Former Cuban stars want to play in the World Baseball Classic

Every few years, the same yearning returns to Yuli Guriel and Aledmis Diaz.

The Houston Astros infielders fled Cuba, abandoning teams representing the island while traveling abroad so they can pursue their dreams of playing high-level baseball. The two have gone on to play in the World Series multiple times, making millions in the United States and being recognized for individual achievements.

But each time the World Baseball Classic – an international tournament involving many of the best players in the world – Guerriel and Diaz could only watch their teammates leave spring training to wear their home uniforms. Cuban players like him stay behind. With another edition of the international tournament scheduled for next spring, Guriel and Diaz are in fear of playing the situation again.

“It’s sad,” 31-year-old Diaz said recently in Spanish. The 38-year-old Guriel said, “It makes us a little jealous. Not being there and not being able to do the same.”

The reason for their exclusion: The Cuban Baseball Federation does not allow players who have defected from the Communist country to represent them in international competition. The list of players banned from the first WBC in 2006 has grown significantly, with most of Cuban talent left the island.

Cuban immigrants in the majors can form one of the best teams in the world. The team may have stars like Astros designated hitter Jordan Alvarez, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena. The pitching staff may include standouts such as Nestor Cortes and the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman. And if the Cuban Americans are eligible, the team may include Boston Red Sox slugger JD Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alec Manoah.

So this year, current and former Cuban players, entrepreneurs and lawyers formed a group to find a solution. The goal of the Cuban Professional Baseball Players Association is to create the best team of professional Cuban talent from around the world to compete in the WBC.

“We want any players who want to represent their country,” Diaz said. “Cuba is for everyone. This is not just for those who are against or against the government.

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

Despite these efforts, the association and players argue that it does not want to replace the Cuban Union, which the Trump administration said was part of the government in Havana in 2019 when it reached an agreement between the MLB and the Federation. The way players compete in the United States without defection. The association forms a national team independent of the Cuban Federation – but an open door for players on the island.

“We represent Cubans from the whole world who want to see it and see a team of professional players,” said Los Angeles Angels closer Raisel Iglesias, 32, who has led the charge among active Cuban players. To share updates with them and through WhatsApp. He later added, “And if possible, to invite players who are under the Cuban Union.”

However, Iglesias said it was “really difficult” to accept such an offer. Although the World Baseball Classic is operated as a joint venture between the MLB and MLB Players Federation, the event is endorsed by the World Baseball Softball Federation, the sport’s global governing body. And there is a system that prevents outside groups from forming teams.

“If they want to be part of an event sanctioned by the WBSC, they must respect the rules, which means national unions form national teams,” Federation President Ricardo Fracari said in a phone interview from Switzerland. , Where it is based.

Fracari cites WBSC legislation that only accredited members can choose their national team and have “the exclusive right to represent the name, flag and colors of a country or region.” He continued, “If not, they can do another tournament. That’s them and they can do it anywhere, but it’s not an event sanctioned by the World Federation.”

(Foucari points out that Cubans playing abroad, such as Japan, are allowed to return. However, they have borrowed from the Cuban Federation, which takes a deduction for their salaries. )

Although the Cuban Federation did not respond to messages seeking comment, it exploded the Upstart Cuban Association in April. In an official statement, the union called the association’s intentions “political and not sporting” and said the group was pressuring the MLB and the players’ union to “legally occupy the Cuban national team in the next WBC.”

Association President Mario Fernandez said the group was ready to sit down and speak with the Cuban Federation – but under certain conditions. First, players who believe it deserves a public apology from the federation are “offended and mistreated,” he said.

“We wouldn’t sit down to talk to him if that didn’t happen,” said Fernandez, who left Cuba at the age of 28 and founded the Semiprofessional League in Chile and now lives in the United States. “If they say sorry and it doesn’t happen again, that’s a good start. But we see that it can be very difficult because of the politics involved.

The Cuban national team, once the world’s most powerful, has fallen on hard times. It failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, and when it appeared in all five editions of the World Baseball Classic, it struggled the most, placing second in 2006 and outside the top four in each subsequent edition.

The 34-year-old Chapman, who played for the Cuban national team at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, said “baseball is the worst in Cuba.” “It’s a lot of downfall. Most people are leaving.”

In hopes of building a strong team not limited by the baseball professionals who remain in Cuba, the association has selected Orlando Hernandez, 56, a former pitcher who won four World Series titles, as his general manager. And for the field manager, it selected former major league catcher Bryan Pena, 40, a minor league manager in the Detroit Tigers system.

Fernandes said players outside Cuba were talking about finding a way to represent their island from the First World Baseball Classic. He said that when previous efforts failed, there were things that could lead to change, including non-players to help lead the effort; The Cuban government’s forced repression over the protests last year, which fueled some players; And the number of major Cuban players in Major League Baseball continues to grow. (There were 23 Cuban-based players on the major league rosters on the opening day of this season, equivalent to 2016 and 2017.)

“This is something we have been struggling with since we are in the 21st century, and the Cuban Federation does not allow Cuban players in the big leagues to think differently or play for their country for a moment.

Last month, Iglesias and Fernandez met with Tony Clark, head of the MLB Players’ Union via video conference. Last week, some union representatives met in New York with a group of MLB officials led by Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Fernandes said the association was considering challenging the World Baseball Softball Federation, citing Article 3.1 of the governing body’s code, which prohibits any discrimination on various grounds, including “political affiliation.” “We do not discriminate against anybody,” said Fracari, president of the coalition, which has had ties with Cuba throughout his career.

But Fernandez and Iglesias, who know the uphill battle facing the association, said they discussed the possibility of at least creating their own Cubanos team for the exhibition games facing some WBC teams before heading to the competition.

Cortez, 27, said playing for her home country was one of her lifelong dreams. He was born in Cuba but moved to South Florida before he filled 1 year after his parents won the Visa Lottery. Cortes, a US citizen, understands that the situation is complicated, especially for players who have treated families badly in Cuba.

“It’s tough what’s happening and what we have to play,” he said. “But at the end of the day, Cuba is powerful and we have to do what we can to represent and show the world that there are good baseball players out of Cuba.”

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