Nine early Bjarkman authored volumes on basketball history, including a popular illustrated history of the Boston Celtics and what some in the late-1990s called a definitive history of college basketball
"If travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it's a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end." — Pico Iyer ("Why We Travel")
Cuba's Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story of Major League Baseball's Hottest Issue (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers)
The headline-grabbing impact of a hefty number Cuban sluggers and hurlers has become one of the hottest stories in contemporary big league baseball. In June of 2013 flashy Yasiel Puig burst on the scene in media-rich Los Angeles with one of the most sensational opening months in the career of any major league rookie. Less than a year later slugging José Abreu was rewriting American League record books in Chicago with a Cinderella debut month of even greater portions. For the past four seasons flame-throwing Cincinnati southpaw Aroldis Chapman has been stunning enemy batters with an unparalleled 105 mph heater. In only his fifth big league start Odrisamer Despaigne came within an eyelash of hurling the first no-hit game in San Diego Padres history. Oakland A’s five-tool Yoenis Céspedes launched his own media circus with a pair of consecutive Mid-Summer Classic Home Run Derby crowns and the 2014 MLB All-Star Game featured five Cuban-born players for the first time in 45 years. And as the recent season wound down the normally hapless Chicago Cubs showcased phenom outfielder Jorge Soler (three homers in his first three big league games) while the often conservative Boston Red Sox tendered a mid-boggling $72-deal in order to corral still another recent Cuban League escapee named Rusney Castillo.
The unrivalled Cuban baseball talent font has always been acknowledged, though Cold War politics and clashing social systems have for decades held the door closed on domestic Cuban baseball and thus kept most stateside fans largely in the dark. Cuba dominated international tournaments for a half-century, but there was always a very large caveat surrounding those victories. For 50 years Cuba won or reached the finals of every single major international tournament (a string that ended with a second round elimination at the 2009 World Baseball Classic), but the bulk of those triumphs (before 1999) all came in the aluminum-bat era and were earned largely against amateur university-level squads. Cuban exiles in the USA were particularly unwilling to acknowledge the quality of the current Cuban League, clinging to a notion that the “baseball glory era” on the island had ended with the disbanding of organized baseball-affiliated winter league play way back in 1961. An inaugural World Baseball Classic (2006) nonetheless seemed to put at least some of those doubts to rest. Now an increasing wave of “defectors” (top Cuban League stars illegally leaving their homeland in search of big-league fame and lucre) have successfully thrown wide open a long opaque window on Cuba and its seemingly endless supply of high-quality baseball talent.
This recent “defector phenomenon” has been as clouded in misconception, however, as has almost all of Cuban baseball’s vast history. The Cuban baseball story is crammed with endless mythology – inaccurately told tales that never measure up to careful factual analysis. From a fantasy notion that pre-revolution Cuba provided a racial paradise (the popular island amateur league was in fact an “all-white” affair until World War II), to the undying legend of Fidel Castro as pro pitching prospect (a myth finally destroyed with Bjarkman’s own A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006), down to notions about Cuban stars playing under virtual armed guard on international tours during the first decade of the current century, misconceptions continue to abound. And no aspect of 20th or 21st century Cuban baseball has been more wildly misreported or consistently misunderstood than that involving the misinformation spread by popular US press accounts concerning the “defections” of recent impact stars like Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Céspedes and dozens of similar skilled ball-playing island refugees.
From the celebrated (and later debunked) 1998 accounts of “El Duque” Hernández braving shark-infested waters on a flimsy raft, down to recent distorted accounts of Cuban League “defection”-inspired suspensions imposed on future MLB stars Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Céspedes and Yasiel Puig, tales of harrowing and heroic escapes by coveted Cuban Leaguers have universally strayed far from actual events – suffering self-serving embellishments often crafted by gold-digging player agents or gleeful South Florida exiles looking for any blow against the Castro regime. A fresh look is needed – one that clarifies some actual details related to Cuba’s rich baseball pipeline.
Nothing brought MLB’s “Cuba issue” to center stage faster than breaking press accounts this past spring revealing harrowing details of Puig’s flight from his island homeland. Most are familiar with the outline of the story that broke in LA Magazine (authored by Jesse Katz) and its allegations that MLB was in some measure guilty of closing a blind eye to human trafficking of high-ticket Cuban prospects. Puig had been smuggled through Mexico with apparent aid from Zeta drug cartel members and for a brief time his future and even his physical well-being had been seriously jeopardized. When Puig reached Mexican shores as a virtual prisoner and the price was jacked up for his delivery to a potential player agent, other organized crime elements from Miami virtually “re-kidnapped” him from the original smugglers. A hefty price reportedly remains on Puig’s head as the resulted of the Zetas being stiffed ay their own game. Details remain sketching, as they also do in the parallel case of Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin who underwent a similar harrowing trial several years earlier. And there are further ugly elements as well to the departure sagas of Puig, Cespedes and even Aroldis Chapman. Puig fled after being suspended from the Cuban League on the heels of a shop-lifting incident during a national team tour in Rotterdam; Céspedes eluded Cuban authorities after being implicated in a fatal auto accident on the island the very week when Puig was also failing into disfavor. A dozen Cubans have served jail time back home as fallout from aiding Chapman. And ESPN “30 for 30” has now prepared a documentary entitled “Brothers in Exile” to kick off their 2014 autumn season that will explore in vivid detail dramatic circumstances surrounding the Cuban “flights” of Liván and half-brother El Duque Hernández.
