Every few years, the same feeling of longing returns for Yuli Gurriel and Aledmys Díaz.
Infielders for the Houston Astros defected from Cuba, leaving the teams representing the island while traveling abroad, so they could follow their dreams of playing baseball at the highest level. Both have played in the World Series several times, have won millions in the United States and have been recognized for their individual achievements.
But every time there is a World Baseball Classic, the international tournament that features many of the world’s best players, Gurriel and Diaz have only been able to watch their teammates come out of spring training to don the uniforms of their home countries. source. Cuban players like them are left behind. With another edition of the international tournament scheduled for next spring, Gurriel and Díaz fear that this situation will repeat itself.
“It’s sad,” Diaz, 31, said recently in Spanish. Gurriel, 38, added: “It makes us a little envious not being there and not being able to do the same.”
The reason for his exclusion: The Cuban Baseball Federation does not allow players who defected from the communist country to represent it in international competitions. The list of excluded players has grown considerably since the first WBC, in 2006, and many of Cuba’s best talents have left the island.
Cuban expats in the majors could form one of the best teams in the world. The lineup could feature stars like Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. The pitching staff could include standouts like Nestor Cortes and the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman. And if Cuban-Americans were eligible, the team could include Boston Red Sox slugger JD Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah.
So this year, current and former Cuban players, businessmen and lawyers formed a group to find a solution. The Association of Professional Baseball Players of Cuba aims to form the best team of Cuban professional talents from around the world to compete in the WBC
“We want any player who wants to represent their country,” Diaz said. “Cuba is for everyone. It’s not just for those who are for the government or those who are against it.”
The association has grown to 170 members spanning major and minor leagues and other foreign professional leagues, such as those in Mexico, Japan and Taiwan. It has a logo and shirts —with the colors of the Cuban flag, but without the flag— and it chose a name: Cubans, or Cubanos, an ode to the Havana Sugar Kings, the minor league team based in Cuba that played in Class AAA. from 1954 to 1960.
Despite these efforts, the association and the players argue they do not want to replace the Cuban federation, which the Trump administration said was part of the government in Havana when it rejected a 2019 deal between MLB and the federation that would have paved the way. for players to compete in the United States without defecting. The association envisions a national team independent of the Cuban federation, but with an open door for players from the island.
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“We represent Cubans from all over the world who want to see this and want to see a team of all professional players,” said Los Angeles Angels closer Raisel Iglesias, 32, who has led the charge among players. active Cubans, managing to communicate with them and share updates through WhatsApp. He then added: “And if possible, invite the players who are under the Cuban federation.”
Iglesias said, however, that accepting such an offer would be “really difficult.” Although the World Baseball Classic is operated as a joint venture between MLB and the MLB players’ union, the event is sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, the sport’s world governing body. And there is a system that prevents outside groups from forming national teams.
“If they want to be part of a WBSC-sanctioned event, they have to respect the rules, which is that the national federations make the national teams,” said Riccardo Fraccari, president of the confederation, in a telephone interview from Switzerland. , where it has its headquarters.
Fraccari was alluding to a WBSC statute that states only recognized members can select their national team and have “the exclusive right to represent the name, flag and colors of the country or territory.” He continued: “If not, they can do another tournament, which would be up to them and wherever they want, but not a world federation sanctioned event.”
(Fraccari noted that there were Cubans playing abroad, such as in Japan, who are allowed to return. However, they are on loan from the Cuban federation, which keeps a portion of their salaries. Last month, Cuban authorities agreed allow its baseball players to manage their own professional contracts with teams in foreign leagues, but an agreement with MLB has not been revived).
Although the Cuban federation did not respond to messages seeking comment, it criticized the upstart Cuban association in April. In an official statement, the federation described the objectives of the association as “political and not sports” and said that the group was pressuring the MLB and the players’ union to “usurp the place that legitimately belongs to the Cuban team in the next WBC”.
Mario Fernández, president of the association, said the group was willing to sit down and talk with the Cuban federation, but under certain conditions. First, he said, he deserves a public apology from the federation to the players he believes have been “offended and mistreated.”
“We’re not going to sit down and talk to them if that doesn’t happen,” said Fernández, a businessman who left Cuba at 28, founded a semi-professional league in Chile and now lives in the United States. “If they apologized and it won’t happen again, that’s a very good start. But we see that it would be very difficult because of the politics involved.”
Once a world power, the Cuban national team has fallen on hard times. He did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, and although he has appeared in all four editions of the World Baseball Classic, he has struggled for the most part, finishing second in 2006 and outside the top four in every edition since.
“Baseball in Cuba is bad,” said Chapman, 34, who played for the Cuban national team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. “It’s gone down a lot. Most of them left and are here.”
Hoping to build a robust team, and one that is not limited by the baseball professionals who have remained in Cuba, the association selected Orlando Hernández, 56, a former pitcher who won four World Series titles, as its General Manager. And for field manager, he chose Brayan Peña, 40, a former major league catcher who is a minor league manager in the Detroit Tigers system.
Fernandez said that players outside of Cuba have been talking about finding a way to represent their island since the first World Baseball Classic. While previous efforts failed, he said things had happened that made this push different, including non-players stepping in to help lead the effort; the Cuban government’s forceful crackdown on protests last year, which galvanized some players; and the number of outstanding Cuban baseball players in the Major Leagues continues to grow. (There were 23 Cuban-born players on major league rosters on opening day this season, tied with 2016 and 2017 for the most ever.)
“It is something we are fighting for because we are in the 21st century,” Díaz said, “and the Cuban federation does not let Cuban players in the major leagues play for their country for possibly thinking differently or for a moment playing freely and playing where and when they want to play.”
Last month, Iglesias and Fernandez said the association met with Tony Clark, the head of the MLB players’ union, via video conference. Last week, a handful of association representatives met in New York with a group of MLB officials led by commissioner Rob Manfred.
Fernandez said the association was considering challenging the World Baseball Softball Confederation, citing Article 3.1 of the governing body’s code, which prohibits any discrimination on various grounds, including “political affiliation.” Fraccari, the president of the confederation, who has had ties to Cuba throughout his career, said: “We do not discriminate against anyone.”
But knowing the uphill battle facing the association, Fernandez and Iglesias said the group had discussed the possibility of at least fielding their Cuban team for exhibition games, perhaps facing some WBC teams before they head into competition. .
Cortes, 27, said playing for his native country is among his lifelong dreams. He was born in Cuba but moved to South Florida before his 1st birthday after his parents won a visa lottery. Cortes, who is a US citizen, said he understands the situation is complicated, particularly for players whose families were mistreated in Cuba.
“What is happening and what we have to do to play is difficult,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we have to do what we have to do to represent and show the world that Cuba is a power and that there are very good baseball players coming out of Cuba.”