by Peter C. Bjarkman
May 12, 2011
Cuba’s much celebrated Golden Anniversary National Series campaign is now tucked into the record books and thoughts are already turning to the upcoming international tournament season looming on the not-too-distant horizon. Island winter passions long inspired by Industriales, Sancti Spíritus or Cienfuegos can now be laid aside and an entire baseball-loving island nation can refocus its rooting interests upon the fortunes of flag-carrying Team Cuba. This also means that Cuban partisans can once more take up their second most cherished national pastime – the off-season baseball rumor mill.
Only five months down the road lies a new World Cup challenge in Panama and an opportunity to reclaim gold medal world championship superiority that until recently (with silver medal disappointments the last two times out) seemed almost a Cuban baseball birthright. But such is the intensity of island passions concerning international baseball that some fans are apparently already looking ahead to a third edition of the Major League-sponsored World Baseball Classic; and such is the relentless rumor mill surrounding the Caribbean national pastime that stories are apparently already spreading about such pure fantasies as possible WBC contests staged in Havana or (far wilder yet) some imagined scenario in which former league stars now earning prestigious big-league headlines and fat big-league paychecks might return at least temporarily to perform in a retooled Cuban national team lineup.
Several fans have in fact emailed me in recent weeks with questions about both much-coveted possibilities, and the time now seems right to provide my own take on such misguided hopes and familiar fantasies. For those of my readers who crave straightforward black and white answers and are sometimes miffed at my long-winded explanations, I can quickly put the matter to rest. Simply forget about MLB and the WBC visiting Havana in March 2013, or in March 2017 either for that matter. For those who would like fuller answers and something in the way of reasoned explanation, please read on.
The issue of WBC games at Latin American Stadium – especially a notion that recent Obama Administration easing of Cuban travel restrictions might play some role in such a scenario – is admittedly an intriguing speculation. But it is also an issue quite easily put to rest – even from this vantage point slightly less than two years away from the next scheduled WBC event. First and foremost, there is absolutely no possibility whatsoever of any 2013 WBC III games being hosted in Havana. The obvious reasons for this are all found in reigning MLB strategies, well-ingrained Cuban Baseball Federation policies, and also recent actions by the IBAF (International Baseball Federation). Almost none of them have anything to do with U.S. Treasury Department OFAC Cuba travel restrictions or with any recent changes in OFAC policies under the current Obama Administration. Any rumors that might now be circulating about big league magnates gleefully bringing their road show to Havana’s own quaintly classical yet admittedly ramshackle 65-year-old playing grounds are the product of familiar ball fan fantasies and a more than healthy dose of pure wishful thinking. They also result from a total misunderstanding of MLB’s own transparent visions of what the WBC tournament now represents and might also grow to represent t in the near foreseeable future.
MLB envisions the WBC event through the same green-tinted spectacles with which it views all its other products – as a potentially huge revenue-generating resource. Any lip service paid by MLB in recent years to “internationalizing the game” has from start to finish been a thinly veiled smokescreen for all of the following: 1) selling more MLB products (viz. Yankees caps, Red Sox jackets, MLB television packages) in countries like Japan, Venezuela, Taiwan or the Dominican Republic – the next frontiers for expanding the corporate sport’s immense revenue potential; 2) supplementing a dwindling stateside supply of ballplayer talent with athletes recruited from Latin America, Asia, Australia and Europe; 3) eventually owning a baseball version of soccer’s hugely popular World Cup competition, that is, an event that would replace present-day manifestations of IBAF World Cup baseball or IBAF Olympic baseball with a dollar-rich television bonanza completely controlled by MLB’s own corporate management.
The latter scheme has so far proven to be largely a failure and thus a misguided project, mainly because baseball simply is not played or followed in enough nations to generate the same kind of worldwide interest that surrounds the soccer version of an international “world cup” spectacle. It also didn’t help the MLB cause here that the IBAF (under the administration of now-deceased president Aldo Notari) had the foresight several years back to head off MLB at the pass by legally copy-righting a claim to the name “Baseball World Cup” for its own event (previously known as the Amateur World Series). When MLB got around to launching its own belated version in 2005 (complex planning required the inaugural to be eventually postponed for a year) it had to scramble to come up with the less appealing World Baseball Classic label.
