Fordham Event Misses the Boat on Cuban Baseball

Below is the text of my lecture for the upcoming Fordham University Cuban Baseball History Conference, the lecture I won’t actually be there in person to present.

On Saturday, August 20, Fordham University and the Cuban Cultural Center of New York will host a one-day event billed as a serious academic conference and advertised under the all-inclusive title of “The History of Cuban Baseball: From its Origins to the Present.” Kicking off the affair will be keynote speaker (and apparent conference moving force) Roberto González Echevarría, Yale University Distinguished Professor of Spanish Literature and author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (Oxford 1999), one of the seminal works on the subject of the Caribbean national pastime.

Some baseball scholars gathering this weekend at Fordham U will celebrate Orestes Miñoso, Luis Tiant and Agapito Mayor as the summit of Cuban baseball.

Also scheduled for the Fordham campus are appearances by such household-name former big leaguers as Orestes Miñoso, Luis Tiant, Cookie Rojas, Tony Pérez, Orlando Peña, and Bert Campaneris. If that were not enough of a drawing card, also on the bill of fare is Tommy Lasorda, Hall of Fame manager, cup of coffee pitcher, and outspoken critic of everything associated with Fidel Castro’s mid-century revolutionary triumphs. And to round out the day’s nostalgic look at pre-revolutionary diamond action of six decades past, there will be historic newsreel footage of the island’s long-lost professional winter league, a sale of books and CDs, and academic lectures by reputed experts on Cuba’s blackball stars of pre-integration days, Cuban women in baseball, and the rarely explored pre-Castro Cuban amateur league.

But something indeed seems to be amiss here. Is this Fordham event designed to be a serious academic convocation of “experts” and scholars dedicated to excavating the riddles of Cuban baseball history with all its complications, mysteries and controversies? Or is it instead a rather thinly veiled excuse for nostalgic celebration of “those good old days before Castro ruined Cuba” – a reunion of aging ex-patriots joining forces to preach to the choir and thus reaffirm a so-familiar theme of the death of legitimate island baseball after the social upheavals of the late-fifties and early-sixties. There is certainly sufficient reason for serious doubt. The conference title advertises a program devoted to the Cuban national pastime “from its origins to the present.” But is this a legitimate claim or rather an egregious case of highly unscholarly false advertising?  

Where is the false advertising? Of course there would be none had this conference been more appropriately billed as “The History of Cuban Baseball: From its Origins to the Death of the MLB-Affiliated Cuban Winter League” (or some such rough approximate). That there is some element of distortion in the actual conference billing should be obvious enough. Case one in point: the scope. The “origins” will assuredly be well enough covered as that is the subject of a full quarter of Professor González’s own 1999 book. But of the five remaining presentations, four are devoted to the pre-1959 era. The only exception  (Rogério Manzano, “Post-Revolutionry (sic) Overhaul: From Professionals to Amateurs”) is being offered by a Univision television commentator who appears to have earlier written nothing either extensive or significant about baseball in the modern-era Cuban League, and about Cuba’s impelling record over the past half-century in international tournament competitions.

I don’t want to pre-judge Mr. Manzano’s presentation, which may turn out in the end to be a valuable enough contribution. But where is the balance here? Cuba’s highly successful post-revolutionary baseball epoch has just celebrated its Golden Anniversary fiftieth National Series season and thus extends out nearly as far as the often chaotic (and Havana-restricted) pre-1961 professional league? Where are the presentations about unknown 1970s-1990s-era island stars like Muñoz, Marquetti, Vinent, Kindelán and Omar Linares, playing as much in the big league shadows as did those 1930s-era Negro leaguers? Where is the story of Cuba’s shocking impact on the international scene at the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic, or about such current MLB-coveted stars-in-waiting as Freddie Cepeda or Ariel Pestano or Alfredo Despaigne? Where is any exploration of significant historical developments over the past half-century that allowed Cuba’s still-thriving baseball enterprise to convert itself from a withering four-team professional circuit by the late-1950s into a highly popular and truly island-wide league — one that today provides the world’s only alternative baseball universe operating entirely outside the influence of corporate Major League Baseball? Why has at least half the story of Cuban baseball (some might even dare say the more significant half) been expunged or ignored by the Fordham program?

Let’s give a generous benefit-of-the doubt here. Perhaps the organizers at Fordham genuinely believed that no one with competence to talk about the present Cuban baseball scene could be found outside of the island of Cuba itself. But how could that be? Our North American-based website at www.BaseballdeCuba.com has been not only built over the past half-decade into the most comprehensive source for contemporary Cuban baseball anywhere on the planet (inside of Cuba or out), but it reaches a devoted audience of Cuban baseball followers spread across Asia and Europe as well as North America and the Caribbean. The site itself is comprehensive proof that the Cuban sport does indeed hold widespread interest reaching far beyond Havana, Camagüey, Cienfuegos, San Juan or the isolated and aging ex-patriot communities of South Florida. So the question then becomes whether or not we were we excluded from the Fordham campus simply by oversight, because we were actually invisible, or if we might instead have been eliminated by intention, because we threatened to disrupt the “choir-preaching” with our alternative stance on how one should read the evolution of Cuban baseball. Were we unwanted simply because we were likely to suggest something rather politically incorrect – that Cuban baseball experienced an explosive growth and not death-throes after the mid-century Castro upheaval? Were we personas non grata largely because we might stimulate the kind of open debate, free exchange of informed ideas, and diversity of opinion that are true hallmark of any legitimate academic conference?

The same Fordham scholars have likely never heard of Omar Linares, Pedro Lazo or the 2006 World Baseball Classic and its all-star Freddie Cepeda.

