July 16, 2024

Baseball Duel: USA vs. Cuba: Cuba takes on the USA with the MLB pros in the Baseball World Cup

Baseball Duel: USA vs. Cuba: Cuba takes on the USA with the MLB pros in the Baseball World Cup

Yoann Moncada (R) held off against American catcher Will Smith in Miami, but hopes to play more often for Cuba in the future.

Photo: Imago/Sam Navarro

The big party went down – and twice. After the Cuban national baseball team surprisingly caused a sensation at the World Baseball Classic (WBC), the unofficial world championship, public viewing across Cuba was planned for Sunday night’s semifinal against the USA. In Havana and the entire western part of the island, water flowed non-stop from late afternoon. And in the game itself, the US team, strewn with stars, gave the Cubans a clear defeat 14: 2.

It wasn’t until the tournament’s fifth edition, held since 2006, that baseball-crazy countries—and of all places in Miami, met with the sizable Cuban community abroad. As might be expected, there were protests against the Cuban government before and around the game, albeit from a relatively small group.

In Cuba, on the other hand, it felt like the whole country was rallying behind the team and cheering on the televisions. It’s been a long time since baseball has electrified the country. “These days people no longer talk about lines, no longer talk about (poor) local transportation, no longer about blackouts, but baseball,” Cubadebat’s official website wrote, speaking of “a balm for the soul.”

Indeed, it seems that not only the economic crisis is forgotten for a moment, but the sports crisis as well. After years of failure, the team’s resurgence rekindled the passion of millions of fans. The start of the domestic league has been delayed by a week, with president Miguel Diaz-Canel regularly tweeting his support and musicians from the island composing a special song for the national team.

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However, the real meaning is sports-political: For the first time ever, the Cuban Baseball Federation changed its practice and named active professionals from North American Major League Baseball (MLB) to the international championship lineup, including two players from the Chicago White Sox, Luis Robert Jr. and Yoann Moncada, as well as some Cuban minor league and professional players who play abroad with government permission. Only eight of the 30 candidates are active in the domestic league.

For decades, it was nearly impossible to locate active players in the United States due to the US blockade policy. In order to be employed by a local club, Cubans must obtain residency in a third country and sever all ties with Cuba. In 2019, Donald Trump thwarted a deal between the Cuban Federation and MLB that would have allowed players to play legally in the United States. After some back and forth, the new U.S. government gave the Cuban federation special permission to call up players from their respective professional associations to the WBC.

The now long list of potential international players is fast becoming smaller. The Cuban Federation announced from the outset that no person would be called “abandoned” during an international competition. Also, according to association president Juan Reynaldo Pérez, only players who “maintain a positive attitude towards our baseball and our country” should be selected. In other words, players who do not openly criticize the Cuban government. Yoan Moncada, for example, was granted permission to leave the country in 2014; Louis Robert illegally left the island in 2016, but not during a tournament. They both saved themselves the political comments.

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But others have refused to play for Cuba themselves, including seven-time Allstar and 2016 MLB champion Aroldis Chapman and Aledmys Díaz, who said he would only play for Cuba “when everyone else is allowed to.” In his view, this will only happen when baseball has not become politicized.

Optimists see the fact that the Cuba Society has for the first time formed a joint team of professionals active in the United States and Cuba as evidence of a potential change in the country’s relations with former citizens who left the island. Even the party newspaper, Granma, called before the semi-finals to wear the jersey in the name of those “who live on the island and in Miami.” The Cuban team “and the way it represents all Cubans around the world is an invitation to reconsider this relationship.” Voices you haven’t always heard.

Yoan Moncada spoke about his dream of playing for Cuba and “the best experiences of my life”. He was “very optimistic that this is the first step for Cuban MLB players to represent their country in the future”. Then the defeat to the United States will not be the end, but the starting point for a rapprochement between the island and the diaspora that may go beyond sports.