Friday, March 17, 2017

How ‘socialismo’ killed Cuban baseball

A few years ago, I remember hearing a radio interview with a local gentleman who had played baseball in the 1940s.  The host asked the guest about his first time in spring training.   The gentleman chuckled and answered with a little story.  It had something to do with not being able to hit the curve ball.   Yes, the man said that he those curve balls confirmed that he should do something else for a living.
Cuba went 1-2 in the first and 0-3 in the second round.   They were eventually eliminated by the Netherlands, a team with major leaguers like Jurickson Profar, Didi Gregorius, Xander Bogaerts, and several pitchers with major or AAA experience. I don’t know how many of these players have ever been to the Netherlands but they’ve spent time in Dallas, Boston, and New York.
I can imagine the Cuban manager, a veteran of international competition, looking at his squad and longing for the days when his men met junior college teams from the U.S. and amateur baseball clubs from the world. There were no Profars, Gregoriuses, or Bogaerts in those old Dutch teams!   
So why happened to Cuban baseball? Why was Cuba dispatched so easily this time around?
The first reason is competition, or as someone said this is not “Los Pan Americanos” or those amateur Pan American Games where Cuban teams beat up teams over the years.     
Am I the only person who saw Cuban hitters rattled by “breaking” pitches that they had never seen before?  In the past, these hitters hit doubles. Today, they are ground balls that turn into easy double plays.   “La curva or el sinker” as they say in Cuba!
The second reason is defections. In other words, most of the best young players defect as soon as they have a chance.      
Ben Strauss wrote about it last year when the Rays played an exhibition game in Havana. By the way, he is referring to earlier tournaments not the 2017 WBC. The results are the same:
According to one estimate, 150 Cuban ballplayers defected last year, leaving the national team’s ranks awfully thin. 
The Cuban team, once an international powerhouse, has been underperforming lately.
It won a bronze medal in last year’s Pan-American games in Toronto, but lost in the quarterfinals of the Premiere 12 tournament last fall in Asia. 
Earlier this year, in the Caribbean Series tournament, the Cuban team posted just a 1-4 record.
Adding insult to injury, the last remaining superstar in Cuba, Yulieski Gourriel, defected after the Caribbean Series in February with his brother, Lourdes Jr., a promising young player.
I guess that word is out in Cuba that “los Yankis” will pay you well to play ball. So long to playing for “la patria” (the fatherland), or the Cuban way.
They are also hearing stories of Cuban defectors who are playing well up here. So defection is the word of the day as Cuban baseball meets reality.     
Let me add another point. I’ve heard Cuban players say that they want to play the best competition, or the natural instinct of any athlete who wants to be the best in his field. Success in the Cuban league will get you a nice bureaucratic job but you will never know how good a baseball player you really are.
Before his death last year, I used to hear my father’s stories of major leaguers playing in the pre-Castro winter league. My dad saw a very young Willie Mays and Brooks Robinson right before they became regulars with their teams.      
Cuban baseball was really good back then because you were facing major league talent, as you can learn from the great book “The Pride of Havana.”     
Cuban baseball is not the best anymore, another consequence of “socialismo.” Regime change will bring freedom to Cuba and also “el sinker”.
P.S. You can listen to my show (Canto Talk) and follow me on Twitter.

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