As Major League Baseball gears up for its third “Classic,” a tournament involving “national teams” from countries where the game is played, an obvious reality imposes itself on its organizers: the need to include a Cuban team representing Cuban players who have fled the Castro regime and Team Fidel to play professionally in the United States and elsewhere.
If there are two teams from China, there should be two Cuban teams. The exodus of Cuban players in the recent past has been almost massive. I count about 25 in the major leagues who would be eligible for such a team, and an equal number in the minors. There are professional Cuban players in other countries, most notably Mexico.
The ill-named “Classic” (How can something that had never taken place already be one?) has been a marketing ploy to expand the reach of baseball mainly to the Pacific basin, where the potential number of fans and consumers is immense. It mimics contests in soccer and imitates the increasingly global scope of the NBA.
In the first two iterations of the Classics, pathetically weak teams from mainland China and Italy were allowed to compete, and teams from the United States and the Dominican Republic, with the greatest available pool of superior players, did not do well because the games took place at the wrong moment in the dominant baseball calendar, which is that of Major League Baseball.
Players were not ready to play, not to mention that they had never played together. Rules for eligibility were lax, however, to improve weaker teams.
It seemed that merely proof of having eaten pasta in the past three days qualified a player to play for the Italian team. Francisco Cervelli, a Venezuelan of Italian origin belonging to the Yankees, played for Italy.
But the commissioner, who sat next to Fidel Castro at a game in Havana between the Orioles and Cuba in 1999, bowed to the Castro regime’s pressure and refused to allow Liván Hernández, a Cuban resident of Puerto Rico, to play for the Puerto Rican team. Liván was a “defector.”
The team from Cuba did not fare that well either, as their athletes were herded around, guarded by a heavy security detail and snitches within the squad itself to prevent escapes. Besides, they were used to beating up on national teams made up of professional rejects. They have not been winning easily even against that type of competition of late.
Today’s Cuban players outside of Cuba have no team to join for the Classic, and there are quite a few excellent ones who deserve the chance to play. I name a few of the better known ones: Yunel Escobar (Blue Jays), Alexei Ramírez (White Sox), Kendry Morales (Angels), Aroldis Chapman (Reds), Yoenis Céspedes (Athletics), Yuniesky Betancourt (Royals), Dayan Viciedo (White Sox), and again Liván Hernández (Brewers).
There are also quite a few players of Cuban origin who should be allowed to join such a team, certainly with much more right than Cervelli playing for Italy. I mention a few of these: Raúl Ibáñez (Yankees), Bronson Arroyo (Reds), Alex Ávila (Tigers), Gio González (Nationals), all of whom are American born but of Cuban parentage. González is from Miami, which should give him even territorial legitimacy.
The Free Cuba Team, in fact, could be placed in Miami and use the Marlins Stadium as its home. I am sure that it would enjoy great popularity among the Cubans and Cuban Americans in the city (and beyond), and its games against teams whose countries are also heavily represented in the area would be sellouts.
A game against the Cuban regime’s team would be a major event with political significance. The Commissioner’s Office should make, for once, an intelligent, informed and just decision that is not solely guided by greed.
Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria is the Sterling professor of Hispanic and comparative literature at Yale University.