But the other two schemes are already well advanced and thus already inflicting considerable damage to any true worldwide expansion of the sport (as opposed to an MLB explosion in revenue sources). In short, MLB doesn’t really hold any true interest in developing grassroots growth for the sport in countries like Croatia, Tunisia, Sweden, Greece, Mali, or most of the ninety-odd nations that have slowly taken up the misnamed “American” pastime. (As a side note here, the argument can easily be made that the bat and ball sport is today a far more genuine “pastime” in Cuba, Japan, or Taiwan than it is in NFL football-crazy and NASCAR-addicted North America.) The prevailing interest – to be blunt and realistic – is in finding wider populations to buy MLB merchandise, or uncovering talent pools overseas that might be strip-mined of talented batters and hurlers much needed for a sport now losing much of its potential stateside pool of athletes to more popular spectacles like NFL football and NBA basketball.
But let us stick here with the issue of the WBC itself. If some still need to be convinced that the main motivation behind this event is ticket revenues, all they need do is focus on the extremely elevated individual seat and luxury box prices (and consequently largely empty ballparks) during the bulk of first two WBC editions. Instead of wisely adopting a more foresighted approach of essentially giving away tickets in order to stimulate interest and familiarize fans with this new concept (national teams rather than corporate teams), MLB optimistically attached premium prices to ticket packages and then watched the bulk of their games in 2006 and 2009 (with the exceptions of final contests, or the matches in Tokyo when Japan itself was playing) performed in shameful empty stadiums. If celebrity-addicted MLB fans wouldn’t suffer talented but no-name replacement ballplayers in 1994, why should it have been expected that they would plunk down $40-plus to witness South Africa duel Australia in Phoenix, The Netherlands clash with Panama in San Juan (where less than 500 customers witnessed Shairon Martis’ rare no-hitter), or Italy (with its pseudo-Italian roster) battle Venezuela in Toronto?
Because of the driving motivation for ticket sales, games in Puerto Rico (2006 and 2009) were played in aging Hiram Bithorn Stadium instead of a much more suitable near-state-of-the-art Robert Clemente Walker Stadium that owned the single drawback of a smaller seating capacity. Note also that all second and third round games of the first two editions have been played in MLB venues (with their large seating capacities and first class media facilities) in California and Arizona. There had indeed been some discussion after the inaugural event of scheduling either second round games, or perhaps even the finals, in the spacious Tokyo Dome – a move that might have given WBC II a more legitimate “international” flavor. But this idea was quickly nixed in MLB circles as a direct result of the realistic fear that the finals in Tokyo might well be a complete financial and public relations disaster. If Japan was perchance eliminated in the early rounds, a Korea-USA or Venezuela-Cuba finale would be played before the largest outpouring of no-shows in the sport’s long history. (As it was, first round games in Tokyo not involving the Nippon squad drew absolutely no fan interest, and the same was the case in Toronto’s Rogers Centre for 2009 opening-round contests not featuring Team Canada.) At least MLB officials could assume that a potential Korea-Japan match in Dodger Stadium (even with Team USA on the sidelines) would prove to be (as it in the end actually was) a true ticket sales bonanza – given the huge and patriotic Asian population spread across the Southern California region.
Given these conditions, how could we ever image MLB desiring to stage any WBC games in Havana? It was difficult enough peddling tickets in baseball-crazy but economically strapped Puerto Rico and Mexico last time around. Who in Havana would pay $35 or $50 for seats in Latioamericano? Who would or could purchase corporate packages for a whole round of WBC games in Havana? This is of course the very same obstacle that will prevent any form of professional baseball – even at the minor league level – from returning to Cuba in the long foreseeable future. The stark pesos and centavos realities of a third world economy simply will not allow the corporate MLB version of the sport to be staged in a location like Cuba. Havana fans today hand over three pesos (25 cents US) to attend their own league games. When the IBAF World Cup was played in Cuba in 2005 the ticket prices were about the same as ducats for Cuban League games. If MLB would not offer essentially free passes in order to fill stadiums in Miami or San Juan in 2009, why would they do so in Havana in 2013?
But this roadblock involving ticket prices is only the least of the numerous obstacles facing any hypothetical MLB ventures into Cuban territory. There are much larger and more daunting issues involving recently deteriorating Cuban baseball infrastructure and longstanding Cuban Baseball Federation philosophies. The upcoming October World Cup now locked down for Panama was earlier expected to be staged in Cuba, but in the end the Cubans didn’t even throw their hat into the ring for the chance to host the IBAF event. The explanation was simple enough: Cuban baseball infrastructure simply would not allow a bid at this time. Due to a sagging economy and island-wide power shortages, Cuban League games have been strictly daytime affairs at Latin American Stadium (and most of the rest of the island) for the past two seasons; the elimination of Industriales from this year’s playoff competition was a true blessing in disguise for the Cuban Federation since it circumvented a potential scheduling nightmare. Although Latin American Stadium was spruced up for the Golden Anniversary National Series with a fresh coat of paint and a new solar-powered scoreboard (imported from Viet Nam), the ballpark’s damaged lighting system has still not be repaired, despite numerous speculations that the light towers would be reassembled in time for this year’s historic post-season. And the hulking time-worn stadium also now poses considerable potential safety risks due to several noticeable and ominous gaps in the ancient grandstand sheet metal roofing.
