Quick Take --
Ground-breaking Cuban baseball writer Bruce Brown serves up the full sweep of Cuba's glorious baseball tradition, history and achievement in Cuban Baseball! / ¡Béisbol Cubano! -- from the beginning at Palmar del Junco in 1866 to the Communist scouted, trained and nurtured Cuban béisbolistas who are reshaping Major League Baseball in Capitalist American today.Excerpt --
THE JOKE that flying baseballs are the greatest pedestrian hazard in Havana is only partly a joke.
On strolls from the Havana Riviera to Old Havana, I have counted dozens of pickup baseball games and nearly been beaned twice. I've seen balls were flying off the trunks of royal palms, onto apartment-house roofs, across moving lanes of traffic, and against the pastel iron gates of old mansions like the one occupied by the Albanian Embassy.
Passionate discussion of el pelota (which means simply "the ball") is an afternoon staple of establishments like El Pelota Cafe on Havana's 23rd Street, and in the evening the fanaticos gather at Havana's 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano to drink thimbles of sweet Cuban coffee and watch the game.
Here, on a well-kept natural-grass field with brick-red base paths, Cuban players compete in the top two levels of Cuba's rigorous competition year round, with the National Series scheduled during the prime winter months and the less successful Selective Series scheduled during the climatologically challenged summer months. Out of these competitions comes the Cuban National Team, the apex of Cuban baseball and one of the most successful athletic organizations in modern history.
For decades, Cuba has dominated world amateur baseball in somewhat the way Taiwan has dominated world Little League baseball and the United States has dominated world professional baseball. The Cuban National Team has won 50 Gold Medals for baseball in international competition since 1961, including 25 in the World Cup of Baseball, 12 in the Pan American Games and three in the Olympics. These triumphs have been particularly gratifying for the government of Fidel Castro, which has made success in baseball a major priority.
Baseball in Cuba, where organized league play began in 1878 (just two years after the birth of the National League, and twenty-two years before the birth of the American League), has always differed from American baseball in several respects. For instance, Cuban umpires call strikes before balls when they give the count, and today aluminum bats are allowed at all levels of play in Cuba. Some of the game's colloquialisms are a little different as well. While Americans may refer to the outfield as the "pasture" (as in, "he roamed the pasture, mainly in center..."), Cubans speak of the "gardens" (as in, "he ventured into the gardens, mainly in the central...").
Historically, the biggest difference between Cuban baseball and American baseball has been the racial attitudes of the two. The professional Cuban League was integrated in 1900 -- nearly a half century before professional baseball in America -- with the admission of a team from San Francisco which was all black. When San Francisco easily won the Cuban League pennant that year, most of the remaining teams began bidding for black talent to add to their squads. After that, blacks and whites competed freely in professional baseball in Cuba.
So when American baseball was a bastion of racism, the greatest interracial games -- pitting Ty Cobb against John Henry Lloyd, and Carl Hubbell against Luis Tiant, Sr., etc. -- took place in Havana's Almendares Park, not in New York's Yankee Stadium or Boston's Fenway Park. It was the Cubans who proved that the game could be successfully integrated, and it was the Cubans who provided the Brooklyn Dodgers the facilities where they could bring Jackie Robinson to spring training in 1947.
More overtly political than the American sport as well, Cuban baseball has been closely linked with the causes of national independence and revolution since the days of José Marti. In the modern era, the government of Fidel Castro has proven particularly adept at using the sport for political ends. The Cuban National Team plays baseball all over the world and has helped Cuban foreign policy in Nicaragua (where it played exhibition games to benefit flood victims) and Japan (where it has helped to cement the relationship that has made Japan one of Cuba's most active trading partners).
Americans chronically complain that the Cuban National Team is really a professional squad in amateur disguise, but that's because Americans don't understand the differences between Cuban and American culture. Cuba has always had a much stronger non-scholastic amateur sports tradition than the United States, especially in baseball. For instance, "El Curvador" Connie Marrero spent most of his career playing high level amateur ball in Havana, and only turned pro and went to the Washington Senators at the end of his playing days in 1950. In fact, the Cuban Federation of Sport or Federación Cubano de Atletismo, which oversees all Cuban amateur sports, dates to 1924, nearly three decades before the Revolution.
Today in Cuba, high level athletes play the sport they love on "sports leave" from their regular jobs, and during the baseball season ballplayers are paid at the same rate they get from their off-season work. Cuban baseball players may receive performance bonuses, but many Cuban stars still make only a few thousand dollars a year. Liván Hernández said he made $6 a month in Cuba pitching for the Villa Clara Naranjas in the Cuban Selective Series (where he led the league in strike outs in 1994). When he came to the United States in 1995, he reportedly signed a $4.6 million dollar deal with the Florida Marlins.
Americans tend to see this arrangement as outrageously exploitive -- perhaps even tantamount to slave labor -- but Pelota Revolucionaria has many virtues that Americans also tend to overlook. First of all, Pelota Revolucionaria produces superior baseball players. On that point, there is no debate. Cuban baseball players are both very well conditioned and very well trained. In fact, some aspects of baseball training in Cuba may be better than anything in the United States. For instance, Cuban-trained pitcher Aroldis Chapman is generally considered the hardest thrower in baseball today, and a kinematic analysis of Cuban pitchers' windups reveals that this may be partly due to the way Cuban pitchers are trained to throw (more on this later).
