Defections to U.S. rob Cuba of superpower baseball status
Carlos Tabares, known as the Derek Jeter of Cuban baseball, is hanging
it up this year at 42 after 20 years competing in Serie Nacional, the
interprovince league that represents the best of baseball in a proud but
grimly challenged country that still reveres the game.
Representing Havana powerhouse Industriales, Tabares played for five
Serie Nacional champions — one more title than Jeter earned over 20
exemplary seasons with the Yankees. Industriales has retired Tabares'
No. 56, just as the Yankees did their captain's No. 2 last month in an
extravagant, only-in-New-York type of ceremony that amplified debate
over who replaces Jeter as the "face of baseball."
A local version of the same question drives the discussion among the
chatty crowd hanging out at "the Hot Corner," a section of Havana's
Central Park where old-timers gather for animated exchanges on all
things baseball, about a Jose Abreu home run removed from Cuba's Capitol
Beyond his success in Serie Nacional, and in forays abroad for Olympic
and World Baseball Classic competition, Tabares became the face of Cuban
baseball because he stayed home, to play for his people and be with his
Scouts who saw him roam center field with Jim Edmonds-like flair or
scorch line drives with Paul Molitor-like ferocity assured him there
would be millions in MLB money available should Tabares choose to
defect. Industriales teammates Rey Ordonez, Kendrys Morales and Yunel
Escobar heard the same message and fled to the U.S., their joy at
becoming big-leaguers tempered by the reality that loved ones would go
missing from their new lives forever, such was the Cuban government's
contempt for disloyalty.
Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez also fled, but only after government
officials scoffed at his national hero status and banned him from all
levels of Cuban baseball on the mere suspicion that he intended to
follow his half-brother and fellow pitcher Livan to big-league ball in
Tabares stayed, for a salary that is said to have topped out at $125 a
month, plus other perks such as a larger apartment and use of a car.
The White Sox recently signed Luis Robert, a 19-year-old Cuban prospect
long on tools but short on experience, for $25 million.
Like the one-and-done rule that has diluted the talent level of college
basketball in the U.S., defections to the U.S. have robbed Cuba of its
superpower status in baseball.
Team Castro reached the final of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in
2006 but hasn't been back to the title game in three subsequent
competitions. It has gone without a gold medal in Olympic baseball since
2004, though the sport was dropped from the Olympic program after the
2008 Games. Its gold-medal drought at the Pan American Games extends to
2007, after Cuba won 10 straight and 11 of 12 beginning in 1961, two
years after "the Triumph of the Revolution," as Castro's takeover is
officially referred to here.
The defection of such next-generation stars as Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes
and Yasiel Puig is one reason for the falloff. So is a conscious
decision by Cuban sports officials to keep some of the best young
players home from international competition to lessen the chances of
The stories seem to vary with each telling, but Puig and El Duque are
said to have survived life-threatening rides through shark-infested
waters on dilapidated boats to flee Cuba. Abreu's testimony that he ate
a fake Haitian passport while en route to the U.S. to join the White Sox
helped convict the Miami "facilitators" who helped get him out in
exchange for a nice chunk of the $68 million contract he would sign.
It's probably a little less harrowing to get out these days, as slightly
more than 1 percent of the players on opening-day MLB rosters were
Cuban baseball announced itself to the world at the 1992 Barcelona
Olympics. As the U.S. basketball Dream Team and the greatest track meet
ever staged were dominating coverage, it was easy to overlook Cuba's
nine straight wins and 95-16 run differential in a dominant gold-medal
Rafael Avila, Latin America scouting supervisor for the Dodgers, managed
the Dominican Republic Olympic team that was dispatched 8-0 in a
round-robin game. Avila listed left fielder Orestes Kindelan, third
baseman Omar Linares, second baseman Antonio Pacheco and pitcher Osvaldo
Fernandez as big-league-ready prospects, but it was high-voltage center
fielder Victor Mesa who embodied the Cubans' speed-and-power ethos and
distinctive flair in the way he played and talked.
Then 32, Mesa was probably too old to defect, but he never would
consider it, he told reporters, and neither would his teammates.
"We play for love of country and love of the game," he insisted, "not
They're playing a different brand of baseball in Cuba these days.
Dan McGrath is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune.
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