The archaic press box at Latino simply could not handle the massive print media and television demands associated with a round of WBC games staged largely for international television. No Cuban ballparks feature video replay screens or (worse yet) scoreboard spaces for high-tech commercial advertising. Latin American Stadium offers no wireless communications system; elevator access to the upper level press box is limited and often out-of-order altogether. The existing stadium sound system is primitive at best and most field-side boxes are littered with broken seats. In brief, the quaint features that make Havana’s massive ballpark so very attractive to those of us who remain nostalgic traditionalists (and thus in turn find today’s big league shopping mall-style venues something of an anathema) would hardly be expected to appeal to MLB and ESPN executives charged with orchestrating today’s made-strictly-for-television baseball spectacles. The notion of 21st century WBC contests staged in a true “retro” ballpark ideally suited for World War II-era big league matches is hardly even imaginable. And this is to say nothing here of the difficulties posed by inadequate transportation in the streets of Havana, or the obvious shortages of quality top-class hotel facilities that are currently retarding any potential expansions or upgrades in the still-struggling Cuban tourist industry.
And there is also the rather central question here of hands-on event management. MLB controls all local venues for WBC games and would not likely wish to turn their showcase event over to Cuban sports ministry (INDER) management. On the opposite hand, there are no reasons for speculating that Cuban authorities would suddenly wish to have MLB take full responsibility for any event staged on island soil. Hundreds upon hundreds of foreign press would have to be allowed access to any WBC games in Havana, and it would be MLB and not INDER that would do all the credentialing. (This is not even to consider here those conditions alluded to above that MLB officials would demand in terms of extensive stadium renovations and adequate hotel and transportation access.) Fully imposed outside management was never the case with past IBAF tournaments like the World Cup (most recently in 2003) or the Intercontinental Cup (2001), or even the COPABE-run Pan American Games (1991). And there is – as one final straw to break the already sagging camel’s back – the not-to-be overlooked issue of opening the island’s doors to literally hundreds of MLB professional scouts. While MLB scouts (a regular feature of all WBC games) would presumably have little access to Cuban players during a hypothetical 2013 visit (since actual league games would again be suspended during WBC action), yet their presence on the island would mean a major departure from reigning INDER policy which has made MLB talent hunters official personas no grata for all of the past half-century.
Contrary to widespread conceptions, OFAC Cuban travel policy has nothing to do with the issue of any WBC games being played in Havana. In reality, the prospect of Cuba playing on USA soil in Puerto Rico raised much larger obstacles in both 2006 (when OFAC was involved right down to the wire) and 2009 (when Cuba was placed in Mexico for first round games in order to avoid a replay of the earlier San Juan scenario). It should be noted here that INDER has yet to receive full payment for 2009 WBC participation, the bulk of that money still frozen in OFAC hands in Washington; this unpublicized fact is cited here merely to underscore the fact that OFAC poses a much greater challenge for Cuban teams visiting American soil than vice versa. USA athletic teams visiting Cuba have never been much of an issue under the current Helms-Burton fiasco. USA Baseball’s elite-level national team appeared without problem at the 2005 IBAF World Cup staged in Matanzas and Havana (only to be ousted by Chinese Taipei in the quarterfinals). Team USA again traveled to Havana in 2006 for the IBAF Olympic Qualifier tournament (and enjoyed better results by matching Cuba atop the qualifying heap). A skinny nineteen-year-old Barry Bonds (apparently still steroid-free) performed for the third-place USA squad at the 1984 Amateur World Series in Havana. There have been numerous youth-level international baseball tournaments staged in Cuba over the past three decades that have also included USA teams.
In other sports, many American teams and athletes have been licensed by OFAC over the years to perform on Cuba soil. The USA national soccer team played a pre-World Cup exhibition contest against the hosts Cubans in Havana only two years back; the 1991 Pan American Games were staged in Cuba. And literally dozens upon dozens of American youth teams have visited Cuba for various sports competitions over the past ten or fifteen years – as have a substantial contingent slow-pitch senior softball clubs (the most recent shared Havana hotel facilities with this writer in February 2011). This author also accompanied a West Palm Beach (Florida) little league all-star squad (a team featuring one future big league catcher and several future minor leaguers) that visited the island with an official sanction at the very height of the celebrated December 1999 Elian González spectacle; that particular OFAC-licensed visit set a preceded for dozens of such exchanges to follow involving USA youth baseball and softball teams. The universities of Southern California and Alabama, along with St. John’s College of Minnesota have sent their baseball squads on spring tours to the Cuban capital. And all this occurred well before Obama officials made their minimal cosmetic changes by rolling back OFAC license restrictions to the pre-2003 (pre-Bush Administration) levels.
