BY GABE COHN
Baseball is America’s pastime, entrenched in over 100 years of American history. Baseball has served America, in the past century, as a major avenue for social change. Domestically, baseball was a major force in breaking the U.S. wide color barrier when Jackie Robinson made his debut in 1947, and internationally, it served as a model of inclusion. Today, over 30 countries are represented in the MLB and efforts continue to expand that list to further spread the game.
One of those 30-plus countries represented with members in Major League Baseball is the island nation of Cuba. In America, baseball is considered a major sport, but for citizens of Cuba, it is a country-wide language, lifestyle, and religion. As many journalists explain, when in Cuba, you can’t go far without seeing children and/or adults playing baseball on a makeshift field with less-than-adequate equipment throughout Cuba’s major cities.
Cuba has a rich baseball history, but since the U.S. embargo of Cuba was passed in 1960 by former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, baseball in Cuba has continued to be drained by defection. In Cuba, freedoms are limited by a strict Castro family government regime, and besides occasionally playing overseas with the Cuban National team, talented Cuban players are restricted from taking their talents to better leagues (the MLB).
In an effort of pure desperation, these talented Cuban players risk never seeing their families again and potential imprisonment to make the dangerous journey to the states. Hundreds of players over the last 50-plus years have made the dangerous trip, illegally, to surrounding Latino countries, to tryout and then eventually sign with interested MLB teams.
These players are illegally “exported” from Cuba by illegal alien smuggling rings who eventually take a large percentage of the players contracts. During the defection journey, Cuban players go through life altering hardships and are taken advantage of because of their desperation. Over the past year roughly 125 baseball players of various skill levels have defected to other countries in search for a better life.
While it is great for talented players from Cuba to get their chance to shine on a MLB team, the massive amount of defections has decimated the remaining talent pool on the island itself. The lack of talent, proper equipment, and quality baseball stadiums has deprived a country who loves baseball the chance to see good live baseball. To fix the baseball issues in Cuba, new efforts from American Universities and Major League Baseball have been put into place.
Previously, one of the only ways that Americans were allowed to play competitive baseball in Cuba was through a cultural exchange program for a U.S. University. That’s exactly what the University of Tampa did during January of 2014. From Jan.12-19 that year, the University of Tampa baseball team traveled to Havana, Cuba on a cultural literacy and international education license through the organization People to People.
The trip was sponsored by the World Trade Center of Tampa, the UT Athletic Department, and the UT Office of International Programs.
In order to make the trip through the organization, the team followed rigorous protocols required by UT’s Office of International Programs in terms of safety, risk management and educational curriculum.
While in Cuba, the Spartans engaged in several cultural activities. In a massive tour of Havana, the Spartans visited museums, cultural centers and art galleries, and ate at the historic Paladares Plaza. They also engaged with local children in a community service like capacity during the cultural part of their trip.
University of Tampa head Coach Joe Urso explained the significance of the trip and the effect it had on his team.
“Our guys came back with a different appreciation for the things we take for granted after that trip,” Urso said. “Their attitude was amazing when we got back, as we broke a national record for winning percentage that year. Our guys gave everything they had to the kids in Cuba. We took over tons of baseball equipment and our players even gave away personal items including Oakley sunglasses.”
The team also played four baseball games against four under-23 teams and engaged in dialogue with players, trainers and coaches, as well as students and faculty from the University of Havana.
The trip to Cuba served as a humbling experience for them, says former University of Tampa shortstop Giovanny Alfonzo.
“We got so much out of the trip and baseball may have been the reason we went but we came back with so much more,” Alfonzo said. “I think for the most part the most vivid memories any of us had were meeting the little kids there, whether we played baseball or soccer with them in the streets and plazas or just hanging out with them at the school we visited. They were honored to meet us and treated us like celebrities, it was humbling.”
Since then, the U.S. and Major League Baseball have finally had the opportunity to mend past wounds with Cuba. with In December of 2014, the two countries agreed to begin normalizing relations after more than a half century of estrangement. Ever since then the MLB has made strides towards relations with the Cuban Baseball Federation and Cuban citizens.
In December of 2015, the MLB sent ambassadors of the game to Havana, Cuba to promote and celebrate the game. This was the first time that any current Major League Baseball players visited Cuba since the Baltimore Orioles visited in 1999. Many of the visiting major leaguers were Cuban-born — players such as Jose Abreu of the White Sox, and Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers — and the trip gave them a chance to see family and friends who, at one time, seemed cut off forever.
On Tuesday, the MLB had another great opportunity to build on their relationship with Cuba when the Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban National team in an exhibition game at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana. The Rays were picked at random by Major League Baseball for this exhibition game and there couldn’t have been a better team for this experiment (except maybe Miami) because of Tampa’s strong ties to Cuba.
“We have won the lottery with the Rays,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said on ESPN’s telecast of the exhibition. “Everyone from ownership to the players could not have been more engaged in this process and they really enjoyed this opportunity to engage with the Cuban people. The ties from Cuba to Florida made this an absolutely perfect fit.”
Another treat to see was Rays OF Dayron Varona (of Cuban descent) getting the opportunity to see his niece and the rest of his extended family after defecting three years ago. Varona was put on the 40-man roster just to get this incredible opportunity to return home as a free man. Varona became the first Cuban player to defect and then return to play a game in Cuba.
Along with the MLB visiting Cuba, President Barack Obama visited also, becoming the first sitting president to visit the island-nation since former President Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928. While visiting he attended the game and he and Cuban President Raul Castro made history. The two dignitaries exchanged pleasantries, joined the packed stadium for a moment of silence for the victims in Tuesday’s tragic terrorist attack in Belgium, and just watched baseball.
The atmosphere at the game could not have been better as Cuban fans made it party-like. Estadio Latinoamericano was jam-packed two hours before game time and there were constant “Cuba-Cuba-Cuba” chants ripping through the stadium. And during the game the wave flowed through the crowd, touching everyone who was present. The Cuban fans made the game feel like more than just an exhibition.
That’s what this trip was, it was more than an exhibition, it meant more than that. Sure the Rays won the game 4-1 (James Loney went 2-2 with 3 RBI and a home run), but this game represented a giant step in the right direction towards peace and the lift of the embargo on Cuba. Commissioner Manfred explained the MLB’s next step in this relationship building process.
“I think its really important for us to get together with the Cuban Baseball Federation and the officials that we have been working with in Washington and nail an agreement on player movement,” Manfred said. “The key for us is to get out of a situation where we have human trafficking and people taking risks that simply aren’t acceptable. That will be our priority.”
Manfred wants to create a process where players can go to other countries safely and hopes that this opportunity will be a first step towards that. The MLB and the U.S. are making considerable relationship strides with Cuba and I am proud to say that the city of Tampa has been instrumental in making that happen.