One-Team Players and the Socialist Baseball Concept

Carlos_yanes_bCarlos Yanes has pitched 24 seasons in the Cuban League and all of them wearing the uniform of the Isla de la Juventud ballclub. The length of Yanes’ service is remarkable enough by big league standards, but the attachment to a single club is itself only business as usual for the socialist version of baseball played on the island of Cuba.

Bill Carle’s fascinating article on "One-Team PLayers" appearing in the latest issue of SABR’s Baseball Research Journal knocks a good deal of wind out of the sails of at least one popular myth attached to the modern free-agent era. Carle deftly deflates the widely-held notion that today’s turnstile rosters have made single-team "lifers" like Bagwell, Biggio and Bernie Williams almost as rare as a precious moment of dead-air silence in a Joe Morgan-Jon Miller Sunday night telecast. Examining the list of 63 ballplayers whose careers spanned a minimum of 15 years in "The Show" and whose paychecks were all earned with a single ballblub, Carle reveals two rather surprising facts. 1- The inventory of such players breaks down quite evenly by decades over the past century-plus: 2 debuted in the 1900s, 2 in the 1910s, 10 in the 1920s, 6 in the 1930s, 4 in the 1940s, 9 in the 1950s, 11 in the 1960s, 10 in the 1970s, 6 in the 1980s, and 2 in the 1990s (for those who are counting, Bid McPhee was the only 19th century member of the exclusive club). And 2- while Biggio and Bagwell are indeed rather rare cases among today’s much-traveled big leaguers, they are hardly any more rare than they would have been in almost any other epoch.  (For you trivia buffs, Brooks Robinson and Yaz have served the longest among one-team "lifers" by each logging 23 summers in the same uniform.)

Of course the conclusion that "lifers" with one team have not been radically expunged by the modern free agent movement does not itself prove much either way about the stability of franchise rosters after the death of the reserve clause. Sure enough there has been an explosion of player mobility during the AMM (After Marvin Miller) era; casual fans do indeed need a scorecard to keep the hometown roster straight from season to season, and long-term attachments to hometown heroes just don’t seem to be what they once were.

All of which brings us round to an observation about the quaintness of that strange league existing at the other end of the baseball universe–the one still surviving in virtual isolation behind the Sugar Cane Curtain and based on an utterly foreign notion of what constituents normal business practices. We speak of course of the 46-year-old Cuban League which still marches proudly from season to season to the beat of an entirely different drummer. Biggio and Bagwell may be noteworthy in American sporting circles for their team loyalty under an MLB operation that places supreme value on an athlete’s free-market privileges. For the Cuban ballplayer, however, such immobility is not just commonplace, but rather it is the only fathomed reality.

Players don’t change teams in Cuba. They perform on the club representing the province of their birth, they don the same uniform from rookie breakout till retirement breakdown. There is no free agency in Cuban baseball–no trades, no holdouts, no agents, no salary incentives (all players earn identical pay checks), no club owners, no rich and poor franchises, indeed no franchises. There is no constant chatter among press or fans about the financial side of the sport; there is no financial side of the sport. All 16 Cuban League clubs (one in each province, one in the special municipality which is the Island of Youth, and two in the city of Havana) are operated by the Cuban sports ministry (INDER). Players are owned by the league, not by distinct teams, and the entire league season is little more than an elaborate training grounds and tryout process. National Series play is aimed at selection of the 35-man roster for a national team that will represent the nation in late summer or early fall international tournaments. Until a half-dozen years back there was no admission charge for league games. In Fidel’s Cuba socialist sport has long been a "right of the people" in more than name only. Today’s Cuban fans pay a three peso admission fee (15 cents U.S.) while foreigners are charged three Cuban dollars (about five bucks U.S.). TV broadcasts have no commercial sponsorship. The only slogans on outfield fences trumpet politic rhetoric. For better or worse, there is no Money Ball in Cuba.

