Former Cuban Stars Want to Play in World Baseball Classic

Every few years, the same feeling of longing returns for Yuli Gurriel and Aledmys Díaz.

The Houston Astros infielders defected from Cuba, leaving teams representing the island while traveling abroad, so they could follow their dreams of playing baseball at the highest level. Both have gone on to play in the World Series multiple times, have earned millions in the United States and have been recognized for individual accomplishments.

But every time there is a World Baseball Classic – the international tournament that features many of the best players in the world – Gurriel and Díaz have only been able to watch as their teammates leave spring training to donate to their home countries’ uniforms. Cuban players like to stay behind them. With another edition of the international tournament scheduled for next spring, Gurriel and Díaz are afraid this situation will play out yet again.

“It’s sad,” Díaz, 31, recently said in Spanish. Gurriel, 38, added, “It gives us a little envy, not being there and not being able to do the same.”

The reason for their exclusion: The Baseball Federation of Cuba does not allow players who are defected from the communist country to represent it in international competition. The list of barred players has grown substantially since the first WBC, in 2006, with much of Cuba’s top talent left the island.

Cuban expatriates in majors could form one of the best teams in the world. The lineup could have stars like Astros designated hitter Yordan Elvarez, Chicago White Sox first baseman José Abreu and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. The pitching staff could include standouts like Nestor Cortes and Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees. And if Cuban Americans were eligible, the team could include Boston Red Sox slugger JD Martinez. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah.

So this year, current and former Cuban players, business people and lawyers formed a group to seek a solution. The goal of the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players is to form the best team of professional Cuban talent from all over the world to compete in the WBC

“We want any players who want to represent their country,” Díaz said. “Cuba is for everyone. It’s not just for those who are in favor of the government or those against it. “

The association has swelled 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 jerseys – in the colors of the Cuban flag, but without a flag – and chose a name: Cubans, or Cubanos, an ode to the Havana Sugar Kings, a minor league team based in Cuba that played in Class AAA. from 1954 to 1960.

Among these efforts, the association and the players argued that they did not want to replace the Cuban Federation, which the Trump administration said was part of the government in Havana when it nixed a deal in 2019 between the MLB and the federation that would have eased it. The path 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 on the island.

“We’re representing the Cubans of the entire world who want to see this team and all the professional players in the team,” said Raisel Iglesias, 32, a Los Angeles Angels closer who is leading the charge among active Cuban players. out to them and sharing updates via WhatsApp. He added later, “And if it’s possible, invite the players who are under the Cuban federation.”

Iglesias said, though, that having such an offer would have been “really hard.” Even though 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 global governing body. And there is a system in place preventing outside groups from forming teams.

“If they want to be part of an event sanctioned by the WBSC, they have to respect the rules, which make the national federations national teams,” Riccardo Fraccari, president of the confederation, said in a phone interview from Switzerland. , where it is based.

Fraccari was alluding to a WBSC statute that states that only recognized members can select their national team and have “the exclusive right to represent the country or language of the country, flag and colors.” He continued, “If not, they could make another tournament, which would have upped them and wherever they wanted, but not an event sanctioned by the world federation.”

(Fraccari pointed out that there were Cubans playing abroad, such as Japan, who are allowed to return. They are, however, on loan from the Cuban Federation, which takes a cut of their salaries. Last month, Cuban authorities agreed. Their baseball players have to manage their own professional contracts with teams in foreign leagues, but a deal with the MLB has not been revived.)

Although the Cuban Federation did not respond to seeking comment, it was blasted by the upstart Cuban Association in April. In an official statement, the federation called the association’s objectives “political and not sporting” and said the group was pressuring MLB and the players’ union to “usurp the place that is legitimately related to the Cuban national team in the next WBC”.

Mario Fernández, president of the association, said the group was willing to sit down and talk to the Cuban Federation – but under certain conditions. First, he said, a public apology is deserved from the federation of players who believe it is “offended and mistreated.”

“We’re not going to sit down to talk to them if that doesn’t happen,” said Fernández, a businessman who left Cuba at 28, a semiprofessional league in Chile and now lives in the United States. “If they said sorry and it wouldn’t happen again, that would be a very good start. But we see that it would be very hard because of the politics involved. “

Once a world powerhouse, the Cuban national team has fallen on hard times. It failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, and while it has appeared in all five editions of the World Baseball Classic, it has struggled for the most part, finishing in second place in 2006 and the top four in each edition since.

“Baseball in Cuba is bad,” said Chapman, 34, who played for the Cuban national team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. “It has fallen a lot. The majority have left and are here. “

In hopes of building a robust team, and one that is not limited by the baseball professionals who remain in Cuba, the association chose 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.

Fernández said players outside Cuba have been talking about finding a way to represent their island since the first World Baseball Classic. While earlier efforts fizzled, he said things had happened that could lead to a change, including stepping in to help nonplayers lead the effort; Protests over the Cuban government’s forceful crackdown last year, which galvanized some players; And the number one major Cuban player in Major League Baseball continues to grow. (There were 23 Cuban-born players on major league rosters opening day this season, tied with 2016 and 2017 for most ever.)

“It’s something we’re fighting for because we’re in the 21st century,” Díaz said, “and the Cuban Federation doesn’t let the Cuban players play in their big leagues for their country possibly thinking differently or for a moment. freely and playing where and when they want to play. “

Last month, Iglesias and Fernández 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.

Fernández said the association was 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 confederation’s president, who has had ties to Cuba throughout his career, said, “We don’t discriminate against anyone.”

But knowing the uphill battle the union faces, Fernández and Iglesias said the association had discussed the possibility of at least forming exhibition games for their Cubanos team, facing some WBC teams before they head to the 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 he turned 1 after his parents won a visa lottery. Cortes, who is a US citizen, understands the situation is complicated, especially for players whose families were mistreated in Cuba.

“It’s tough what’s happening and what we have to do to play,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we got to do what we got to represent and show the world that Cuba is a powerhouse and there are really good baseball players that come out of Cuba.”

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