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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Cuba's Major League History is Extensive, Mixed, and Perhaps Stronger Than Ever

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There’s a scene in the midst of Dennis Lehane’s sublime crime novel, “Live by Night,” where Cuban native Graciela Corrales reasons with outlaw Joe Coughlin, the Boston native with whom she has bargained to secure an arsenal of weapons from the U.S. Navy so that she could continue her quest of battling for her homeland, about why she fights for a country with no promise of equivocal return.

“She’s not going to return my love. That would be impossible, because I don’t just love the people and the buildings and the smell of her. I love the idea of her. And that’s something I made up, so I love what isn’t there.”

There’s a lot of truth to those words, even when applied to Graciela’s fellow countryman, Rusney Castillio, the Cuban outfielder who signed a seven-year, $72.5 million contract with the Red Sox over the weekend. The Red Sox love the idea of Castillo and what he can do for them over the next seven years, this despite the fact that his raw talent hasn’t even been used in a competitive ballgame in a year and a half. They don’t just love the tools, the speed, the eye, the possibility of burgeoning power, they love what they dream he might become, a player similar to Yasiel Puig, another Cuban refugee whose defection comes with its own tale of dealing with a drug cartel and the Cuban-American mafia. Why not? He’s from Cuba, and Cubans are good at baseball.

Then again, like Coughlin utters at another point in the story, “I think assumptions about an entire country or an entire people are pretty [expletive] stupid in general.”

No, not every Cuban native to play in the major leagues has found long-term success (Rolando Arrojo, anyone?) even if the narrative seems to fit easier that way. Still, in 2014 Cubans are indeed finding such unprecedented success in the major leagues in America, that it’s only natural to make assumptions about any given defector’s playing ability. There were a near-record five (there were six in 1968) Cuban natives (Aroldis Chapman, Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Alexis Ramirez, and Jose Abreu) to make the All-Star Game in Minnesota this summer. While that note alone does not definitively signal the Cuban revolution in Major League Baseball, perhaps to some degree it raises the awareness level of the talent pool leaving the island in order to join the modern age of the game in a foreign land.

Cubans, of course, have had a rich history in Major League Baseball in the United States, enjoying a more docile avenue of affairs than their governments. Before the Spanish-American War even took place, Steve Bellan, is widely believed to be the first of his Cuban countrymen to play in organized baseball, a whole three seasons from 1871-73, in which he batted .251 overall with the Troy Haymakers and the New York Mutuals.

By the time Corrales and Coughlin began their relationship during Prohibition and the Great Depression, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, who would become the first Cuban manager in the majors in 1938 with St. Louis, was just winding down what had been a 17-year career, debuting with the Boston Braves in 1912. Adolfo Luque became the first Cuban to play in a World Series in 1919, and enjoyed a 20-year major league career. Angel Aragon became the first Cuban and Latin to play for the Yankees in 1914.

Alas, the Cuban-American major leagues relationship lacked greatly when it came to the talent that our country was getting because, of course, only white Cubans were allowed to play, leaving the untapped potential of black Cubans a resource ignored. Post Jackie Robinson, the game’s history is littered with Cuban greats like Minnie Minoso, the greatest black Cuban of his era, and the only man to ever play in parts of seven different decades.

When Fidel Castro led a revolt against the Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batastia in 1953, Minoso led the league with 25 stolen bases and batted .313. When the United States imposed its trade embargo against Cuba in 1960, Minoso led the way with 184 hits in a season that boasted the final of his six All-Star appearances. And maybe not so coincidentally, it was immediately following Minoso’s worst season in the big leagues at the age of 36 in 1962 (.196, one home run, 10 RBI) that the Cuba Missile Crisis took place. By then, Minoso wasn’t the only Cuban All-Star (including, but not limited to, Sandy Consuegra in 1954, Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos in ’59, and Mike Fornieles in ’61) but Cubans had barely yet to make their imprint on America’s pastime, with legendary names such as Tony Oliva, Bert Campaneris, Tony Perez, and, of course, Luis Tiant.

They were the lucky ones, the ones who got out to find glory in the States. As Peter Gammons wrote in a 1985 Globe article about the influence of Latin players in baseball:

By 1959, Fidel Castro had taken over, and the last Little World Series was won by Havana over Minneapolis (managed by Gene Mauch, with Carl Yastrzemski at second base) with rings of armed guards in the outfield. Avila originally had helped fight Batista but later tried to prevent Castro's takeover and eventually was involved in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. "A lot of great players never got out when Castro closed it off in 1961, because you had to have family or friends in the States to qualify for a visa," says [Rafael] Avila, [former Dodgers Latin American scouting supervisor]. "What a shame." Some families, like that of Boston minor-leaguer Juan Bustabad, escaped in the mid-'60s. Otherwise, except for Barbaro Garbey of the Tigers, who was expelled with other boat people for fixing games, the door has been shut ever since.

It was nearly another decade before the game would employ defecting stars such as Rey Ordóñez, Livan Hernandez, Arrojo and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, whose arrival in America wasn’t all that much different from that of Elian Gonzalez, the young boy who dominated headlines in the fall of 1999, when his boat capsized off the coast, sparking the beginning go an eight-month tug-of-war to return him to his father in Cuba. In 2002, Jose Contreras signed with the Yankees and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein shattered a chair in frustration. Each player had stretches of brilliance in the big leagues, periods that were far too often too short-lived whether that was based on the advanced age of Cuban players once they finally arrive, or the adjustment to a thoroughly different and modern way to live and play the game.

But this latest crop of Cubans to invade so far has staying power, and after watching Abreu and Castilo each receive deals in excess of $70 million over the past year, more defectors will be on their way, leaving a country where the love isn’t returned.

From nothing to $70 million in the blink of an eye.

Cuba may not return the love, but America will buy it from them in quite the hurry.

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