That there have not been additional visits of MLB teams to the island (paralleling the heralded and ground-breaking Baltimore Orioles clash with the Cuban national squad back in March 1999) has little or nothing to do with OFAC policies and everything to do with the loggerheads still existing between MLB and the Cuban baseball administration. MLB for its part continues to advocate a longstanding policy of applying subtle pressures that might hopefully someday result in the Cubans abandoning their socialist sporting system and as a consequence gifting the country’s considerable talent pool to major league clubs. MLB’s stance was thrown into stark relief a couple of years back when I raised an unpopular press conference question during the 2007 Caribbean World Series. My pressing of the issue surrounding a rumored proposal allowing Cuba to join the four-country winter-league professional event brought a familiar response: Cuba would be welcome to join the winter league series once it agreed to abide by all MLB policies, especially those of turning its ballplayers loose for drafting by MLB clubs.
Cuba, for its own part, has been more than cautious in its limited trafficking with MLB clubs. The all-too-realistic fear in Cuban baseball circles foresees the almost certain dismantling of its sacred baseball institutions at the hands of MLB talent hunting. Open the door just a crack and not far down the road the island nation would likely lose its national baseball altogether. Cuba would inevitably undergo the same transformation that several decades back largely obliterated Dominican, Puerto Rican and Venezuela homegrown baseball. There is no native baseball to speak of remaining in those neighboring Caribbean countries; the once powerful winter circuits now struggle for survival and Caribbean fans are reduced to watching their native sons perform not in neighborhood ballparks but only as flickering television images beamed from distant Houston, San Francisco and New York. Cuba’s baseball-loving neighbors are now little more than talent-pool “plantations” maintained to supply desperately needed athletes for far away North American corporate professional teams. Given the virtual death of a once thriving winter-season sport throughout the rest of the Caribbean (a direct consequence of MLB invasions), it is little wonder that the Cubans now jealously guard their own national pastime by keeping even minimal contact with the professional-league enemies at full arms length.
There is also one final issue to be touched upon here. And this one might come as something of a raw shock to those still holding to the idea of the WBC as a true world championship spectacle. Although it seems virtually certain that there will be no WBC games staged in Havana in 2013, it is not at all quite as clear that Cuba will in fact even be invited to the next WBC tournament. In its own efforts to reach a sounder financial footing, the Europe-based IBAF has been slowly but surely attaching its star to various partnership ventures with Major League Baseball. While it was indeed the IBAF itself that earlier threw a roadblock at MLB plans to stage a “World Cup” tournament modeled after FIFA’s traditional soccer spectacle, recent cooperative efforts between the two entities have included early discussions of remodeling the IBAF world championship as a mere preliminary or qualifying events for future MLB-owned WBC tournaments.
No details have yet been announced, although several plausible scenarios seem to be on the back burner. The most logical of these would be the reduction of automatic qualifiers for the next WBC (presumably the one in 2013). Under such a plan free passes would be handed out only to those countries represented by enough big leaguers to fill up national squads from big league rosters alone. Those automatic invitees would of course be the USA, Canada, the Dominican, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and possibly Mexico. That would leave two-time Classic champion Japan outside the charmed circle of automatic invitees, along with such standard baseball powers as Korea, Chinese Taipei, Australia, The Netherlands – and above all, international powerhouse Cuba. Under such an arrangement, Cuba, Japan, Korea and the others (the Dutch and Aussies included) would have to fight it out (presumably in Panama this coming September) for the remaining half-dozen or fewer WBC admission tickets. Two original WBC competitors –Italy and South Africa – might just as well kiss goodbye any dreams of future MLB invitations.
Of course Italy and South Africa never actually fielded legitimate WBC rosters in the first place, since rules were necessarily bent to stuff those clubs with Americans boasting past-generation connections with the nations they were representing, or with minor leaguers hardly ready to lock horns with seasoned Latin American big leaguers. (Hence we had Mike Piazza in the uniform of Team Italy, and a South African club that was colorful but never competitive.) And once the issue is raised of padding supposed “national” teams with USA-based players drawn from Organized Baseball, rather than athletes selected and trained by homeland national baseball federations themselves, we should at least touch here on a second issue of wishful thinking that has sometimes found strong currency in certain media outlets. This is the idea that the Cuba WBC squad might benefit from being supplemented with some MLB transplants from big league rosters – say, Alexei Ramírez, Yunel Escobar, Kendry Morales, Leonys Martin and Yunieski Maya. This, of course, is an even more untenable proposition than the idea of MLB moving its games onto an unfit or unoffered ballpark stage in Havana.
