This week, a collection of some of the best baseball players in the world arrived in Havana, Cuba. Their goal: to create goodwill with the people of Cuba. The players include Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera, White Sox Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez, St. Louis Cardinals Brayan Pena, Seattle Mariners Nelson Cruz, San Diego Padres Jon Jay, and Los Angeles Dodgers Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig. Of this group, Abreu, Ramirez, Pena, and Puig are Cuban, which makes this trip to their homeland a special one.
Aug 2, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Cincinnati Reds catcher Brayan Pena (29) warms up prior to a game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
While the United States has baseball, football, hockey, basketball, and so many other sports, in Cuba, baseball is the sport of choice. For Cubans, baseball is a matter of national pride and players strive to be on the Cuban National Baseball team, which is an amateur organization. To keep the Cubans away from a capitalistic society, the government has prevented athletes from playing for money. The government believed that money destroyed the heart of the sport. So, while Cubans loved the sport, the athletes that dominated usually were paid less than $2000 annually.
Since Cubans love the game of baseball, it is appropriate that Major League Baseball has made this visit to the island to talk about building a foundational relationship between the two countries that share the same love for the same sport. The last time an MLB team played in Cuba was 1999 when the Baltimore Orioles played in Havana. They won the first game in Cuba, but the Cuban team won when it visited Baltimore for the second game in the series.
Now that relations between the US and Cuba are growing in a positive direction, the MLB has organized a game with the Cuban team. Several teams including the Chicago Cubs, White Sox, Mets, and Tampa Bay Rays all expressed interest in playing an exhibition game in Cuba. The Rays were selected by Commissioner Rob Manfred who drew the team from a basket full of baseballs. It is fitting that the Florida team will represent the MLB in Cuba, especially since so many Cuban refugees move to Florida before heading out into other states.
Cuban players like Yasiel Puig did not have easy routes from their homeland to the major leagues. Puig had to be smuggled out of the country. Then, the smugglers decided to pressure him to give them a large piece of his baseball salary. The fact that Puig, Pena, Abreu, and Ramirez have been accepted back into their countries is a miracle that many though they would never see. According to Jesse Sanchez with MLB, the trip was the first time that Abreu has been able to see his son since he defected to the United States to play baseball in 2013.
Aug 22, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (79) smiles as he high-fives teammates after the White Sox beat the Seattle Mariners 6-3 at Safeco Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
The group visited a pair of stadiums to offer baseball clinics to young players. They also worked with a charity organization called Caritas Cubana, which provides humanitarian aid to the Cuban people. Cabrera and the other players signed autographs and shared his positive comments about the players he knows who are from Cuba.
To some, this group might seem too small to make an impact on the people of Cuba. As the first group of MLB representatives since 1999, it is important to recognize that baby steps are the best way to build the relationship between these two strained neighbors.
MLB picked a perfect group. The always-smiling Miguel Cabrera has a magnetism that draws people to him; the Triple-Crown winner is one of best ambassadors of baseball for his skills on the diamond and his charisma on and off of it. The calmly restrained Clayton Kershaw shows the Cubans that men who are born and raised in the US can be true gentlemen. Nelson Cruz from the Dominican Republic is able to share his experiences as a baseball player from a neighboring Caribbean island.
The Cuban players, Ramirez, Abreu, and Pena, are friendly, fun-loving men who know the game, play it well, and appreciate the success they have found in the US. Puig may be a controversial player in Los Angeles, but once a man is around his family and familiar sites, he can completely change. Puig intimately knows the dangers that players like himself faced to get into the MLB.
October 8, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) during workouts before game one of the NLDS at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
This event was created through the hard work of an MLB players’ union official at the urging of Yoenis Cespedes. Due to the free agent market, Cespedes did not go on this trip. But, he and other Cuban players will visit their homeland if this first trip is a success. With the smiles and positive vibes coming from the MLB media, the trip to Cuba appears to be a success already. The two countries need to work together to organize the exhibition games.
The Cuban players have the most risk in this venture, especially because they defied their government by sneaking out of the country. At first glance, the Cuban players seem to be reconciling with the leaders in Cuba, even meeting with Antonio Castro, the minister of sports and the nephew of Fidel Castro. Fortunately, with Miguel Cabrera in attendance as an ambassador, he is able to redirect a large portion of the attention away from the Cuban players creating a slightly safer environment than if he was not with them.
This visit and the impending international game is a major milestone that could change the future of Cuba and the US. The summer of 2016 will be full of baseball excitement, especially in the world of international baseball. It is amazing that baseball can bridge boundaries that have been so tense for so long. Viva Cuba Libre!