Did you watch the ‘Brothers in Exile – 30 for 30’? I did.
Now, a new pair of ball-playing Cuban brothers are in the news:
Yulieski Gourriel, 31, and his brother, Lourdes Gourriel Jr., 22, defected this month, hoping to make the jump to the major leagues.
While I’m curious where they’ll end up, I found myself more intrigued by where they came from –a place President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama plan to visit in March, ‘marking the first time in more than 80 years a sitting U.S. president will visit the country.’
Since Obama announced in December of 2014 that “the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba,” the US and Cuba have re-opened embassies and commercial air traffic has been restored.
As a framer, I’ve had the privilege of seeing some incredible art that Americans who have recently traveled to Cuba have brought back.
As a baseball enthusiast, I’ve wondered what this change in our relationship with Cuba has meant and will mean for Major League Baseball. Judging from the countless articles I’ve found online, I’m not the only one.
A New York Times’ article about the Gourriel brothers’ defection states: ‘The Gourriels’ apparent defections come as Major League Baseball and Cuba’s baseball federation seek a working relationship that would allow Cuban players to leave their country legally to play in the major leagues.’
…It also included this insane stat: ‘According to the website OnCuba, a record 150 ballplayers left Cuba in 2015, leaving many to lament a dropping level of play, as younger players have been called on to fill the rosters of the 16 domestic league teams.’
The 2016 exhibition game (against the Tampa Bay Rays) scheduled to take place during spring training next month was also addressed: ‘Plans for that game are still on, M.L.B. has said, but whether the apparent defections of the Gourriels will affect those plans remains to be seen.’
It’s fascinating to look at Cuba through the lens of baseball, which is so quintessentially American, but also so quintessentially Cuban.
In light of recent events, I’ve created a timeline of baseball in Cuba:
1868- Nemesio and his brother, Ernesto, found the Habana Base Ball Club and baseball begins to spread in Cuba.
October, 1868– The Ten Years’ War, the 1st of 3 liberation wars that Cuba fought against Spain, begins. The Spanish colonial government outlaws baseball, telling the island’s athletes to take up bullfighting instead, which is basically the same thing, right?
Baseball becomes a symbol of freedom.
1878- The Ten Years’ War ends in Cuban rebel defeat—But! The colonial government lets Cuba have its baseball and the Cuban League is founded. Nemesio’s Habana Club becomes a charter member of the league. Nemesio played the first few seasons, then retired, but his team, later known as the Habana Reds, went on to become the Yankees of Cuba.
Jump to- 1898- The Spanish-American War– The US intervenes in the Cuban fight for freedom from Spain and declares war. In December, the US and Spain sign the Treaty of Paris, which recognized Cuban independence.
1899- The All Cubans, a team of Cuban League players, become the first Latin American team to tour the US.
1900- The Cuban League starts admitting black players. Eventually, players from the Northern American Negro Leagues start going to Cuba to play baseball in the winter.
1902–05- The All Cubans return to the US, ‘exposing players to major league and minor league scouts and introducing black Cuban players to competition against the Negro leagues. Later, Negro league teams included the Cuban Stars and the New York Cubans, which were stocked mostly with Cuban or other Latin American players.’
Baseball takes off in Cuba…
1940’s-1950’s- ‘Amateur baseball’ thrives in Cuba. ‘Many of the leagues were composed of factory or businesses workers who represented their individual companies. … Cuban males were inclined to participate in the amateur leagues because they were an outlet from the everyday stresses they experienced in both work and family life. The passion of amateur play was not controlled by money or international recognition.’ (Black players ‘were excluded from amateur baseball and had to play for the semiprofessional teams.’)
‘…The growth of education in Cuba led to the decline of amateur baseball. As the players became more educated, they attempted to bypass the amateur level of ball and head straight for the Professional leagues… Opportunities the Professional leagues offered players gave them the option of playing for US teams and making more money…’
1961- Fidel Castro outlaws professional sports following the Cuban Revolution and new amateur baseball leagues are formed in place of the former professional system. ‘The revolutionary government made baseball a symbol of excellence and used it to encourage nationalism.’ Under the new system, players experienced a considerable cut in pay. ‘The reorganization aimed to organize the sport based on a socialist model of sports driven by national ideals rather than money. Revolutionary officials believed that under capitalism sport is corrupted by the profit motive.’
1991- The dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trading partner, hits Cuba’s economy hard. Many players, including Orlando and Livan Hernandez, defect in the 1990’s.
1999- The Cuban national baseball team plays in a two-game exhibition series against the Baltimore Orioles! (The O’s won the 1st game in Havana, the Cuban national team won the 2nd game in Baltimore.)
2015- Let me just copy & paste that stat from earlier: ‘a record 150 ballplayers left Cuba in 2015.’ Also: ‘a delegation of major leaguers made a goodwill visit to Cuba in December… In a show of progress, the Cuban government allowed several major leaguers who were defectors — including Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox and Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers — to take part.’
2016- President Obama plans to travel to Cuba in March & the M.L.B. has plans for an exhibition game (also scheduled to take place in March.)
With all this progress being made- I can’t help but turn a critical eye to the current Presidential race.
‘The 2016 Republican candidates ‘have it backward,’ Clinton (has) said. ‘Engagement is not a gift to the Castros, its a threat to the Castros. An American embassy in Havana isn’t a concession, it’s a beacon.’’
Then, there’s the incomparable Donald Trump, everyone’s favorite racist, not to mention Cruz and Rubio’s main competition, who said in 2015: “The concept of opening with Cuba is fine.” Wow, ok, cool? Then, just a few days ago, he offered up this gem: “Maybe in our deal with Cuba, we get them to take it over and reimburse us, because we’re probably paying rent. We’re going to keep it open, but we’re going to get the cost down, because that’s ridiculous.” The linked article went on to clarify, ‘the United States does not pay Cuba anything to operate the Guantanamo Bay base.’
What a world we live in… and what will 2017 bring for Cuban ball players hoping to find opportunity in the major leagues? The answer to that question seems to be as uncertain as -yet inextricably linked to- who will win the race for the White House.
*It just so happens, I have also been reading The League of Outsider Baseball, an awesome gift from an even awesomer brother-in-law. It’s where I got just about all my facts on Nemesio Guilló (see picture!)
Till next time, your grl on base.