Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Baseball Without Borders

By Laura Straub
Edited by Adam Flango

Baseball truly is America’s pastime.  Americans love spending their balmy summer nights under the lights.  They participate wholeheartedly in the seventh inning stretch.  They love eating peanuts and cracker jacks while watching their favorite all-star sluggers duke it out for the win.  They give little thought, however, as to where these superstar players come from. 
Photo courtesy of Cuba Journal

Many of these players make the ultimate sacrifice to play in the major leagues.  They leave their family, friends, home and traditions for the in hopes of earning a six-figure professional baseball salary.  Many of these players are Cuban defectors.
It is not uncommon for Cuban athletes to travel to international sporting competitions with their teams and simply not return.  This is exactly what Gerardo Concepcion did in June of this year, when he defected during the World Port Tournament in the Netherlands.  Concepcion was named Rookie of the Year in the Cuban Serie Nacional in 2010-2011.  He played for the Cuban powerhouse team, the Industriales, nicknamed “the blues” for their blue uniforms.  The Industriales are one of the most successful teams in Cuba according to family physician and baseball enthusiast Miguel Rodríguez.  They have won more national titles than any other Cuban team.
Although Concepcion was a member of Cuba’s leading team, he still made the choice to defect.  He established his residence in Mexico and was signed by the Chicago Cubs on February 2nd. 

Choice to Defect

Rodríguez says that these players have a right to choose where they play.  “It is absolutely natural that Cuban players, like players from all over the world, desire to play in the majors and become millionaires,” says Rodríguez.  He explains that Cuba does provide a salary for players, but that salary is not enough to live comfortably on, especially for those with families. 
Even with the financial opportunities, the decision to defect is still a difficult one.  Those that do leave are considered traitors by the government and some citizens.  Even if they do still have fans in Cuba, it is hard to them to follow the players’ progress since Internet access is limited.  They must spend extended periods of time away from their friends and family.  “They won’t ever have the honored opportunity to represent their country, to wear the national team uniform of Cuba, or to enjoy the absolutely unique proud and happy moment when the Cuba team wins a gold medal at a match, “ says Rodríguez.

Leaving Home

When defectors leave Cuba they are leaving behind a rich tradition of baseball. “Baseball is the national passion,” says Henry Herida, specialist in international relations at an institute of cultural investigation.  Daniel de Malas, Cuban baseball blogger, agrees with Herida.  He says, “Baseball in Cuba is part of our idiosyncrasy, of our history, of our tradition.”  The obsession begins with young, children play baseball in the streets “to the hand”, meaning that they do not use a bat.  Instead of a normal baseball, children use a rubber ball and bat the ball with their hand.  As they grow older, baseball is played “to the hard” with full equipment in parks facilitated for the game.
Eventually, successful players can move on to join the national league.  This league began in 1962.  It has had various structures over the years but currently includes 17 teams, one for each province as well as from the municipality the Isle of Youth and a second team from Havana.  The series begins in November and goes through April or May.  During this period each team will play 96 games.  Each team’s rank during the season determines their position in the playoffs, and after a series of playoff games a national champion is crowned.  The Cuban national team also takes part in the World Baseball Classic, the biggest event in baseball since its exit from the Olympics.  The next world classic will take place in 2013.
During the early 1990s Cuba also competed in a peculiar series.  The Cuban national team faced the Baltimore Orioles in two games.  The first was held in Cuba, where Baltimore won 1-0, the second was in Baltimore where Cuba won 12-6.  Cuba’s reaction to the win as a country was a national party, says Rodríguez. 
This is a very important interaction between two nations that are still engaged in a cold war of sorts.  Rodríguez believes that baseball can help improve relations between the two nations.  “Both are peoples that love baseball and we could dedicate our time and efforts to enjoy it and not to fight for political reasons,” says Rodríguez “We are close neighbors in physical distance and could celebrate friendly bi-national competitions of national teams of different ages each year.”  Ariam Castro Fraga, a television editor in Cuba agrees.  He says games between Cuban and American youth could foster better relations.
Some professionals are more skeptical of the ability baseball could have on relieving tensions between the two nations.  “The Romans resolved internal crisis with food wine and sport, but their conquest of the world was with arms,” says De Malas. “Baseball is a common denominator between both countries but it is not sufficient to resolve a ideological conflict that has passed for ages, that nobody dares dissolve, for pride.”

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