For the Love of the Game

For the Love of the Game

Daniel Nieuwenhuis, December 2016

Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu, Yaisel Puig, Yoensis Cesepdes, and the late Jose Fernandez. If you do not follow Major League Baseball, those names are just five Hispanic names that mean nothing to you. Throughout the game’s 113-year history, Cuba has cultivated some of baseballs all time greats ranging from Red Sox Hall of Fame pitcher Luis Tiant to Oakland Athletics’ Jose Canseco. There has been a new wave of young talent coming out of Cuba, but for ball players looking to play baseball in America, emigrating from their homeland can be a life threatening experience. All five of the brave Cuban baseball players I mentioned are considered some of the best power hitters and power pitchers in Major League Baseball today. Mostly every single Cuban who chooses to defect from their native country to the coast of Florida pack onto a small blow up raft or boat with ten-20 Cubans, and risk their lives for the American Dream. Each one of these Major Leaguers stories of their defection from Cuba is a testament of their drive to fight for their proper citizenship in the land of opportunity, the United States of America.

Due to diplomatic relations between America and Cuba during the Cold War, lasting almost 50 years, the two countries were at a stalemate from 1960 to 2015. Over the course of 55 years, 11 United States presidents, and a nuclear arms race lasting 25 years, there has been massive tension between these two countries. After winning World War II with a great deal of help coming from the Soviet Union and Americans feared that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would end up controlling most of Europe. Because of their communism government, if any other country was not fully communists, the Soviets viewed them as the enemy. In order to contain communist take over, the United States developed a containment strategy to restrict Soviet expansion in 1947. President Harry Truman threatened Stalin and his Soviet Union with military force in order for them to cease their spread of communism. Just as Truman promised, the United States military enforced the creation of the hydrogen bomb, otherwise known as an atomic weapon, that had potential to wipe out land half the size of Manhattan, NY. This nuclear arms race drove American homes to build bomb shelters underneath their backyards to remain safe from any hydrogen bombs from the Soviets.

To gain closer proximity so that their nuclear weapons could reach American soil without a doubt, Josef Stalin befriended Cuba and young Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro. Like most countries in Central America, Cuba was poor and vulnerable. Castro knew he needed to accept any help that his country was offered, so he began developing stronger ties with the Soviet Union. For his country’s safety, in 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower placed an economic embargo on Cuba, followed by the discontinuation of diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro. In 1961, newly inaugurated President, John F. Kennedy order the organization of the Bays of Pigs invasion, which would later be ineffective and an embarrassment to the United States of America. Throughout the 60’s, there were 8 unsuccessful attempts to overthrow communist ruling in Cuba. At the tail end of the decade, Josef Stalin arranged Soviet nuclear missiles off of the island. Fidel Castro still remained in power as their communist dictator for years to come. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the trade embargo and stalemate between America and Cuba remained.

To make a step in the right direction when it came to relations with one another, “baseball diplomacy” began in the 1970s. On March 28th, 1999, Cubans got to see a Major League Baseball team play in Havana for the first time. The Baltimore Orioles faced off against the Cuban national team. Two years after their inaugural season as a Minor League Baseball club, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista relinquished his political power and fled Cuba, leaving Fidel Castro to begin his reign as the leader of Cuba.

“Earlier attempts could not overcome the political differences that separated the two nations. Political considerations overwhelmed baseball diplomacy, complicated the planning, and ultimately prevented a notable change in U.S.-Cuba relations. The shared love of baseball and the goodwill of athletic competition was an insufficient bandage for the lasting legacy of antagonism and mutual distrust between Washington and Havana.” [1]

Before the Cold War, Cuba became a very a winter attraction for Major Leaguers during their off season to train up until Spring Training. Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Christy Mathewson all played winter ball down in Cuba at least once during their careers. The Brooklyn Dodgers held training camp in Cuba in 1941 and 1942, and later returned in 1947 with the first African-American player on an MLB team, Jackie Robinson.

In 1954, the Havana Sugar Kings began a minor league partnership with the International League, and became the AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, which became the main connection between Cuban leagues and Major League Baseball. Three years after their inaugural MILB season, Cuban president Fulgencio Batista vacated his office, paving the way for the new reign of Fidel Castro. With increasing tensions between Washington and Havana, safety concerns rose for American born players on the Sugar Kings roster. In 1960, MILB president Frank Shaughnessy relocated the Cuban affiliate to New Jersey.

“Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the state established an inflexible policy on migration issues. As was the case of the population in general, baseball players were not allowed to freely travel abroad as the success of Cuban baseball was displayed as an achievement of the system and handled as a political tool.” [2]

Although the Cuban government enforced limited migration, this has not stopped Cubans who strive to play in the MLB. Living the country to achieve greater opportunities was seen as an astronomical crime to Fidel Castro, who built his Cuba on a foundation of loyalty. Senior government officials like Castro, were involved in making team decisions to express their teams as a propaganda weapon to the United States and their baseball teams. “Professional” baseball players in Cuba are assigned a workplace and are given wages through the government, so technically they are not classified as professionals because of the absence of a signed contract between the player and baseball club. As defections increased in the 80s and 90s, Castro’s confidence in his social system and his belief that Cuban players could achieve their baseball dreams in Cuba was decreasing.

