Cuba is no stranger to defections, but worsening conditions on the island have pushed more in the baseball community to seek refuge elsewhere.
One player took off from the airport, while another jumped out the window of his hotel room. In all, of the 24 members of Cuba's national baseball team who arrived in Mexico for the under-23 World Cup, only about half came home. This year, a record number of players have defected from the communist-run island nation, where baseball is the national pastime but which is enduring its worst economic crisis in 30 years. The mass defection is "unprecedented in the history of baseball," Francys Romero, a sports journalist who has written a book on the phenomenon, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The player who jumped from his hotel room window? He told Romero that he shimmied down a palm tree to get to a waiting getaway car.
Cuban baseball players leaving their homeland is not new, when professional sports were upended in the wake of the revolution led by Fidel Castro, many sought better opportunities abroad. After a smattering of defections during the Cold War, the exodus picked up pace after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Since Rene Arocha left the national team at the airport in Miami in 1991 for a career in the United States, about two or three players a year have deserted their country. Nine jumped ship in 1996. Those players are consistently treated as disloyal traitors. Some have left legally, an option that became possible with immigration reform in 2013, but which was starkly curtailed when flights were reduced due to the coronavirus pandemic. A who's who of players who became Major League stars have made the leap, including Orlando and Livan Hernandez, Jose Abreu, Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig and current Tampa Bay Rays standout Randy Arozarena.
Not only has the number of players seeking a career abroad exploded, but their profiles are different: they are younger and not always destined for Major League stardom, according to Romero. So why are they risking it? "To change their lives. Sports comes after that," he says. Those who have left have faced criticism on social media, but many Cubans have simply wished them well – they are all too aware of how difficult life is in Cuba at the moment, with major shortages of food and medicine. Earlier this year, when Cuba's national team came to the United States to play Olympic qualifying games, top talent Cesar Prieto, two other players and the team psychologist defected.
Cuba, a three-time Olympic champion and 25-time Baseball World Cup winner, failed for the first time ever to qualify for the Summer Games in Tokyo.
For Luis Daniel del Risco, currently the highest-ranking official in the Cuban baseball federation, there is "a war" under way to "destroy Cuban baseball." He slammed what he called "a harassment campaign" by foreign recruiters, who attend most games that Cuba plays abroad. "These people have access to the hotels (where the players stay), and many of them come just to contact these young people" with proposals to play elsewhere, he said. Recruiters also call the players and send them messages via WhatsApp, either directly or through their relatives, Del Risco claimed, saying such overtures prevented players from concentrating on the competition at hand.
"I've often heard it said that the state of baseball in Cuba reflects the state of the country," says Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, a huge baseball fan who has dedicated a book to interviews with players. "I think that what happened is a representation of what's happening in the country, this mass exodus" that has also been seen in an uptick in the number of Cubans trying to reach the United States on rickety boats via the Straits of Florida.
"You have to respect the decision of these young people," added Padura, who supports the Industriales team in Havana and said he had always dreamed himself of a career in baseball. "It's really a very complicated decision to make, as they are giving up a lot." They leave "without their passports, which are held by the delegation," says Romero. All are barred from coming home to Cuba for eight years.
Del Risco says the players "did not fulfill their commitments to their teammates and to the country," but admits it's a "personal decision for each of them." For him, there is only one solution: "Give the Cuban players the same opportunities as everyone else."
"For us to be able to play abroad, we have to abandon our national team, give up being Cubans – that's not fair."
Major League Baseball and the Cuban baseball federation had reached a deal in late 2018 that would have allowed Cubans to play in the United States without having to first defect, but former President Donald Trump scrapped it in 2019.