Castro's departure could create brave new baseball world

For nearly a half-century, the baseball hotbed of Cuba has been off-limits to major league teams. Now, the news that Raul Castro has succeeded his brother, Fidel, as the country's president raises the possibility that the baseball world could be turned on its head.

While some have dismissed the new leader as "Castro Lite," Raul Castro already has surprised the international community by meeting with the Vatican's secretary of state soon after taking control. The International Herald-Tribune reported that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone could be "a possible go-between" for the governments of Cuba and the United States. Still, any opening of Cuba's long-coveted baseball market will require major policy changes in both Havana and Washington.

Before Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959 and declared that the island would ban professional sports -- and allow amateur only -- Cuba was the main supplier of foreign baseball talent to the major leagues. Such stars as Hall of Famer Tony Perez, Luis Tiant, Adolfo Luque and Orestes "Minnie" Minoso came from Cuba to star in the big leagues. Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro grew up in the U.S., but their families fled Cuba in the early 1960s as Castro embraced socialism and linked his government politically with the Soviet Union.

In light of Fidel Castro's resignation, some believe it's only a matter of time before the number of Cuban ballplayers in the major and minor leagues rivals the rising totals from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. As a scout once told me, "If Cuba hadn't gone communist, the academies in the D.R., all of that, wouldn't have happened. We'd have just kept going to Cuba for players."

Any visitor to Cuba witnesses the island's longtime infatuation with baseball. Kids play the game in the streets and alleyways, and return visitors often bring baseballs to hand out to them. The game has been played in Cuba for almost as long as it's been in the U.S. In 1864, a Cuban studying in the U.S. took the first bat and ball home to the island. In 1878, the first professional game was played there. In large part, the game spread throughout the Caribbean because Cubans, earning the nickname the "apostles of baseball," took it to neighboring Spanish-speaking nations.

Of course, part of Cuba's allure from an American perspective is that Castro himself could have been a borderline professional prospect. While researching my novel, "Castro's Curveball," I spoke with several scouts and players from the old Cuban winter league. (Brooks Robinson and Tommy Lasorda are just a few of the gringos who once played in this league.) Some dismissed such speculation about Castro's pitching prowess, while others claimed he was pretty good and even threw batting practice occasionally for them.

Whatever version of that history one believes, there is no discounting the nation's passion for the game. That's why many contend that we're on the verge of a major sea change with Fidel out of office.

"It's going to be like the old Soviet Union or the Eastern bloc countries," said S.L. Price, author of "Pitching Around Fidel." "Suddenly the floodgates are going to open and people are going to run wholeheartedly for the money. … Cuba is absolutely sports mad. They were sports mad before Castro and they will be sports mad after him."

During Castro's 49-year reign, the nation became a powerhouse not only in baseball (Cuba was runner-up to Japan in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006) but in boxing and other international sports as well. In the 1992 Summer Olympics, Cuba finished fifth in the total medal count.

Before the 1959 revolution, major league teams routinely played exhibition games or held spring training camps on the island. The Dodgers practiced in Havana before the 1947 season, in part to shield Jackie Robinson from public scrutiny.

"Short-term, baseball continues as it is in Cuba," said Milton Jamail, a consultant for the Tampa Bay Rays and the author of "Full Count: Inside Cuban Baseball." "But when a new government, and system, comes into place, then the questions will start. Do they want to be like Mexico and essentially own all their players and then sell them to the major leagues? Is Cuba going to follow the examples of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where they help develop players but they don't really get that much in return?"

Down the road, Price and Jamail envision Havana as home to a minor or even a major league franchise. The Havana Sugar Kings were members of the Triple-A International League in the '50s.

"If you're talking real globalization for baseball, to me it's Monterrey and Havana," Jamail said. "You could put a team in Havana and have it in the same division with Florida or Tampa Bay, either one."

In a recent Democratic presidential debate, Barack Obama said he would meet with Cuba's leadership "without preconditions." While Raul Castro has talked publicly about a transition "toward a democratic society," he is 76 years old. So the country's future likely will depend upon a younger leader.

