Cuba Chatter

Cuba Chatter
One more time for Chris, his favorite photo of the off-season // Getty Photo

Now’s a good time to talk about Cuban ballplayers.  As we are grappling with the Oakland A’s surprise signing of promising Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes; a move that, if the player isn’t traded, may help precipitate the Athletics relocation to San Jose (a proposition backed in full by leverage man Jerry Reinsdorf).  As we await the fate of young Cuban slugger-prospect Jorge Soler (hope remains for the White Sox).  And as we are eagerly anticipating the arrival to Glendale, AZ, Cuban White Sox hitters Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo (surely, like everyone else, “in the best shape of their lives”), whose performances will be critical to the team’s success this season.

The relationship between Major League Baseball teams and Cuban ballplayers is very much affected by U.S./Cuban diplomatic relations and the political and social conditions inside the island nation.  It is also influenced by a complex history of race in Cuba (involving the colonization of the island and its native peoples by Europeans who brought slaves from Africa) as well as a complex history of race in professional baseball in the United States, in which Cubans and other Latinos have played a major role.  Parties interested in the baseball part of it should consult this book by Adrian Burgos titled Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line.  Or perhaps a new book by Rob Ruck called Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game.

In the first half of the twentieth century, many Cubans players like Martin Dihigo weren’t allowed in to the major leagues before baseball’s color line was broken (technically, for the second time).  However, in a recent interview Ruck explains that a number of lighter-skinned Cubans, numbering between 30 and 50, played in the major leagues before Jackie Robinson in 1947, and in some ways paved the way for the re-integration into Major League Baseball of African Americans and Afro-Latinos.  From 1947 to 1959, in the years between reintegration and the Cuban Revolution, Cuba provided the major leagues with more players than any other Latin American country.  But the U.S.-Cuban diplomatic fallout in 1960 effectively severed the Cuban pipeline.

The earliest Cuban born White Sox player I could find was Jose Acosta; the diminutive hurler had a rough go of it over five appearances for the club in 1922.  Acosta leads my chronological list of Cuban born major leaguers who played for the White Sox.  It includes the player’s name, year(s) on the team, and something of note about that player (warning: player “facts” increasingly deviate toward the whimsically absurd because, well, I can’t help myself).  If anyone is aware of a player that I overlooked please let me know:

Cuban Born White Sox Players

José Acosta (1922)

Member, Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame

Luis Aloma (1950-53)

Nickname "Witto"

Minnie Miñoso (1951-57, 1960-61, 1964, 1976, 1980)

Little known facthe was awesome

Héctor Rodríguez (1952)

Played in the Negro Leagues and in the Mexican League prior to MLB reintegration

Willy Miranda (1952)

Good field, no hit”

Sandy Consuegra (1953-56)

1954 All Star

Mike Fornieles (1953–56)

Led League with 14 Saves for Red Sox in 1960

Rudy Arias (1959)

Bad pitcher.  Great team.

Aurelio Monteagudo (1967)

Screwball pitcher

Leo Sutherland (1980-81)

Drafted third overall by Sox in 1976, suggesting they couldn’t scout then either.

Nelson Santovenia (1992)

Has played two more games for the White Sox than I have

Jose Canseco (2001)

Juice advocate

José Contreras (2004-09)

Has been genetically regenerated in the form of Simon Castro

Orlando Hernández (2005)

El Duque. No, not that one silly, this one.

Alexei Ramírez (2008-present)

Must find shelter in high wind for fear of snapping like a tree branch. (James' note - He's also AWESOME)

Dayán Viciedo (2010-present)

Possesses Dayan Cannon

The subject has been covered at length by non-part-time-hack baseball writers recently (for example here and here and here) but a post about Cuban ballplayers on a White Sox blog needs to acknowledge the contributions of Minnie Minoso to the team and the sport.  The more I read and think about Minnie, the more I consider him the greatest White Sox player of all time.  As a player of Afro-Cuban descent, Minoso arrived in the majors at a time when one’s temperament mattered as much as one’s bat and ball skills.  But it seems to me that asking elite, hyper-competitive athletes to ignore racist taunts is a bit like asking the bull to behave in the china shop.

“I was the first black-skinned ballplayer to play in the city of Chicago,” said Minoso. “They used to call me terrible things, but I let it go in one ear and out the other . . . When I played I sometimes had to play the clown.  I had to listen and laugh, even if I was crying inside.”

Lamentably, but at least for the betterment of players who came after him, Minnie had to take it.  "Minnie Minoso is to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to black ballplayers," claimed Orlando Cepeda in his autobiography.

Cuban ballplayers today face different challenges.  Basically, they get it coming and going.

In Cuba, there has been no professional baseball for fifty years.  Yet in international competitions, the Cuban national team has been the best in the world for a majority of that span.  Cuban “amateur” players at the highest level earn meager wages, reported to be the equivalent of $10 to $15 a month in 2005  (Before you scoff, remember that Cubans enjoy state sponsored health care!).

But in recent years, the U.S. embargo and the lack of support from Russia after the fall of the Soviet regime has left Cuba politically and economically isolated.  Of course, it’s the common people of Cuba who suffer, from poverty and hunger but also from the increasingly draconian measures taken by Cuban government officials intent on maintaining the perception of power, autonomy, and solidarity.

