Sports in Cuba
Oct 1st 2013, 4:26 by The Economist online
THERE is a good story one sometimes hears recounted in the bars of
Havana or Miami that Fidel Castro once auditioned for the New York
Yankees. He was apparently so despondent not to be selected that he
decided to take revenge by spending the rest of his life haranguing the
United States. Sadly, the tale is apocryphal. While a keen player,
Cuba’s former president was not good enough at baseball to secure a
tryout—he didn’t even make the University of Havana’s varsity team. But
what is true is that ever since his alternative career path led him to
the pinnacle of power in Cuba, he has stamped his beliefs on precisely
how the game, and indeed all sports, should be played there.
For more than half a century, rule number one has been that athletes
should compete for love of the sport and their country, not for money.
There have been some exceptions made over the years, and prized
sportsmen have received perks such as hard-currency bonuses and free
houses and cars. But those were always gifts from the state, not
earnings by the players. Officially their salary was the same as
everyone else’s: a paltry $20 a month.
Ever since Mr Castro handed the reins to his younger brother Raúl in
2006, the government has undertaken a halting, cautious liberalisation
programme. First the authorities began allowing self-employment in
carefully selected professions; then they approved the sale of homes and
cars and relaxed rules on foreign travel. Now change is coming to
sports. In June Cuba agreed to return to the Caribbean Series, an annual
tournament of club baseball teams in the region that it quit in 1960.
Then, on September 27th the island’s daily newspaper, Granma, announced
perhaps the most symbolically resonant reform yet: Cuban athletes in all
sports will now be allowed to compete in foreign leagues, as long as
they pay taxes of around 20% at home and remain available to play for
their country in major competitions.
No matter how much the government wanted to maintain ideological purity
in sports, its hand was forced by a wave of defections that has ravaged
baseball on the island. From 1966 to 1993, not a single player who grew
up in Cuba went on to have a significant career in America’s Major
League Baseball (MLB). And many of those who did jump ship in the 1990s
and 2000s failed to meet expectations. But in recent years the pace of
defections has risen sharply: 21 Cubans are now on major league rosters.
By authorising athletes to ply their trade abroad during the local
league’s off-season, the government hopes both to raise much-needed hard
currency from taxing their salaries and to reduce the number of players
who choose to leave for good.
The news immediately had American teams salivating over the prospects
that might conceivably become available to them. The latest crop of
Cuban exports has enjoyed extraordinary success. Aroldis Chapman, who
received $30m from the Cincinnati Reds after slipping out of the
national team’s hotel in the Netherlands, now owns the record for the
fastest pitch ever thrown at 105 miles (170 km) per hour. Duly nicknamed
the “Cuban Missile”, he led all relievers in strikeouts this season.
Yoenis Céspedes rewarded the Oakland Athletics for his $36m deal by
leading them to an unexpected playoff appearance last year and winning
the Home Run Derby at the league’s annual All-Star Game this July. After
paying $42m to the 22-year-old Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers
handed a starting outfield job to the youngster in June, and he promptly
hit as well as anyone in the National League during the past four
months. Perhaps the most impressive of all is José Fernández, a
20-year-old who had to fish his mother out of the water while escaping
Cuba on a boat to Mexico. His earned run average this year was 44%
better than the league average, the best ratio for a rookie pitcher
since 1911. Moreover, the best may still be yet to come. Just this
August José Dariel Abreu (pictured), who has put up statistics in the
Cuban league previously seen only in video games and is universally
regarded as the country’s finest hitter, established residence in Haiti
and announced his availability.
Unfortunately for MLB, however, the new policy will have only a minimal
impact on the league’s access to Cuban stars. For that American teams
have their own politicians to blame. The United States’ trade embargo
bans any transaction that would fund the Castros’ government. As a
result, the requirement that Cuban athletes playing abroad pay local
taxes on their income would prevent MLB clubs from signing players who
plan to comply. Only outright defectors would be cleared to suit up.
America’s loss is likely to be other baseball-playing countries’ gain.
Because the Cuban season runs from November to April, local authorities
will probably be reluctant to let elite players jump to rival Caribbean
winter leagues. But Mexico has a summer league as well, and salaries in
Japan regularly reach seven figures. As Nippon Professional Baseball
reels from the loss of its own stars, most notably the Japanese-Iranian
pitcher Yu Darvish, its teams have compensated by attracting popular
foreigners: Wladimir Balentien of Curaçao, who failed to make an impact
in MLB, just broke the league’s single-season home-run record. Cuba
probably has scores of players whose abilities far exceed Mr
Balentien’s. Signing them could represent a marketing bonanza for
Japanese clubs, who very rarely get the chance to sign MLB-caliber hitters.
For now, the embargo against Cuba remains a sacred cow in Washington. As
a presidential candidate, Barack Obama called for an end to the policy,
and since taking office he has loosened restrictions on travel and
remittances to the island. Nonetheless, he has steadfastly renewed it
year after year, and has vowed to continue doing so until the country
liberalises politically as well as economically. The embargo’s
durability is usually attributed to the influence of the conservative
Cuban-American organisations that defend it. If enough Yasiel Puigs and
José Fernándezes wind up playing in Japan, well-heeled MLB teams should
consider lobbying for the other side.
Source: “Sports in Cuba: Go pro | The Economist” –