athletes who attempted to reach Florida as rafters or so-called balseros). In the last couple of years the Cuban government has also been for the first time allowing many of its citizens access to passports and emigration papers, and even some ballplayers (those not considered crucial to the national team) have recently been given such permission for “legal” departure from Cuba. In none of these cases has there been anything that could be considered to be human trafficking.
Two interesting cases of such departures might be mentioned here. Back in 1980 during the famed Mariel Boat Lift a player named Barbaro Garbey (then serving a prison sentence in Cuba and banned for life from baseball during a game-fixing scandal) was shipped to American shores by Fidel (when Castro used the mass emigration to clear out his prison of thousands of “undesirables”). Garbey latter turned up in the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers as the first post-revolution Cuban Leaguer to play in MLB (despite his conviction in Cuba for game-fixing, which was dismissed by Organized Baseball honchos not as a crime but rather as an admirable blow against Fidel’s communist system.) It was a strange case indeed, and one that early-on underscored MLB hypocrisy when it comes to grapping up Cuban baseball talent.
Much more recently in 2008, Alexei Ramirez (national team second baseman at the time) was given permission to make a legal visit to the Dominican Republic, where his wife (a Dominican citizen) and two children were living after she finished medical school in Havana. There was wide speculation at the time that the Cubans were willing to risk losing Ramirez who didn’t any longer fit strongly into the national team picture after the emergence of a young star named Héctor Olivera, who eventually had a decent but not spectacular Cuban career, was later slowed by a series of injuries, and himself defected to the DR only last month (September 2014). As it turned out Ramirez did not return; he later turned up as a fixture with the Chicago White Sox and in the immediate aftermath of his departure the Cuban baseball commissioner (who had sanctioned the visit to the DR) lost his job.
Now to return to the issue at hand, there has been another more celebrated category of Cuban ballplayer escapes from the island and these are the cases surrounding Puig and Leonys Martin, and possibly also some of the other recent departures. Since the players do not talk freely about their methods of escape (since that might jeopardize the safety of their families and also of friends at home you may have assisted) it is hard to determine exactly which “defections” fall into this final category. But there is plenty of evidence that at least the cases of Puig, Martin and Yoenis Céspedes do fit here.
These latter cases all involve unscrupulous player agents, as well as hardcore crime syndicates operating out of Miami and Mexico. A player tagged as a “human gold mine” – a future MLB star almost certain to bring big bucks from a likely bulging contract – is offered assistance in getting off the island and into Mexico or the DR once he signs an agreement to hand over a big cut of his eventual riches to the smugglers and agents involved. This is a scenario fraught with danger and often resulting in the darkest of results. As in the case of Puig the payoff money being demanded is often increased (sometimes more than doubled) once the player gets “safely” into Mexico or Haiti or the DR; sometime the player refuses to pay what is eventually demanded, and sometimes (like Puig) he is literally held prisoner by his unscrupulous handlers. Family members are threatened and the player himself may be a marked man. To see some of the details of what happens here you can turn to my earlier June 2014 article published in the on-line journal The Daily Beast; that piece exposes many of the horrendous details associated with the Yasiel Puig case.
In these later scenarios of players snuck out of Cuba for promised huge windfall payments to smugglers, there can be little doubt that this is human trafficking in its purist and ugliest form. The only thing that separates these cases from smuggling teenaged Eastern European girls across boarders for the sex trade, or smuggling Asians or Mexicans into the US as cheap agricultural labor is the amount of dollars involved. Understand here that there is absolutely no evidence that MLB clubs have in any way been involved in the illegal smuggling itself; they don’t encourage it but they benefit from it and may in fact facilitate it with their silence. The fact that MLB clubs have willing thrown millions of dollars at some of these players once they arrive on big-league shores certainly opens the argument that the sport has at the very least been guilty of looking the other way and thus blithely ignoring a huge social and political problem.
MS: Should a player not pan out in the big leagues, what incentives allow Cuban players to stay in the US and more importantly thrive in this country?