More so than other professional athletes, Cuban baseball players are supposed to be motivated by “national ideals rather than money.”  If they feel otherwise, ballplayers are deterred from leaving by laws that forbid it, require jail time for those who make attempts, and all but prohibit those who are successful from returning to Cuba.  In some cases, association with parties who fled the island has been enough to get a player banned from Cuban baseball.  The faltering of the Cuban team in recent years can be attributed partly to the omission of many Cubans on the roster believed to be flight risks.

In the U.S., Cubans are subjected to different MLB rules than U.S. amateurs or international free agents.  First off, representatives of Major League teams are not permitted to send scouts or to contact players while they are in Cuba.  Additionally, as “political refugees,” Cubans are supposed to enter the amateur draft when they arrive in the United States.  This requires any Cuban player intent on entering the free agent market to establish citizenship in another country before entering attempting to enter MLB.

While some Cubans have been able to defect in more auspicious ways, the result of the intersection of these government laws, corporate rules, and international tensions has been essentially (and ironically) a black market for Cuban baseball players in the United States.  It used to be that handlers would smuggle Cuban ballplayers on the promise that they would receive a piece of that player’s first professional contract.  When that didn’t really work out for the smugglers, they switched to a system where they just auctioned off players for hundreds of thousands of dollars before releasing them to American sports agents.  For Cuban ballplayers, all of this is often precluded by a terrifying boat trip from Cuba, a long swim to the Florida shore, along with quite a lot of fatigue, mud, and general humiliation.

All of this is detailed, along with lots of fascinating facets concerning the Cuban game, in a Vanity Fair article written nearly five years ago by Michael Lewis which, as a person obsessed with baseball, mystified by Cuba, and generally holding a favorable opinion of the author of Moneyball and The Big Short, I am ashamed to admit that I discovered only recently.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba exacerbates an already difficult situation for baseball émigrés.   The embargo was enacted after a brief but dense period of Cold War posturing following the Cuban Revolution.  Making good on his promise to redistribute large plots of farmland to the poor, Castro sent packing some U.S. agro-businesses, which precipitated economic sanctions, and a failed CIA-backed coup attempt in Cuba.  In the aftermath, Castro went to the Soviets for protection.  The Russians said basically, “No problem Fidel, just let us park these ballistic nuclear missiles on your island one hundred miles off the coast of Florida.” (See Solomon, “Cuban Baseball Players, The Unlucky Ones”)

Circumstances in foreign policy and world affairs have changed over the last fifty years, and communism is not the immediate threat to the United States that it was once perceived to be.  What remains is a grudge, in the form of a stifling embargo.  But maybe change is in the wind as far as this is concerned.  We can only hope that this will lead to investment in Cuban baseball by MLB, and the negotiation of a reasonable policy of player exchange.

Because the situation in Cuba is getting worse, the result is more players are defecting in an effort to play ball in the US.  In 2006 there were 4 players in the majors born in Cuba.  In 2011, there were 18.  However, in 2010, a reported 197 Cuban baseball players had defected from Cuba over the previous decade.  Some are in the minor leagues, many have been released.  The difference between these players and other Latinos is that Cubans don’t have the option of returning home.

Another major concern is MLB’s new CBA, which is a bit convoluted as it applies to Cubans, so try to follow me here.  There will be restrictions placed on MLB teams for spending on amateur international free agents.  Cubans play in a baseball league that they call “amateur” but MLB considers professional (like NPB in Japan), so this spending cap would not necessarily apply to them.  But wait!

In an effort to curb spending on young, unknown Cubans like this guy and this guy, MLB owners and players (it’s the players part that really gets my goat) instituted a “Cuba clause” that requires professional international free agents are 23 years old or have 3 years pro experience; if not, they are considered amateurs and their salaries count against the cap.

What does this mean for Cuban ballplayers?   Young Cubans could still defect, but for a lot less money.  Or they can wallow in the Cuban National Series for three years, earning less than $1/day, and then risk defection, establish citizenship in another country, and become a free agent.  It’s possible (and I’m purely speculating) that the Cuban government could keep the best Cuban players out of the Cuban National Series until the age of 21, essentially insuring that no player will defect until he is 23.

What does this mean for the White Sox?  Well, not much.  Larry at SSS writes:

"Because the White Sox generally do not spend much on international amateur free agents, the cap won't really have an effect on how they have operated with one notable exception: the signing of Dayan Viciedo to a 4 year, $10 million contract (including a $4 million bonus) would have been illegal under the new agreement."

I’m not sure that Larry is right about Viciedo, because at the time of his signing he had been playing in the Cuban National Series since he was 15 (i.e. 3 years).  Now that I think of it, three years of professional experience doesn’t seem so arbitrary.  It jives perfectly with the theme emerging out of the new CBA, which is: the White Sox get to operate like they want to and have been, and everybody else gets to conform and pretend to like it.

You see where I’m going with this, but I really don’t want to begin and end this post with jabs at the Chairman.  It’s so hard to resist though.  He’s like a Death Star tractor beam that draws my ire whenever I get within range. . . .

Anyways.  What was I writing about again?  Oh yeah, Cubans.  Did I mention that I love Minnie Minoso?  He's swell.

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  • Originally I thought that photo of Cespedes was exactly what he looked like running toward me in my dreams. I realize now that he was running away from me.

  • In reply to Chris Lamberti:

    This is one of the most sorrowful things ever written about Yoenis Cespedes.

    Maybe it's what he looks when he's running toward you in two and a half years, when Oakland is ditching him after a disappointing stretch to cut salary, and Kenny Williams is "buying low" on a toolsy veteran outfielder. He's not running that fast anymore.

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