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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

For Cuban stars, the World Baseball Classic remains a dream

Yordan Álvarez and Yuli Gurriel have had plenty of success with the Houston Astros. With the Cubanos, they hope to get back into international competition.

By James Wagner

Every few years, the same feeling of longing returns for Yuli Gurriel and Aledmys Díaz.

The Houston Astros infielders defected from Cuba, abandoning teams representing the island while traveling abroad, so they could follow their dreams of playing baseball at the highest level. Both have gone on to play in the World Series multiple times, have earned millions in the United States and have been recognized for individual accomplishments.

But every time there is a World Baseball Classic — the international tournament that features many of the best players in the world — Gurriel and Díaz have only been able to watch as their teammates leave spring training to don their home countries’ uniforms. Cuban players like them stay behind. With another edition of the international tournament scheduled for next spring, Gurriel and Díaz fear having this situation play out yet again.

“It’s sad,” Díaz, 31, recently said in Spanish. Gurriel, 38, added, “It gives us a little envy, not being there and not being able to do the same.”

The reason for their exclusion: The Baseball Federation of Cuba does not allow players who defected from the communist country to represent it in international competition. The list of barred players has grown considerably since the first WBC, in 2006, with much of Cuba’s top talent having left the island.

Cuban expatriates in the majors could form one of the best teams in the world. The lineup could have stars like Astros designated hitter Yordan Álvarez, Chicago White Sox first baseman José Abreu and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. The pitching staff could include standouts such as Néstor Cortés and Aroldis Chapman of the New York Yankees. And if Cuban Americans were eligible, the team could include Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martínez, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah.

So this year, current and former Cuban players, business people and lawyers formed a group to seek a solution. The goal of the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players is to form the best team of professional Cuban talent from all over the world to compete in the WBC.

“We want any players who want to represent their country,” Díaz said. “Cuba is for everyone. It’s not just for those who are in favor of the government or those against it.”

The association has swelled to 170 members spanning the major and minor leagues and other foreign professional leagues, such as those in Mexico, Japan and Taiwan. It has a logo and jerseys — in the colors of the Cuban flag, but without a flag — and chose a name: Cubans, or Cubanos, an ode to the Havana Sugar Kings, the minor league team based in Cuba that played in Class AAA from 1954 to 1960.

Despite these efforts, the association and players argue that they do not want to replace the Cuban federation, which the Trump administration said was part of the government in Havana when it nixed a deal in 2019 between MLB and the federation that would have eased the path for players to compete in the United States without defecting. The association envisions a national team independent of the Cuban federation — but with an open door for the players on the island.

“We’re representing the Cubans of the whole world who want to see this and want to see a team of all the professional players,” said Los Angeles Angels closer Raisel Iglesias, 32, who has led the charge among active Cuban players, reaching out to them and sharing updates via WhatsApp. He added later, “And if it’s possible, to invite the players who are under the Cuban federation.”

Iglesias said, though, that having such an offer accepted would be “really hard.” Even though the World Baseball Classic is operated as a joint venture between MLB and the MLB players’ union, the event is sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, the sport’s global governing body. And there is a system in place preventing outside groups from forming national teams.

“If they want to be part of an event sanctioned by the WBSC, they have to respect the rules, which are that the national federations make the national teams,” Riccardo Fraccari, president of the confederation, said in a phone interview from Switzerland, where it is based.

Although the Cuban federation did not respond to messages seeking comment, it blasted the upstart Cuban association in April. In an official statement, the federation called the association’s objectives “political and not sporting” and said the group was pressuring MLB and the players’ union to “usurp the place that legitimately belongs to the Cuban national team in the next WBC.”

Mario Fernández, the association’s president, said the group was willing to sit down and talk to the Cuban federation — but under certain conditions. First, he said, a public apology is deserved from the federation to the players who it believes have been “offended and mistreated.”

“We’re not going to sit down to talk with them if that doesn’t occur,” said Fernández, a businessman who left Cuba at 28, founded a semiprofessional league in Chile and now lives in the United States. “If they said sorry and it won’t happen again, that’s a very good start. But we see that it would be very hard because of the politics involved.”

In hopes of building a robust team, and one that is not limited by the baseball professionals who have remained in Cuba, the association chose Orlando Hernández, 56, a former pitcher who won four World Series titles, as its general manager. And for field manager, it chose Brayan Peña, 40, a former major league catcher who is a minor league manager in the Detroit Tigers system.

Fernández said players outside Cuba have been talking about finding a way to represent their island since the first World Baseball Classic. While earlier efforts fizzled, he said things had happened that made this push different, including nonplayers stepping in to help lead the effort; the Cuban government’s forceful crackdown on protests last year, which galvanized some players; and the number of prominent Cuban players in Major League Baseball continuing to grow. (There were 23 Cuban-born players on major league rosters on opening day this season, tied with 2016 and 2017 for most ever.)

“It’s something we’re fighting for because we’re in the 21st century,” Díaz said, “and the Cuban federation doesn’t let the Cuban players in the big leagues play for their country for possibly thinking differently or for one moment playing freely and playing where and when they want to play.”

But knowing the uphill battle the association faces, Fernández and Iglesias said the group had discussed the possibility of at least forming their Cubanos team for exhibition games, perhaps facing some WBC teams before they head to the competition.

Cortés, 27, said that playing for his native country is among his lifelong dreams. He was born in Cuba but moved to South Florida before he turned 1 after his parents won a visa lottery. Cortés, who is a U.S. citizen, said he understands the situation is complicated, particularly for players whose families were mistreated in Cuba.

“It’s tough what’s happening and what we have to do to play,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to represent and show the world that Cuba is a powerhouse and there’s really good baseball players that come out of Cuba.”

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