Why this World Baseball Classic is historic — and complicated — for Cuba

ONE OF THE most captivating players in the early part of this year’s World Baseball Classic has been Randy Arozarena, a man who famously saves his best for the time of year when it matters most. Arozarena, the Tampa Bay Rays‘ fifth-year outfielder, has treated an international tournament in March the way he often does Major League Baseball’s postseason in October, electrifying fans with his all-around skill set, tickling social media with his pro-wrestling-style poses and delighting teammates with his cowboy boots.

Arozarena was born and raised in Cuba, the island that sparked and fostered his love for baseball. But he isn’t representing his home country this week. His star, instead, is shining for Mexico, the nation he settled in briefly during his early 20s.

This year’s World Baseball Classic represents a seismic shift for Cuba, which included current major league players on the roster for the first time ever. It led to the additions of Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, central figures for the Chicago White Sox. But Arozarena, who has spoken openly in recent years about representing his adopted country, represents a litany of Cuban-born stars who were either not invited or not interested or, in some cases, both, a list that also includes Jose Abreu, Yordan Alvarez, Yasmani Grandal and Aroldis Chapman, among numerous others.

The presence of Moncada and Robert — as well as Yoenis Cespedes, the former star outfielder who hasn’t played in the majors since 2020, and a handful of minor league players — has been characterized by Cuba and its state-run media as a monumental step worth celebrating. Cuba, which dominated on the Olympic stage throughout the 1990s and 2000s, possesses a rich history of baseball excellence. But massive defections have diminished the level of talent on the island and brought with it numerous disappointments on the international stage. The inclusion of major league players was considered a much-needed boost.

But many Cuban players in the United States viewed the development with deep-seated cynicism, well-earned from those who were stripped of basic freedoms by a country they were ultimately forced to flee. Notable, sure, but also awkward. Encouraging yet controversial. As with most things related to Cuba, it is, well, complicated.

“Unfortunately in Cuba everything is mixed with its politics,” veteran infielder Aledmys Diaz said in Spanish. “The [Cuban Baseball Federation] is part of the direction of the Cuban government. In order for you to represent them, or be part of that, you have to think the way they do. That’s a problem that Cuba has, and it’s what differentiates it from other countries.”

TO BE A Cuban American is to lack a true sense of country, a plight that international events like the World Baseball Classic have a tendency of highlighting. For Cubans, pride in a flag and roots and traditions are often entwined with disdain for an oppressive government that has spent decades denying its people their fundamental human rights, a connection that can become impossible to separate. It’s a duality unique to the Cuban professional baseball player, as Aroldis Chapman explained on a recent spring morning.

“In the Dominican, all of the Dominican players leave, finish their seasons here, and then most of them go back to their country and spend most of their offseasons in the Dominican,” Chapman, a member of the Kansas City Royals, said. “A lot of us Cubans, first of all, we had to leave illegally. The Cuban government doesn’t give us permission to go anywhere. It’s not just athletes; it’s everybody. Before, you couldn’t leave Cuba to go anywhere. We left, we left illegally, and then the very Cuban government began to call us traitors … saying a bunch of things against us.

“And so on top of that, calling us all those things, they don’t televise any of our games in Cuba. They don’t televise big league games over there, supposedly because they don’t want to show the Cuban baseball players who are playing over here. Also, a lot of us have gone eight, 10, 15 years without being able to return to Cuba. At this point, [with the World Baseball Classic taking place] a lot of people talk about the island, the country. Yeah, but that same country has called you a traitor … because you made the decision to come to this country. There’s just a lot there.”

The U.S., more than 60 years into a strict trade embargo, granted Cuba special permission to include major and minor league players on its WBC roster in December — but the list of those allowed to join shrank quickly.

The Cuban Baseball Federation, which banned participation in professional sports more than 60 years ago, declared from the onset that no one who left Cuba’s national team during international competition in order to eventually reach the U.S., and in its view broke a contract, would be invited. And in April, the president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, Juan Reynaldo Perez Pardo, introduced another condition, saying on a daily news show in Cuba that the players selected would be those who “have maintained a positive attitude towards our baseball and our country.” In other words: players who are not publicly critical of the government.

For some, it meant taking part would require forgetting the reasons they left in the first place.

“There is no freedom in Cuba,” said Yale professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, author of a book about the history of Cuban baseball.

On the island, those who speak out against the government risk jail time, with minimal due process. Most of the economy is controlled by GAESA, the economic division of Cuba’s military. And leaving the country often requires special permission. Because of the embargo established by the United States, baseball players must establish residency in a different country in order to become eligible for major league free agency — and that path has often proved treacherous.

