Recent interest surrounding the signing of 22-year-old former Cuban national team hurler Aroldis Chapman has sparked considerable internet debate (especially in Cincinnati) and in the process has also refocused attention on the phenomenon of Cuban “defectors”–ballplayers who leave the island in search of possible lucrative futures in the high-paying world of professional North American baseball. I have already weighed in several times in the last 24-hours with my own assessments of Chapman’s big league prospects–assessment based on my 15 years of experience with Cuban league baseball, my numerous opportunities to watch Chapman pitch (both on the island and in international venues), and my own first-hand knowledge of Cuban League play and especially native Cuban pitching talent.
Unfortunately some of the recent debate posted on several Cincinnati-based websites has turned a bit contentious in the past 24 hours and at times has involved views and assessments (of both Chapman’s raw talents and my own readings of Chapman’s potential) that smack more of political diatribe than friendly baseball banter. To put it bluntly, some of the old assumptions seem again to be rearing their ugly heads: (1) i.e. that Cuba is a socialist nation and thus automatically some kind of “evil empire,” (2) that Cuban ballplayers always leave the island because they are striking a blow at its political system or at its government philosophy, and (3) that the Cuban baseball media itself is inherited interested in advancing some government-sponsored thinking and therefore has no ability to write objectively about their own shared national pastime).
All these unfortunate false notions again came to the fore yesterday when a couple of representatives of the Cincinnati media jumped to the conclusion that, because my own published assessments of Chapman (which were hardly all negative, by the way) did not quite match those of Cincinnati team officials, or those of some scouts and player agents–and also because I was writing for a website called BaseballdeCuba.com–I must be an ignorant member of the Cuban media with some pre-programmed party line to voice. I have no interest in carrying that debate any further, given that I already had my say yesterday in a published response posted on the Havana Times website. My only interest in the end is in sharing my knowledge of (and passion for) Cuban League baseball with those true fans interested in expanding their own understanding of Cuban ballplayers and the Cuban baseball scene. Anyone who sees Chapman or any other Cuban ballplayer differently than I do is certainly entitled to his/her opinion (well informed or not). My only objections have been to (1) observations about the Cuban League and its players based on hearsay and falsehoods rather than any actual facts or firsthand knowledge, and (2) knee-jerk assumptions about my affiliations and interests in Cuban baseball that are made without any proper investigation of my identity or background. Enough said on that topic; it is time to get back to baseball.
Since the issue of Cuban “defectors” (I explained yesterday why I am not comfortable with this term and its usual connotations) is now again a burning topic in “Hot Stove League” circles, I should point out that Marvin Moore has recently published (www.ibaf.com) the first part of a useful summary account of Cuban ballplayers (approximately 200 since 1980 and 21 of note in 2009 alone) who have left the island for (often unrealistic) professional prospects. For those interested in tracking the phenomenon, Moore (who writes for BaseballdeWorld.com, which is NOT affiliated with BaseballdeCuba.com) has provided a complete listing of these athletes. Moore’s list brings up to speed a now quite-dated inventory originally published in my own 2006 book (A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006).
While the first part of Moore’s article (http://baseballdeworld.com/2010/01/15/chasing-dreams-cuban-baseball-defectors-part-1/) is not a very detailed analysis of the phenomenon, it is a useful overview, and it does make a number of points which are right on target. Those points are all of the following:
1 – Cuban ballplayers choose to leave their homeland “in pursuit of fame and fortune” in the major leagues, and not for any other reasons. Worsening economic conditions on the island are thus enough to explain the recent upsurge in the phenomenon. (And it might be added–by me and not Moore–that Cuban players therefore leave home for the very same economic reasons that ballplayers from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or Puerto Rico also regularly depart their original native shores.)
2- While Aroldis Chapman has garnered the most recent attention he might not be the best prospect to leave the island. (I have gone further than Moore in my view that Chapman is definitely not the best prospect to depart Cuba–not even the best pitching prospect.)
3- Only a relatively small number of Cuba’s refugee ballplayers (José Contreras, Alexei Ramírez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Danys Báez and the brothers Orlando and Liván Hernández are perhaps the most obvious exceptions) have so far struck it rich with coveted MLB contracts, or even enjoyed minimal big league success and productivity.
4- The best of the lot (with the brightest MLB prospects) among recent island baseball refugees is Pinar del Río and national team ace right-hander Yunieski Maya, currently showcasing his wares for MLB scouts in the Dominican Republic. Maya was a league ERA champ in 2005 (1.61), paced the circuit in numerous categories last season, and likely would have been the country’s number two starter (behind veteran Norge Vera) at the recent European World Cup had it not departed a few months earlier. Maya is a bigger overall talent than Chapman. But just as home run hitters (not singles hitters) drive the Cadillacs (to quote an old saw usually attributed to Ralph Kiner), it is 100-mph fastballs and not true pitching savvy that generally garners the most headlines.
It is widely known by most of my readers that since I cherish the Cuban League with its throwback aura and true non-commercial ambience, I do not at all share the enthusiasm of many others about Cuban ballplayers leaving the island. If the phenomenon continues to expand, Cuban fans will eventually be left with little quality baseball on their home shores (as the Dominicans and Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans now already are, and the Japanese may well soon be). Most here will disagree with my view that Cuban League play is the best spectacle remaining in the shrinking baseball universe. Fair enough, but I have never tried to hide my support of or passion for Cuban baseball in its present form. Call me crazy but never accuse me of being hypocritical on this issue.
While I am not enthusiastic about the phenomenon of Cuban League “defectors” I nonetheless heartily recommend Moore’s recent article and research as a valuable contribution for those wishing to follow or document the phenomenon of former Cuban Leaguers now performing in the professional leagues.
Note: There is one error to be pointed out in Moore’s list of 2009 Cuban League defectors. Outfielder Reinier León has not left Cuba but is currently the starting center fielder and lead-off batter for Pinar del Río.