In addition, a recent Salon.com story points out that any loosening of the U.S.'s 46-year-old trade embargo could hinge on several key congressional races in South Florida this November. Three Cuban-American Republicans -- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart -- currently hold those seats. All three, who have been anti-Castro/pro-embargo advocates, are expected to be in tight races for re-election; if even one is defeated, it could provide enough political cover, especially with somebody such as Obama in the White House, for the Democrats to pursue better relations with Cuba.

For now, MLB has little choice but to follow the U.S. State Department's lead. The embargo went into effect soon after Castro took power and forbids U.S. companies from doing business on the island. MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney said there would be "no change in our direction."

But whether Havana again hosts major league exhibition games or is awarded a professional franchise, Cuban players could soon find easier paths to the U.S. For the past three decades, playing in the big leagues has often meant risking one's life to get there from the island. Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez crossed the treacherous Straits of Florida in a small boat. His half-brother, 1997 World Series MVP Livan, was nearly hit by a car while fleeing the team hotel as he defected during games in Mexico. He thought he was being pursued by Cuban authorities and, in fact, was concerned about being chased throughout a seven-hour car ride to the border.

We think such stars come simply for the fame and fortune, the lure of a big league contract. Certainly, those are major factors in a player's willingness to make the leap and perhaps even risk his life. But in my discussions with Cuban ballplayers, another reason has been apparent. In our world, we're fortunate enough to compete against the best. Want to pen the next Oscar-winning screenplay? Go to Hollywood. Eager to go toe-to-toe with the best in the business world? Wall Street beckons.

That thinking applies to baseball, too.

"That's what some don't understand," Omar Linares, the best Cuban ballplayer of this generation, said during the landmark home-and-away series between Team Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles in 1999. "You're hungry to play against the best."

Many of the Orioles might not have understood that when they took on Linares and Team Cuba. Many of the Cubans saw those games as perhaps their only chance to play with the whole world really watching.

Tom Miller, author of "Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba," predicts that there will be U.S. baseball academies throughout the island in the future, as there are now in the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries. But he added that the immediate goal has to be "establishing a less erratic path to the majors."

If the political rhetoric between the U.S. and Cuba fades, aging Cuban stars could still finish their careers in the U.S. major leagues. Linares and Victor Mesa, for example, played in Japan in their waning years as ballplayers.
Trying to determine which current players could find their way to the U.S. major leagues is an inexact science, but outfielder Frederick Cepeda and infielder Yulieski Gourriel are regarded as the top prospects.

Whatever the timetable or political reality, Fidel Castro's resignation opens the door to Cuba a crack or more. Sometimes we forget the impact sports can have on the relationship between nations, and how fast seemingly disparate events can accelerate world affairs. Ping-pong helped open up China back in the Nixon administration. The Soviet Union -- which once played Goliath to the U.S. Olympic hockey team's David -- turned into a talent stream for the National Hockey League in a short span. Sometimes all it takes is a little push.

Between innings at the Estadio Latinoamericano Stadium in Havana, as ushers sold sweet coffee to those in the box seats, a few of us once fell into a conversation with several high-ranking Cuban sports officials. A hypothetical question was posed to them: What would happen if the embargo ended tomorrow; and as a good-will gesture, Rawlings or Wilson brought a freighter filled with sports equipment into the harbor that dates back to when the Spanish ruled the New World? And as part of this good-will gesture, the gear on board was given away to the Cuban kids in the streets who love our national pastime perhaps more than we do?

"What would happen?" one official answered, his voice growing low and serious. "What would happen is that the world as we know it would change forever."

Nearly a half-century after Castro's ragtag army came down out of the mountains and -- as one of the regime's first official policy acts -- put together a baseball team that toured the island, this is where we find ourselves: on the threshold of a new age for baseball. In both lands.

Tim Wendel has visited Cuba three times. His books include "Far From Home: Latino Baseball Players in America" and the novel, "Castro's Curveball."