Many of the stories that have come to light have been harrowing. Jose Fernandez, the late star pitcher for the Miami Marlins, described jumping overboard to save his mother from drowning during their journey. Jose Abreu testified about having to swallow a fake passport. Yasiel Puig was reportedly detained by a Mexican drug cartel. Orlando Hernandez was famously sent to a Bahamian detention center. When they eventually shined in the U.S., their achievements were ignored by a Cuban government that would not allow them back into the country for at least eight years. Worse, their reputations were often tarnished.

“They called us traitors, they said we were a disgrace to our country, and now you want us to play for you — and we don’t even get an apology?” said a Cuban-born major league player who did not want to be publicly identified. “We don’t forget. I’m not going to forget, at least. I have my pride.”

AROLDIS CHAPMAN AND Aledmys Diaz, now with the Oakland Athletics, said they had no interest in playing for Team Cuba, which split its four pool-play games and advanced into the quarterfinals by virtue of a tiebreaker. But they also were not invited, nor was anyone else who left during international competitions — a list that includes Jose Iglesias, Yadiel Hernandez and the Gurriel brothers, Yulieski and Lourdes Jr.

Many of those who were eligible also declined.

Houston Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez and first baseman Jose Abreu were both called, but neither answered, Team Cuba manager Armando Johnson told the local media in January. New York Yankees starter Nestor Cortes, who left Cuba as a child, chose to pitch for Team USA before withdrawing because of a hamstring injury. Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Yandy Diaz expressed to Spanish-speaking media late last year that he was not interested in playing for Cuba, and his Rays teammate, Arozarena, is fulfilling his desire to play for Mexico, the country where he established citizenship after fleeing Cuba.

Oscar Colas of the White Sox and Miguel Vargas of the Los Angeles Dodgers showed varying degrees of interest but declined largely to focus on holding down everyday jobs with their current teams.

Colas, whose spring locker resides between those of Moncada and Robert, hopes to play for Team Cuba if given another opportunity in the near future.

Vargas, whose father, Lazaro, starred for Cuba in the 1990s, is uncertain.

“I think there’s always going to be that struggle because a lot has happened through a lot of time,” Vargas said in Spanish. “They’ve hurt a lot of players, their families, lots of stuff. I think with time, maybe there can be a better relationship. But that’s not the case right now.”

Four minor league players joined Team Cuba, including infielder Andy Ibanez (Texas Rangers organization) and pitchers Ronald Bolanos (Royals), Miguel Romero (A’s) and Roenis Elias (Chicago Cubs). But Robert, Moncada and Cespedes are the clear headliners, representations of what optimists view as a potential shift in Cuba’s relations with those who left the island.

Yoan Moncada received legal permission to leave in June 2014 and flew directly from Cuba to Ecuador. Yoenis Cespedes and Luis Robert left illegally — Cespedes on a speedboat in the summer of 2011; Robert on a flight, through back channels, in the fall of 2016, according to a Francys Romero book that chronicles Cuban migration. But neither left the team during international competition, and each is at least in neutral standing with the Cuban government.

Approached by ESPN during spring training, Moncada and Robert declined to talk about their decision to join Team Cuba. Cespedes, who left the team to address a personal issue in the U.S. but hopes to rejoin Cuba if it advances into the semifinals, was relayed questions through a public-relations staffer in Taiwan but declined to answer them.

Just before leaving White Sox camp in Glendale, Arizona, Robert, speaking through an interpreter, told the local media that the thought of playing for Cuba had “never crossed my mind” after leaving the island, adding that he felt “proud” to do so now. Moncada said he was “very hopeful that this is a first step for the Cuban players that are in the major leagues to represent their country in future tournaments.”

Chapman and Diaz said they did not speak with Robert or Moncada about their decision to join the team, but they also did not condemn them for it.

“I’m sure they have their reasons,” Chapman said.

“I’m not going to look at Moncada or Robert any differently for making the decision to play for Team Cuba,” Diaz added. “I respect their decision. All I can control is my own actions and the way I think.”

CUBA’S DECISION TO accept players who fled was surprising considering its sensibilities but predictable considering its circumstances.

“It’s a reflection of the crises in which Cuba finds itself, in all aspects of life,” said Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria. “Things have deteriorated, and so has baseball.”

Cuba, an island that cherishes its baseball every bit as much as the Dominican Republic, claimed gold or silver at every Summer Olympics from 1992 to 2008 and 39 other golds over a five-decade stretch in the Baseball World Cup, Intercontinental Cup and Pan-American Games. When the World Baseball Classic was first staged in 2006, Cuba finished as the runner-up to Japan. But it went 1-3 in the Pan-American Games in 2019, failed to qualify for the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and went 1-6 in last month’s Caribbean Series, finishing last among the eight teams.