Now for the first time an author close to the Cuban baseball scene for two decades peels away the mysteries and cuts through the fog of rumors and misinformation to lay out the details surrounds Cuba’s current burgeoning big league pipeline. Peter Bjarkman has traveled to all corners of the island baseball scene over the 20 years separating Cuba’s impressive early Olympic baseball triumphs in Barcelona and Atlanta from the recent domestic economic crises that have spurred increasing numbers of top Castroland stars to abandon their homeland for the promised riches of North American professional contracts. Having enjoyed rare island access and personally knowing most of the top Cuban stars, Bjarkman is now able to reveal the complete story behind the “Cuban big league phenomenon” and answer the numerous questions lurking behind one of the biggest sports stories of the past several decades.
Bjarkman here explains precisely how Cuba has managed to generate such remarkable baseball talent over the past quarter century, how it has until recently kept most of that talent sequestered at home, and why Cuban government and sports official are so adamant about rejecting any open trafficking with major league ball clubs. He reveals the personal histories of some of the highest-profile stars among recent Cuban imports and explains unfolding events that have lend them to eventually choose “defection” from their homeland. In the process he explores the personal risks that many have taken to achieve their North American baseball dreams. He also examines the steps that Cuban authorities are now taking to stem the talent loss at home and speculates on what those countermeasures may mean in the future for big league clubs coveting a continuing flow of top-level Cuban talent.
This book not only reveals behind-the-scenes developments in one of baseball’s biggest unfolding stories, but also raises questions concerning baseball’s next crisis of perhaps scandalous proportion. Recent revelations about the smuggling of potential superstar Yasiel Puig (including the misadventures of his transport through Mexico with the aid of Miami-based crime syndicates and Mexican drug cartels) reveals the true dark underbelly of the “freedom flights” of top Cuban athletes and colors their quests for promised big league riches. Similar tales surrounding Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin and Oakland slugger Yoenis Céspedes add further fuel to the fire, as do recent courtroom confessions of a Miami crime syndicate “hired hand” involved directly in the Leonys Martin case. Does MLB’s blind-eye current stance on Cuban player recurrent actually aid and abet the illicit operations in Cuban player smuggling? Are big league moguls guilty at the very least of “looking the other” way and ignoring egregious human trafficking that is putting the lives of many top athletes and their families at risk? And how precisely do five decades of failed Washington policy and the odious effects of an unworkable Helms-Burton economic embargo bear the brunt of responsibility for this current state of affairs? Bjarkman’s treatment delves into the complexities of these troubling issues and offers tentative solutions to what is now one of American baseball’s biggest ongoing headaches.
The "Yanqui" in Cuba's Dugout: Travels Inside Fidel Castro's Baseball Empire (McFarland & Company Publishers)
For almost two decades now Peter Bjarkman has been hot on the trail of Cuban baseball, chasing after both its luminous history before the 1959 Fidel Castro-led revolution and its often-obscure contemporary realities of the post-revolution era. The writer known as the “Bill James and Peter Gammons of Cuban baseball” made his initial fact-finding trips to Castro’s forbidden island nation with photographer Mark Rucker in the aftermath of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Across the succeeding 17 years he has logged fifty-plus visits and ventured into virtually every hidden byway of an anachronistic Communist bastion that today stands continually on the cutting edge of history and Cold War politics. And here for the first time the well-travelled author provides detailed accounts of his Cuban adventures and thus provides an unprecedented insider’s portrait of the island’s national pastime as it today struggles for both survival and continued international prominence.
Others have penned engaging travelogues recounting their eye-opening and often mind-bending journeys throughout Castro’s Cuba. Numerous previous authors like Tom Miller, Zöe Brân, Andrei Codrescu, James Michener and Carlo Gébler have chronicled visits normally spanning only a few months (as with Tom Miller’s ground-breaking Trading with the Enemy), or a perhaps only a few weeks, or even as little as six days (in the case of Michener). By contrast Bjarkman’s unique travelogue is drawn from dozens upon dozens of return visits spread across a wide span of gradual social, economic and political changes that have marked the final years of Fidel’s near half-century in power and the opening decade of Raúl Castro’s tenuous experiments in modified survivalist socialism.
The focus of Bjarkman travels has remained squarely fixed on Cuba’s contemporary domestic baseball scene – an arena that is both the source of an engaging alternative diamond universe untouched by corporate big league baseball and also a wellspring for the recent flood of highly celebrated “defectors” now enriching stateside major league play. But his adventures have also opened enduring personal contacts with Cubans from all walks of life, everyday citizens of a “revolutionary” society heroically struggling to survive within the island nation’s harsh late-twentieth and early twenty-first century economic and social realities. The result is an examination of Cuba both on and off the baseball diamond from a perspective rarely granted to North American visitors.