Second, all baseball games in Cuba are free. That bears repeating: all baseball games in Cuba are free. And there aren't any $12 beers and $50 parking fees either! In Cuba, baseball isn't a "privilege" of the privileged classes. It's a basic right. Imagine being able to walk into Yankee Stadium or Chavez Ravine without paying anybody or anything, just because you felt like watching the Yankees or the Dodgers play! In Cuba, this is the reality that accompanies comparatively low player salary levels, and the result is that it enriches the culture as a whole, not just a few profiteering athletes and their corporate overlords. The idea in Communist Cuba is not to create a massive divide between wealth and poverty like in the United States; the idea is to make the wealth of the country available to as many as possible.
Third, in Cuba the players play for their own communities, where they grew up and actually live -- in front of their own families and friends -- which gives the sport a real, living, organic connection to the community, not the highly commercialized whore/client relationship that passes for community in America. And this radically changes the community's relationship with the game. In Cuba, if the Cienfuegos Elefantes have a good team, it is because Cienfuegos is producing good players. The Cuban system encourages fans to become involved with -- and invested in -- baseball in their community, and it's another reason why Pelota Revolucionaria has produced such a steady string of baseball superstars.
Another conscious policy decision since the Revolution by Cuba's Communist government has been to spread high level baseball play all through the island, rather than concentrate it in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and the main municipal areas where the most money can be made from the teams' operation. So today even relatively remote Guantanamo on the far, east end of the island has a Serie Nacional team, the Guantánamo Indios, and a nice stadium in to play in, Nguyen Van Troi Stadium, a 14,000 seat facility named for a Viet Cong hero of the Viet Nam War. In the old days of professional baseball in Cuba before the Revolution, there were at most half a dozen teams in the Cuban League. Today, under Pelota Revolucionaria there are currently 16 teams in the Cuban National Series alone.
When you really look at it, the Marxist baseball system in post-Revolutionary Cuba can't be described as anything but a huge success by every measure... except American dollars and access to the American major leagues. Of course, Pelota Revolucionaria was never intended to generate American dollars or cozy up to the capitalist pigs, so this isn't exactly a flaw in the Cubans' excellent Marxist baseball plan. Nonetheless, as larger geopolitical issues have come into play and the Cuban economy faltered after the fall of the Soviet Union, American dollars and access to the major leagues in America became a very big problem for Pelota Revolucionaria.
In response to some Cuban baseball players' desire to compete against the highest levels of professional play, the Cuban government has allowed a few high-level Cuban peloteros to sign contracts with teams in the Nippon Professional League, the major leagues of Japanese baseball. Cuban superstars Orestes Kindelán, Omar Linares and Antonio Pacheco were among the first to try playing in Japan, and Yulieski Gourriel, a star third baseman for the Sancti Spiritus Gallos in the Cuban Serie Nacional and the son of Pelota Revolucionaria great Lourdes Gourriel, played for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars in the Japan Central League in 2014, when he hit .304 with an .884 OPS in his rookie season in Japan.
Arranging for Cuban stars to play in Japanese professional baseball was a shrewd move by both the Cubans and the Japanese, but it hardly addressed the root of the Cubans' problem with American baseball and the Almighty Dollar. In 2014, when Cuban star Yulieski Gourriel played in Japan, there were 25 Cuban stars playing in the major leagues in United States, including American League Rookie of the Year José Abreu. And 2015 is slated to be the biggest year for Cuban baseball defectors to America ever, including some highly touted prospects who are still in their teens like Yoan Moncada.
Fact is, after 50 years of stupendous success, Pelota Revolucionaria is struggling to hold its best players today. This is a real crisis for Cuban baseball. Cuba is a relatively small, relatively poor country that invests heavily in scouting, developing and training some of the world's best baseball talent. In this sense, the nation of Cuba functions -- from the standpoint of Major League Baseball in America -- like a high level foreign professional baseball league; in fact, the premier foreign baseball league. And like foreign professional baseball leagues which send players to the United States, Cuba has an investment in the players who are its stars.
The difference between a player coming from, say, Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball to Major League Baseball in America is that major league teams have to bid for the right to negotiate with Japanese players, with the bid money going to the team that has the player, as was famously the case in 2011 when the Texas Rangers paid $51.7 million to the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan's Pacific League for the mere opportunity to negotiate a deal with the Ham Fighters' ace pitcher Yu Darvish.
In the case of Cuba, however, American major league teams pay nothing to the foreign league for the highly developed players they sign. That's zero dollars versus $50 million for negotiating rights per premier player. Although you NEVER see it mentioned in the American sports press, part of what makes Cuban ballplayers attractive in America right now is that American baseball teams don't have to pay a posting fee for them! This is the eight hundred pound gorilla sitting unnoticed in the middle of the room when it comes to American major league teams signing Cuban players.
What you DO hear in America is a great deal of talk about "freedom" when the subject of Cuban baseball players coming to America is discussed. Fair enough, but this is actually only part of the story. What's also going on here is large-scale American larceny of Cuban assets. In fact, Major League Baseball proudly functions today a parasite on Cuban baseball, perhaps even a killing parasite -- we don't know yet.
But as my mother used to say, "it's an ill wind that blows no good." The happy result of all this unhappiness is that Cuban baseball talent is fanning out across the world like never before -- so that fanaticos everywhere can see the intelligent, high intensity Latin style that the Cubans have brought to the game from the very beginning of baseball, almost 150 years ago.
Cuban fanaticos especial love players who are explosivo, or explosive, and you can see this quality in the Cubans, generation after generation...
This is an excerpt from Cuban Baseball! / ¡Béisbol Cubano! by Bruce Brown. Buy Bruce Brown's new book on Amazon!
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