Antonio_pacheco

Since island players stay put, the Cuban League is full of Yaz, Ripken, Stargell and Concepcion prototypes–players who wear a single uniform for two decades and more. At the end of the 2002 season three Cuban stars of the 1980s-1990s drew the the curtain on two decade careers spent thrilling fans in a single hometown ballpark. Antonio Pacheco (left photo, 22 seasons with Santiago), Orestes Kindelan (21 years as Pacheco’s teammate), and Omar Linares (20 years in Pinar del Rio) bowed out as revered icons of the communist national pastime. While it is about as rare for a Cuban Leaguer to last beyond 20 campaigns at the top level as it is for a big league to hang on that long, no Cuban fan ever has to worry or puzzle over stars like Linares or Pacheco abandoning the home club for greener pastures elsewhere. There are a few, of course, who flee the league and country altogether, but–Contreras and El Duque aside–this is still a rare occurrence among the top echelon of Cuban ballplayers.

So while MLB features no one recording a 22-plus-year-career with a single club among all players who debuted after 1962 (Stargell, Brett and Ripken come closest at 21 years), the Cuban League can boast 10 (8 position players and a pair of pitchers): Antonio Munoz (24), Carlos Yanes (24, pitcher), Faustino Corrales (23, pitcher), Fernando Sanchez (23), Antonio Pacheco (22), Victor Bejerano (22), Agustin Lescaille (22), Agustin Marquetti (22) and Javier Mendez (22). A dozen more have reached 20 campaigns and another dozen are on the verge of doing so (and this is with half as many teams).

This is not all quite as simple as it seems, and a number of caveats and explanations are in order. If one looks carefully at the career summaries of select players in A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (Chapter 11) it will appear that some of these reputedly immobile players did in fact shift teams. Linares for example played for Pinar del Rio, Vegueros and Occidentales; Marquetti wore the uniforms of Habana, Constructores, Metropolitanos and Industriales; Kindelan was with Santiago de Cuba, Serranos and Orientales. What gives here? There is, however, an easy enough explanation.

Players don’t shift towns in Cuba, but the structure of the league and the division of the seasons has often been in a state of flux. The current 90-game national Series (since 1997) and 16-team, 4-division organization (since 1992) are recent developments. The National Series fluctuated greatly before the 1990s in both its number of teams and its divisional groupings. There has also from time to time been a second season (earlier called the Selective Series and now the Super League) in which National Series clubs are collapsed into fewer teams representing large zones and sporting different names. It is these facts that explain a player’s multiple affiliations. Players have always remained afixed to their home towns or provinces. The single exception has been the team representing the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud) which drawns talent from all quarters of Cuba  to compensate for a population deficiency.

And there is one further caveat. Players (like Yasser Gomez or Yoandry Urgelles) who show promise after debuting with Havana Metropolitanos are occasionally shifted to Havana Industriales, the wildly popular capital city club which boasts the country’s biggest following. Even in socialist Cuba baseball officials are not totally oblivious to television ratings being boosted by the fan-favored Industriales Lions.

My intention here has been to point out a defining difference in the structure of Cuban League play–one which may not sit well with supporters of free enterprise, but one which has also long underpinned the exceptional loyalties Cuban fans attach to what are their truly "hometown" ballclubs. I don’t justfy here a system which defenders and beneficiaries of capitalism will naturally find to be something of an anathema. (Cuba official of course argue that their system is superior, since CL athletes are motivated by love of sport and not lucre while U.S. professionals are bought or traded like horse flesh.) The debate over the merits of capitalist versus socialst baseball is too big to tackle here and we should perhaps return to it in other blogs. This report features only the impact of the Cuban system (for good or bad) on one-team "lifers" as a disappearing diamond phenomenon.

On the homefront, SABR scholars devote articles in research journals to the rarity of ballplayers who don a single uniform for more than a mere cup of coffee. In Havana the official Industriales team website recently devoted considerable "ink" to the anachronistic practice of some players shifting from one Havana club to another. Such diversity of perspective is indeed one of the charms of distinct and separate baseball universes. Some of us hope that such culture clashes will not disappear altogether with whatever baseball developments might soon loom on the horizon for the post-Castro Cuba.

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