Bjarkman’s special access in Cuba has drawn considerable main-stream media attention over the years here in the United States. He has been continually quoted by numerous print and electronic media outlets for reports on high-profile Cuban League “defectors” debuting in the major leagues; his columns on the popular www.BaseballdeCuba.com website have remained a valued source of information on island baseball developments and on the potent Cuban national team. When renowned TV chef Anthony Bourdain took his Travel Channel “No Reservations” show to Havana in March 2010, Peter Bjarkman was at his side as the featured Cuban baseball guide and knowledgeable insider. During November 2010 the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal profiled Bjarkman with a front-page story stressing his remarkable insider’s perspective on the island national pastime and also highlighting the considerable furor this access has generated among a North American Cuban exile community. As reported by WSJ writer Christopher Rhoads, many transplanted Miami Cubans prefer to see the author as “a stooge and shill for the Cuban government” and as one who glosses over realities of a failed revolution to protect his own special access. In brief, while some chose to see Bjarkman “as doing for Cuban baseball what Ry Cooder has done for Cuban baseball” … still others “consider him akin to John Reed, the controversial American journalist whose leftist sympathies allowed him into the Bolshevik inner circle to chronicle the 1917 Russian Revolution.”
With this new volume – part-travelogue and part baseball history – Bjarkman not only tells his own side of the story but also exposes a Cuba that few Americans have been privileged to experience and judge first-hand. The Yanqui in Cuba’s Dugout chronicles the author’s numerous informal conversations with Cuban baseball officials, relives encounters with star ballplayers who have become his personal friends and confidants, and recounts often contentious debates with fanatic fans from all walks of Cuban daily life. The narrative is crammed with surprising (often even mind-bending) events witnessed both on and off the playing field and rarely imagined in a sanitized world of American professional baseball. Within twenty chronologically arranged chapters, Bjarkman tackles the complex and controversial issue of ballplayer defections, reveals the pros and cons of a socialist baseball system that eschews both player free agency and the corporate business model ubiquitous thorough other baseball-playing nations, and offers Cuban ballplayers’ own outspoken views on why some stay and others leave a restrictive baseball culture that has both trained and nurtured them. Throughout these pages the author lays bare numerous myths surrounding a contemporary island national pastime he zealously defends as a true Golden Age. And in the process we discover precisely why he prefers Cuba’s non-commercial approach to baseball as an instrument of national and community pride and a “socialist right of the people.”
The book is filled with numerous anecdotes revealing behind-the-scenes developments not previously available to those who view Cuban baseball from the outside. Among the previously buried events recounted here for the first time is a controversial suspension of idolized star outfielder Freddie Cepeda, the result of an unlikely September 2010 cloak-and-dagger scene staged in Puerto Rico with the author himself smack in the middle of the unfolding drama. Bjarkman reveals the nuts and bolts operations of Cuban security struggling overseas to protect national team stars from hordes of vulture-like MLB player agents; he reveals how top Cuban players live both at home and on road trips abroad; and he lays bare the often horrendous playing conditions found in today’s island ballparks. Found here is the backstory surrounding the ground-breaking 2011 Havana filming of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations Cuba” documentary, as well as the inside scoop on a recent unprecedented island visit by ESPN – a junket that signaled a rare opening in an iron-clad wall long blocking the national sport from probing by the foreign media. Also revealed is the intriguing tale of how in February 2001 the author himself became the first American in over a half-century to be interviewed on the topic of domestic baseball by primetime Cuban national television. With the book’s concluding chapter Bjarkman analyzes and clarifies developments behind recently announced changes in Cuban player salaries and related lightening of restrictions on players traveling abroad.
Bjarkman’s personal accounts provide a lucid window into the rocky evolution of Cuban baseball – stretching from the reintroduction of wooden bats and the initial Olympic triumphs of the mid-nineties to the troubling new millennium scenes of the 2000s, an epoch marked by increasing player defections, sliding international stature, and an island-wide economic collapse that today threatens island baseball’s very survival. In many ways the contemporary Cuban League parallels the lost spectacle of pre-WWII stateside Negro league baseball. All we now own of that murky Blackball universe is a handful of sketchy oral histories too often cheapened by mind-stretching exaggerations, overzealous nostalgia, and the lack of first-hand accounts from a contemporary mainstream sporting press. What American observers now possess of the Cuban baseball scene is a similar shroud of mystery and misunderstanding stemming from Washington’s half-century Cold War blockade of Castro’s realm. But imagine for a moment some miraculously unearthed contemporary report carefully penned by an outside observer who painstakingly captured realities of the lost 1930s-era Negro leagues scene in Chicago, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, or Birmingham. That is precisely what veteran author Peter Bjarkman now places before North American readers, scholars and historians for the frequently misunderstood and heavily romanticized world of contemporary Cuban baseball.