“In addition, little by little, the population has been progressively strengthened by the vision that leakage is a natural tendency instead of an act of treason. A study of everyday lives of Cuban baseball fans and their views on the getaways of the players (Eastman, 2007) suggest that the context of the deep economic crisis in Cuba has led to an agile rethinking of Cuban culture.” [3]

In 2008, 20-year-old left handed pitcher Aroldis Chapman first tried to leave the island to achieve his baseball dreams. The future 2016 World Series champion, although his heroic attempt, was caught in the process. Despite Castro’s strict rule and punishment for defectors, Chapman was pitching for the Cuban national team in just a few months. His punishment for his failed attempt though was being left off of the 2008 Beijing Olympic team, with Chapman being their top pitcher at age 17. Because of Chapman’s cooperation with the Cuban government, this resulted in the young pitcher’s quick return to baseball. Chapman testified against the 4 men who were convicted of human trafficking in 2009. In 2013, Chapman gave a four-hour deposition in the United States in a lawsuit involving 2 of the human traffickers, one who claimed the young pitcher to be a Castro informant. Aroldis Chapman settled the case after the U.S judge discovered Chapman lied to the Cuban court when he had no future plans to attempt to leave Cuba for a third time, which was successful in 2009. This goes to show that when defecting Cuba, it is truly every man for himself, as long as they all make it to America.

In the summer of 2009, Chapman and the Cuban national team traveled to the Netherlands for a tournament. Carlos Thompson, a friend of his father’s helped him obtain a U.S passport on hopes to play in America. Walking out of his hotel with his passport in hand, Chapman stepped into a car with Thompson and an MLB agent in the backseat. Afraid of being tracked down by the Cuban government, Thompson and Chapman bounced around from the Netherlands, Amsterdam, Barcelona and France. Aroldis Chapman eventually claimed residency in Andorra, in the eastern Pyrenees Mountains in the middle of France and Spain. To pass the time by for his U.S visa to be approved, Chapman hired an American private investigator and training for his baseball future in the United States. The two eventually flew to Newark, N.J. to work out a deal with a Major League ball club. In January 2010, Chapman and the Cincinnati Reds agreed to a deal worth 30 million dollars over the course of 6 years. Chapman’s 105 MPH fastball is still the fastest pitch to ever have been thrown in a game.

In 2016, President Barack Obama visited Cuba to partake in an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team. During his stay, Obama announced all Cuban citizens could work for American companies and obtain salary in the United States. Also, Obama made it legal for Major League clubs to sign contracts directly with Cuban ballplayers, instead of having to risk their life in defecting to America. In hopes of doing business or traveling to Cuba, President Obama presented numerous changes to America’s policy on Cuba and relaxed regulations. Because of the trade embargo between the two countries, in order for Cuban citizens who wanted to work in the United States needed to be cleared through the Treasury Department. This is exactly what Aroldis Chapman did; the young Cuban claimed residency in France after fleeing a baseball tournament for Cuba in the Netherlands. Obama’s new policy would totally forgo this long and stressful process.

“The complications of defecting from Cuba and navigating the immigration laws have helped smugglers and human traffickers gain a foothold in Cuban baseball, often to help players leave Cuba and then to arrange the documents needed to establish residency in another country and gain clearance from the Treasury Department.” [4]

With the embargo still intact, baseball could be the first domino to fall for improved overall relations between the United States and Cuba.


[1] Turner, Justin W. R. 2010. “1970s Baseball Diplomacy between Cuba and the United States.” Nine 19 (1): 67-84,166.

[2] Onesimo Julian, Moreira Seijos. 2014. “Changes in Cuba’s Migration Policy and its Impact on Baseball.” Journal of Arts and Humanities 3 (11): 1-8.

[3] Onesimo Julian, Moreira Seijos. 2014. “Changes in Cuba’s Migration Policy and its Impact on Baseball.” Journal of Arts and Humanities 3 (11): 1-8.

[4] Clair, Stacy St., and Jodi S. Cohen. “How Cubs’ Aroldis Chapman Helped the Castro Regime before Cuban Defection.” Chicago Tribune Accessed November 03, 2016.

Further Reading

Ben Strauss, “New Work Rules Reshape M.L.B.’s Relationship With Cuban Prospects.” Accessed November 3, 2016. New York Times, March 15, 2016.

“The U.S. And Cuba: A Brief History Of A Complicated Relationship.” NPR. Accessed November 03, 2016. Staff. “Cold War History.” 2009. Accessed November 03, 2016.

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