“Peter Bjarkman is the ultimate chronicler of Cuban baseball. His latest book takes an inside look into the wave of player departures that has rocked the game both in Cuba and the U.S., while providing historical perspective on the complicated relationship between the countries.” — Jorge Ortiz, USA Today
Author in Bayamo with Alfredo Despaigne
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's “30 for 30” documentary “Brothers in Exile” (November 2014) explores 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 able to reveal the complete story behind a “Cuban big league phenomenon” and answer 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.