Legend goes that when Fidel Castro was a law student, back in 1949, he was such a talented baseball player that he was offered a $5,000 to join the New York Giants team. But he snubbed the offer. That refusal has been widely commented among Cuban baseball fans but also by stars who are divided between those who follow Castro’s example, and those who go.
The greatest, Lázaro Vargas is among the former, having turned down an $8.5 million offer to join the Atlanta Braves, after winning the gold medal in the Barcelona Winter Olympics in 1992. “Castro taught me it is a sweet feeling to walk down the street knowing that no one can buy you,” he once said.
Baseball players live a relatively privileged life in Cuba, and are regularly paraded as national heroes. During my first trip to Havana I remember watching a television program showing a crowd on the concrete steps of Havana's stadium going crazy as Vargas drove a curveball past second base. “"We love baseball more than rum, more than rice and beans; sometimes I feel I love it more than my own life” a shirtless youngster once told me, while playing baseball with a stick from a door and the lid of a plastic bottle in one of the many creaky corners around Nuevo Vedado. “I would love to be able to play in the United States one day, to play American kids, to get that feeling. Do you understand?” he asked me. I did not really then.
Now, after several trips to Havana, having lived in Miami and after writing an article titled Ping-Pong Diplomacy for the Summer 2011 issue of Americas Quarterly (to be released on August 10 and available in Barnes & Noble on August 15) on Cuba and U.S. sports relations, I feel I am getting closer to answering him positively. Despite recent reports that show that around 350 Cuban baseball players have abandoned the Communist-led island over the past several years—virtually all to the U.S.—money is not the only factor.
I use baseball as an example of a passion shared by both countries—especially after having witnessed a fervent but truly amicable discussion on the glories of baseball by a Cuban and a U.S. doctor who were working together in Haiti to help earthquake victims. Yet several people, Washington and Havana policymakers included, still use the defections as one of the main arguments to keep putting the breaks on something as human and as healthy as sports exchanges. Of course, Cubans on the island who are sympathetic to the regime and would get U.S. money is another issue entirely.
It is true that defections are a reality. Money is a factor for impoverished Cubans and that is also an unpalatable truth. However, as someone who went to Havana on a baseball trip with the Baltimore Orioles back in 1999 told me while I was researching for the story: “There has a to be a feeling, a sense of effort from the part of the administrations and an openness to these kind of things as part of bigger policy opening, to foster these human engagements between Cubans and Americans. There were a lot of lovers of baseball who helped back then, people who were hopeful this was going to help policy change too. I hope this could be revamped now.”
Despite some setbacks the door seems slightly open again now. I hope someone, sooner rather than later, could say to athletes from both sides of the Florida straits: “let the games begin.”
This blog post is based on Andres Schipani’s charticle titled Ping-Pong Diplomacy, which appears in the forthcoming issue (to be released August 10) of Americas Quarterly. The Summer issue looks at Sports in the Americas and includes exclusive interviews and photo series with Mia Hamm, Lorena Ochoa, Albert Pujols, Lionel Messi, Tony Gonzalez, and Marta Vieira. In a preview of the issue, AQ today has released the online version of Andres Schipani’s charticle.
*Andres Schipani is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is the Miami reporter for the Financial Times and author of Ping-Pong Diplomacy.