Cuba didn’t advance past the second round in any of the past three World Baseball Classics and isn’t expected to do so this year, even with Moncada, Robert and Cespedes on the roster. Heading into the tournament, outsiders predicted Cuba’s amateurs might have a hard time handling the high velocities displayed by upper-echelon teams in the late stages of this tournament. Upper-90s fastballs have become almost foreign on the island; the average fastball in the Cuban National Series fell to the mid-80s last season, according to Francys Romero, a Cuban journalist who now lives in Miami and works for

In March of 2020, Romero released his Spanish-language book chronicling the migration of Cuban baseball players from 1960 to 2018. He called the tail end of that stretch an “explosion.” According to Romero’s research, 130 players left from 1990 to 2000. From 2000 to 2010, the number jumped to 250. In 2015 alone, it was 202 — a total that represents roughly half the number of players who take part in the 16-team Cuban National Series, the equivalent of its regular season. The period from 2011 to 2018 totaled somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 departures, largely due to the travel restrictions that were eased by Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, in 2013.

Cuban players commonly departed after they had at least begun to establish themselves within the country’s highest league. But by 2018, the average age of the baseball players who left had fallen to 17 years old, seven years younger than it was just four years earlier, according to Romero.

“It was no longer even that the stars didn’t feel confident continuing their careers in Cuba,” Romero said in Spanish, “but that the fathers of the young prospects also didn’t believe in a future in Cuba.”

MIGUEL VARGAS, a 23-year-old infielder who will become the Dodgers’ everyday second baseman this season, is a soccer fan who watched closely as Argentina secured the World Cup in December.

He thought about what it would mean for Cuba to do something similar in baseball.

“Everybody who’s Cuban should have the opportunity to represent his country,” Vargas said. “I think that would be incredible.”

MLB holds aspirations of eventually turning the WBC into something as storied and as cherished as the World Cup, but one of the obstacles standing in the way of such a lofty pursuit — aside from history, international reach and the dynamics of MLB — is representation. Significant progress was made for this year’s event, particularly with regard to Team USA.

But for Cuba, increasing representation isn’t as easy as rallying superstars.

An effort, at least, was made early last year, when a group of current and former players joined forces with a longtime journalist and a former software engineer to launch the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players. The primary goal was to assemble an all-star team for the World Baseball Classic, independent from the communist government that has historically prevented one, and so Cuban baseball fans everywhere went on social media to fantasize about a dream roster.

Luis Robert in center. Jorge Soler and Randy Arozarena in the outfield corners. Yasmani Grandal behind the plate. Yordan Alvarez at DH. Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Jose Iglesias and perhaps even Nolan Arenado making up the infield. Nestor Cortes and Alek Manoah starting games, Aroldis Chapman and Raisel Iglesias finishing them.

A logo, a vertical adaptation of Cuba’s flag, was created. A name, The Cubanos, was announced. T-shirts were printed, uniform concepts were generated. Pitching legend Orlando Hernandez was installed as the general manager, and Brayan Pena, the former catcher who now coaches in the minor leagues, was named field manager. Some of Cuba’s biggest stars — Chapman, Soler and Alvarez among them — voiced their support.

The group spoke with Tony Clark, head of the MLB Players Association, in May, and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in June, and felt as if the meetings were well-received. But the goal of competing in this year’s World Baseball Classic hardly stood a chance. The World Baseball Softball Confederation, which sanctions the WBC, does not permit the participation of a team that is not affiliated with a national governing body, and running the WBC without sanctions was hardly an option. Cubans were once again left longing.

“I feel like we accomplished a lot in a short amount of time,” Diaz said. “We know there are a lot of rules that were going to prevent us from fielding a team for this year’s Classic, but I think we took steps forward. And my understanding is that the inclusion of Moncada and Luis Robert was at least partly because of the pressure we were able to create. I don’t think the Cuban government would’ve allowed MLB players to take part in this year’s World Baseball Classic [if not for us]. And so from my point of view, I think the pressure we put on them was important.”

Diaz, echoing a sentiment shared by several others, doesn’t want to play for a Cuban team until everyone is allowed. That won’t happen, he believes, until “baseball stops becoming politicized” and the team deploys a manager who is not associated with the Cuban government.

It’s not that simple.

“In Cuba everything is basically politicized,” Chapman said. “A lot of people want to separate what is the sport of baseball, culture, from politics. They want to separate them. But in Cuba, everything is political — sports, culture, everything. So if you’re representing Cuba, you’re not just representing the flag, you’re representing the government.”