PCB: Those who have gotten decent signing bonuses even though they may have failed to make the majors (e.g. Yasser Gomez who is now retired or Raciel Iglesias who still has good prospects) plus those who experienced only small big league success (Bárbaro Canizares or Yunieski Maya) now have more than enough pocket change to settle into Miami and live comfortably, or to settle in the Dominican Republic if they feel more culturally at home there. The tragic cases are the many young players (and their number is in the hundreds) who fled to the DR or Mexico with blossoming big league dreams (often improperly encouraged by greedy agents who would soon quickly dumb them) yet never possessed enough talent to play professionally and thus grasp the pot of gold. Not only are many of these guys stranded in Mexico, Haiti or the DR without much in the way of future economic prospects, but they are now also cut off from families in their original homeland. This rarely discussed part of the Cuban “defector” story is the part no one seems willing to talk much about.
MS: Do you anticipate more Cuban players to follow in the footsteps of Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Céspedes, Yasiel Puig, and others? What could change this Cuban player renaissance?
PCB: The Cuban talent is still deep (despite the recent headline departures from the island), the conditions on the island are not improving economically, each new success in the big leagues by a former Cuban Leaguer is further motivation and inspiration to players back home, and the young talent coming along in the youth divisions is apparently as strong as ever (Cuba just showed very well this summer in the Under-16 and Under-18 world championships). All these factors combine to suggest a further Cuban impact on the big leagues in coming years, even without any changes in the half-century-old Cuba-USA “Cold War” policies. There are already a few potential new (if lesser) Puigs and Abreus on the scene in the persons of Rusney Castillo (Red Sox) and Jorge Soler (Cubs) who both demonstrated very solid talent during their brief September 2014 call-ups. Both Castillo and Soler will likely be in the 2015 Rookie-of-the-Year hunt in their respective leagues.
The new Cuban government policies will likely not stem the tide of departures from the island, since most young players do not see themselves as having much of a shot at landing one of the limited assignments being offered to veteran Cuban stars in Japan. I didn’t stress this above, but the new Cuban regulations do not allow players to negotiate with foreign leagues on their own; rather the sports ministry (INDER) arranges these deals as payoffs for a handful of veteran stars – in most cases players who have demonstrated long loyalty to the system (like Cepeda, Gourriel, Despaigne and Michel Enríquez) and who because of their age are much less likely to gamble on a brief shot at the major leagues.
On the other hand there must be two caveats given here. Puig and Abreu (as well as Chapman) were very rare talents and represent the exceptions rather than the rule among Cuban players. While we can expect some more quality Cuban imports on the US scene, to assume anyone will outdo or even match recent extraordinary rookie performances like those of Puig or Abreu is probably a pipe dream.
And finally, anyone either here or back in Cuba expecting that the recent talent drain will soon mean the collapse or even the severe decline of Cuba’s national team – or especially of its domestic league – is also probably also projecting a fantasy. The Cuban League in its present form (the only top level circuit in the world in any major sport that uses only native home-grown players) cannot last forever under its current guise and its glory years are likely in the past. Similarly the Cuban communist economic system is likely living on borrowed time. Baseball still runs deep in Cuban blood and it is more truly the “national pastime” there than it is anywhere else on the planet (including the good old USA where pro football now reigns as the national passion). Rest assured that neither the Cuban system of government nor the Cuban baseball enterprise it created will disappear overnight. Many have been predicting the demise of both for decades now and it obviously has not happened yet. Nor is it likely to happen anytime soon.
Author’s Note: Peter C. Bjarkman has authored two important books on Cuban baseball – Smoke: The Romance & Lore of Cuban Baseball (with Mark Rucker, 1999) and A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (recently re-released in paperback from McFarland Publishers). He is currently writing a book on the Cuban “Defector” phenomenon for Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (Cuba’s Baseball Defectors – The Inside Story of Major League Baseball’s Hottest Issue, scheduled for 2015 publication).
Bjarkman is the Senior Baseball Writer at www.BaseballdeCuba.com. As a widely noted expert on Cuban baseball history and expert commentator on the current Cuban baseball scene, Bjarkman has appeared regularly in the mainstream US and international media. He guided TV Chef Anthony Bourdain around Havana on the Travel Channel episode of “No Reservations Cuba” in 2011, and he will appear on the ESPN “30-for-30” documentary “Brothers in Exile” (the Liván and El Duque Hernández Story) scheduled for debut airing on November 4, 2014. His personal website is found at www.Bjarkman.com.