Commentary

Cuba: The state of the game

The island might not dominate anymore, but it still produces top baseball talent

Originally Published: February 5, 2014
By Jorge Morejon | ESPNdeportes.com

Cuba, which once owned a complete and seemingly permanent domination of international baseball, is in the middle of a contradiction.

On one hand, not counting the IBAF World Cup, it has been almost 10 years since Cuba won a major international tournament (the World Cup in 2005).

On the other hand, after an almost total absence from Major League Baseball for some three decades, Cuban players have started to reclaim the spotlight they once enjoyed in the best baseball league in the world.

[+] EnlargeLuis Tiant
AP Photo/Julian C. WilsonNot only was Luis Tiant successful in MLB, he became one of its most popular players.

From the time the first baseballs were thrown, Cubans have been among the best players in the world.

The Havana native Enrique Esteban Bellán, in 1871, was the pioneer. And as the game grew through the decades, men such as Adolfo Luque, Minnie Minoso, Conrado Marrero, Willie Miranda, Mike Cuellar, Tony Oliva, Tony Perez and Luis Tiant followed him.

At the Amateur World Championships (which began in 1938) and during the first stage of the Caribbean Series (between 1949 and 1960), Cuban teams dominated. In the Caribbean Series, also called the Little Latin American World Series, the island's professional teams won seven of the first 12 tournaments; and they won seven out of 15 world championships.

But when Fidel Castro came into power in 1962, professional sports (at least as they'd existed previously) were eliminated in Cuba. There was no further participation in the Caribbean Series for the next 53 years, until the 2014 edition this week on Margarita Island in Venezuela. And the flow of players out of Cuba and into Major League Baseball dried up.

All of Cuba's talent became concentrated in its national team, which remorselessly crushed any team it played. At one point, Cuba won 100 consecutive games in official international tournaments.

Two factors were at play here: The Cubans were true professionals in the service of their country, going up against inferior opponents, amateur teams, young players who were unable to cope with the experience Cuba was putting on the field.

[+] EnlargeVictor Mesa
AP PhotoIn 1984, Fidel Castro congratulated Victor Mesa and the team that won the world amateur championship. Mesa never had the chance to pitch in the majors.

On top of this, between the end of the 1970s and the start of the '90s, Cuba developed the best generation of players in its history, athletes who dazzled any talent scout who turned up at international tournaments.

Omar Linares, Luis Giraldo Casanova, Pedro Jose Rodríguez, Antonio Munoz, Braudilio Vinent, Armando Capiro, Antonio Pacheco, Víctor Mesa, Alfonso Urquiola, Pedro Medina, Rey Vicente Anglada, Lazaro Valle, Rogelio Garcia and German Mesa are just a few of the dozens of stars that Major League Baseball missed out on during that 25-year gap.

Today, although it is always competitive, the Cuban national team is no longer the single international star on the world stage. In part, that's because baseball on the island has been left behind technically and the lack of sports facilities reduces the developmental potential of the minor leagues. Too, the country's domestic league is going through a structural crisis which screams for urgent radical changes in order to increase its competitive level.

At the same time, more and more talented prospects are leaving to find a better future outside the country. It is exactly this which has allowed the recent great wave of talented players to arrive in the major leagues -- there were more than 20 in 2013.

That figure is still far lower than the 300-some Dominicans who ply their trade in the 30 major league franchises and their minor league farm teams.

[+] EnlargeCuban baseball team
AP Photo/Jerome FavreCuba celebrated its 2001 World Cup title, but international championships have been few and far between since then.

Yet while the quality of the Cuban league and its results in international tournaments has lessened, the Cuban presence has significantly increased in the best baseball league in the world.

They are still relatively few in number, but they mostly are important players on their teams, such as Aroldis Chapman (Cincinnati Reds), Alexei Ramirez (Chicago White Sox), Yasiel Puig (Los Angeles Dodgers), Yoenis Cespedes (Oakland Athletics), Jose Fernandez and Adeiny Hechavarria (Miami Marlins), and Jose Iglesias (Detroit Tigers).

Much is expected in 2014 of Jose Dariel Abreu, signed by the White Sox for $68 million, and Alexander Guerrero, who signed with the Dodgers for $28 million.

And approximately 50 Cubans are in the process of trying to climb the rungs from the minor leagues in order to fulfill the dreams for which they left friends and family, and their old lives, behind.

Jorge Morejon is a Cuban reporter with more than 20 years of experience, first in Cuba, and since 1998 in the U.S. He was a columnist for El Nuevo Herald in Miami, Univision.com and FoxDeportes. He was also a sports anchor for Telemundo International.

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