Sour grapes here on my part? I hardly think so. If I am disappointed at this exclusion it is only because of the lost opportunity to finally begin advancement of a serious dialogue about what may actually have been the true evolution of Cuban baseball history. And I am disturbed that those attending will not be able to hear at least something of “the other side of the story” of how baseball thrived and even exploded in popularity in Cuba once the island’s national pastime evolved for the first time into a true nation-wide competitive circuit and not just an MLB-directed outpost limited to the capital city of Havana.

Unfortunately neither I nor my colleague Ray Otero will be attending the Fordham conference this weekend. If we were both perhaps understandably left off the formal program, we were even more surprisingly left off the circulating announcement list and thus only learned of the event when we started receiving inquiries about it via email from faithful www.BaseballdeCuba.com readers. Maybe some of the explanation for exclusion lies in an apparent animosity toward our work held by one of the conferences’ leading figures. I hold the greatest respect for the Cuban baseball scholarship by Professor Roberto González Echevarría and I have learned much from what he has contributed. Of course I disagree with him about the status of modern-era Cuban baseball and my opinions are also somewhat different from those of most (but not all) native-born Cubans now residing in North America. Nonetheless, because I chose to speak positively and enthusiastically (on the whole at least) about the level of the modern Cuban game, Professor González Echevarría has little tolerance in return for my own work. When the Wall Street Journal (November 9, 2010) published a feature story on my efforts in Cuba last November, reporter Christopher Rhoads attempted to solicit González Echevarría’s own his candid opinions. But all the esteemed professor would offer was the following: “Bjarkman echoes the propaganda of the Cuban government and I have nothing to say about him.” This was indeed an unfortunate position for him to take. It suggests nothing of collegial debate, valuable dialogue or legitimate disagreement; by raising the specter of political motive or government interference the dismissal only exposes the professor’s own deeply opinionated prejudices about Cuban baseball.

Of course the issue of Cuban baseball (after six decades of bitter and often downright silly USA-Cuba Cold War stalemate) remains a highly controversial one, and thus politics and personal experiences often get in the way. But the bulk of my readers at www.BaseballdeCuba.com know the following things to all be true. First, I have seen hundreds of games both on the island and with the national team over the last fifteen years and I have watched and written more about the island sport than any other living American. I also know most of the top Cuban ballplayers personally and have enjoyed extensive discussions with them about their lives and conditions in Cuba. (That is to say, I am aware of the individual Cuban ballplayer’s daily trials as well as his many cherished triumphs.) I have had hundreds of hours of discussions with top MLB scouts at international tournaments and shared information and opinions with those professional scouts about top Cuban players like Cepeda, Gourriel, Lazo, Miguel Alfredo González, Chapman, Vera, Bell, etc. etc. Those MLB scouts are constantly contacting me and seeking my input on the skills, shortcomings, and personal make-ups of those Cuban players. I may indeed see Cuban baseball differently from many in Miami, but I have also seen it more up-close and personal than most observers now living off the island. And if some Miami readers do not take me seriously, dozens of MLB scouts still do. And it should also be underscored here that while I have often disagreed with the fans in Miami, I have just as frequently chastised boosters in Havana for not properly apprehending the many achievements or hidden shortcomings of their revered national team.

So many Miami-Cubans hold deeply felt opinions about their cherished national sport and they are entitled to hold them; but few have the degree of first-hand experience with Cuban baseball over the past fifteen years that I have enjoyed. So when I write about the island pastime, some of the things I say are at least worth considering, even if one disagrees with them. What I write is not “political opinion” but rather baseball evaluation, even if that evaluation has its own personal biases. I have never been a spokesperson for Cuban government propaganda. (It is simply too easy to evoke that excuse, just because we might disagree about the big-league tools of an Ariel Pestano, or the professional qualifications of a Cuban national team roster.) There are many “bad” things in today’s Cuba but there are also some “good” things there worthy of celebration. The current-era Cuban baseball is one of them – even if it is not perfect. Cuban baseball has its many social and economic problems, also its many scars and warts (such as limited economic freedom for its players). And so does Major League Baseball (with its excessive economic freedom for its players, to say nothing of its owners).

I believe the Fordham Conference would have been much stronger – much more legitimate an event – if those of us with a different take on today’s Cuban baseball had been invited to contribute and share our contrary opinions. It would have been much more of a legitimate academic conference and true exchange of competing legitimate ideas. That style of colloquium would perhaps have truly advanced the understanding of Cuban baseball for all of us who are so passionately interested in the topic. Instead, the event will – because of its notable exclusions and stacked program – now seem much more like a nostalgic reunion (or even a political rally) than a true academic exchange and debate. That it now appears more like the former than the later is, I believe, a true loss for Fordham University, for the organizers, and for the conference itself.

Please do not misunderstand me. I have no criticism at all of anything that is on the program for this weekend. No one speaks more brilliantly and with more insights about the origins of the island sport than does Roberto González Echevarría. Each of his essays teaches me something new and valuable. Especially attractive to me are the announced presentations by Professor Heaphy (women in Cuban baseball) and Mr. Ashwill (Cuban blackball). What I do lament about the conference is not what WILL be there, but instead what will NOT be there. Some day perhaps we will begin having a true dialogue where all opinions (at least all those based on solid experience and information) will be listened too with a degree tolerance, respect and even compromise. Only then we will actually begin to move forward on this most important topic about which we are all so truly passionate.

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One comment

  1. Billy Fan (@chicagointaipei)

    Thanks for your brilliant insight, as always. It’s sad that after so many years blogging and promoting good baseball, you still need to remind intellects that you are giving not “political opinion but rather baseball evaluation.”

    –Billy Fan

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