As long Cuban baseball maintains its present face – a government-controlled homegrown league free of imported ballplayers, and an institution focused on utilizing baseball to demonstrate the superiority of the socialist system of sports competition – there will be no mixing of Cuban leaguers and big leaguers on any pseudo-Cuban squads fielded for international competitions. The nation-wide explosion of baseball pride and passion during the first pair of WBC events resulted directly from a realization that Cuban athletes and the Cuban system of non-corporate baseball could hold its own against top stars from the best professional circuits (both MLB and the Nippon Professional League). The Cubans have also obviously benefitted on the field (not only at the WBC but in other such international tournaments) from fielding a veteran team of league stalwarts who have played together for a number of years, trained together for several weeks or months prior to such events, and knowingly carry the pressures of the nation’s fans and flag on their collective backs. If the Cubans were not quite as talented as the big leaguers in 2006 and 2009 (a supposition open to debate), they were far more inspired and motivated than those rival Dominicans, Venezuelans or Americans going through the motions and mostly focused on getting back to regular paychecks awaiting them in their big league spring training camps.
It also should not be forgotten here that the Cuban baseball hierarchy (rightly or wrongly) does maintain strict rules against its ballplayers having formal or even informal contacts with athletes who have earlier abandoned the home system for professional paydays in the big leagues. One celebrated recent incident involving only innocent contact with a former league player led to temporary suspension for standout team captain Freddie Cepeda at the 2010 World Cup Qualifier tournament in Puerto Rico. Cuban authorities are not about to permit MLB officials to “dilute” their rosters with big league implants who no longer represent the not-for-profit Cuban baseball system. Such a team would be viewed by the Cuban baseball hierarchy (and I venture also by the majority of Cuban ball fans) as no longer being a truly legitimate Team Cuba.
If there has been one clear lesson to be culled from the first two editions of the World Baseball Classic it is the obvious fact that teams composed of collections of high-salaried professionals cobbled together at the eleventh hour simply do not perform well in high-stakes international tournaments. Three national squads have made it to the championship match of the two inaugural WBC events – Japan (2009, 2006), Korea (2009), and Cuba (2006) – and it is no mere fluke that all three boasted true national squads composed either largely (Japan), primarily (Korea), or exclusively (Cuba) of veterans from domestic league play. Korea’s 2009 silver medal outfit featured one big leaguer on a club dominated by Korean army team veterans and Japanese Leaguers. Despite the presence of Daisuke and Ichiro, it was Nippon League all-stars that walked off with both previous titles. And if Cuba brought no big leaguers to the show, they nonetheless went home with a silver trophy in 2006 and the tournament’s only unanimous all-star selection (Cepeda) the second time around.
Leaving aside any issues of prejudice against “defectors” by a present Cuban baseball establishment, for purely tactical baseball reasons alone there would be no logic behind diluting Cuban domestic league all-star squads with a handful of big league intruders whose presence would only weaken team harmony and sabotage months of team selection and training back home in Havana. The five decade formula of utilizing league all-star squads has proven remarkably effective for Cuban baseball across a half-century of near total domination on the international baseball scene. In 2006 the Cuban system provided impressive winner-take-all victories over Dominican, Venezuelan and Puerto Rican WBC squads laced with high-profile but unmotivated and under-achieving American and National Leaguers. There is no reason in the world to think that anyone in Havana would want to abandon that formula at this point.
My own suspicion is that Cuba will indeed in the end take the field for WBC III in two more short years. Given past IBAF World Cup history, almost any qualification hurdle put in place by September 2011 will find the perennial medal winners surviving their test in Panama. But WBC games played in Havana? You simply can forget about that fantasy. I myself expect first to see the MLB “World Series” flag flying over Wrigley Field in Chicago’s North End, or perhaps Joe DiMaggio’s big-league milestone 56-game hitting streak falling by the wayside, or even an MLB October Fall Classic once again being staged during weekday daylight afternoon hours. All those long-shot near impossibilities would seem much safer bets to this writer than any possibility of MLB transplanting its potential cash cow “Classic” event “behind enemy territory” in such an unlikely locale as Havana’s venerable but unprofitably Latin American Stadium.
Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past five years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team..