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Cuban stars can't represent homeland
Adrian Gonzalez is a San Diego native and had a bicultural childhood, living on both sides of the United States-Mexico border. He’s honoring his family’s heritage by playing for Mexico at the World Baseball Classic.
Robinson Cano earned US citizenship during the offseason, tweeting Nov. 13: “Very proud day for me, I just became a US citizen, God bless America!” As he did in 2009, he’s representing his native Dominican Republic in the WBC, which starts Saturday.
Pirates closer Jason Grilli was born in Michigan and attended high school in upstate New York, but he’s a dual citizen of the US and Italy. He’s appearing in his third WBC for Italy, which has one of the strongest national programs in Europe.
The WBC reminds us every player has a backstory, with pride sometimes split between the US and other countries of origin. Some players choose which national team they wish to represent, whether to honor an ancestor’s sacrifice or pursue the best opportunity to play. Self-identification emanates from a dynamic emotional bundle, with connections spanning oceans and decades, more enduring than the sport itself.
With Cuba, it’s complicated.
As Cuba prepares for its WBC opener against Brazil — in Japan, at 10:30 p.m. ET Saturday — there are no heartening stories of Cuban-Americans returning to play for the country of their forefathers. That is not possible, given the lack of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. Once a player takes up residence in the US, whether by birth or defection, he has made his choice between the two countries.
Four members of Cuba’s 2009 WBC roster — ace Aroldis Chapman, outfielders Yoenis Céspedes and Leonys Martín, and right-hander Yunesky Maya — have defected and reached the major leagues. Other top prospects with Major League Baseball clubs — Adeiny Hechavarria (Marlins), Jose Iglesias (Red Sox), Yasiel Puig (Dodgers) and Jorge Soler (Cubs) — might have been breakout stars in this WBC if they had remained in Cuba. Without the infusion of athleticism that would have come with that group, Cuba must rely on the power hitting of outfielders Alfredo Despaigne and Alexei Bell, third baseman Yulieski Gourriel and first baseman Jose Abreu.
“I know a lot of us have had conversations about how cool it would be if we could have a team we would be able to play on — let’s make a Team Miami, with the defectors and myself,” said St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay, whose parents were born in Cuba and immigrated to the US. “That would be a pretty good team.
“We’d have Yonder Alonso at first, Jose Iglesias or Sean Rodriguez at second base, Alexei Ramírez at shortstop, me in the outfield, Cespedes, Gio (Gonzalez) on the mound, J.P. Arencibia catching. We could name a bunch of guys. It would be pretty competitive.
“Unfortunately, that can’t happen. Maybe one day it will.”
Maybe. For now, this remains a delicate subject — particularly in Miami, as Ozzie Guillen learned last April. Guillen’s favorable comments about Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to Time magazine set off a maelstrom that clouded the Marlins’ inaugural season at their new ballpark in Little Havana. While the US has loosened travel restrictions in recent years, there’s little indication that the half-century stalemate between the countries is close to ending, even as Raul Castro — Fidel’s brother and successor as Communist Party leader — announced recently that he will retire in 2018.
Jay said he’s proud to be a Cuban-American but has no current plans to visit Cuba “out of respect to my family,” acknowledging that his parents, Justo and Maria, left the island when they were young because of Castro’s regime. Pirates first baseman Gaby Sanchez — like Jay, a first-generation Cuban-American born in Miami — shares the same perspective.
“I have an understanding with my father and mother that once things get opened up, absolutely, I’ll definitely want to go back,” Sanchez said. “I’ll want to go see where my family lived, the city they lived in, all those things. But just like them, they wouldn’t go back until things change.
“They were 8 and 11 years old, coming over. That was their life, their friends. They picked up and left. They disliked this man — for good reason. You had to leave your house and family, the people you cared about, and come over to a different place.”
As the Marlins’ lone Cuban-American player when the Guillen-Castro controversy erupted last April, Sanchez was briefly thrust into a role as the Cuban-American community’s unofficial spokesman within the organization. A throng of reporters surrounded Sanchez’s locker before Guillen returned from his five-day suspension. Sanchez measured his words carefully, trying to preserve team unity while making clear that it was not acceptable for Guillen to say he loved Castro, regardless of the context.
But even as the political tension remains, Sanchez can’t help but feel curious about his parents’ homeland. When he roomed with Yunel Escobar during the Arizona Fall League in 2006, Sanchez asked Escobar questions about what it was like to grow up in Havana. Sanchez spent one offseason playing in the Dominican Winter League and on many nights found himself watching a channel that broadcast Cuban baseball games.
So if Sanchez catches a glimpse of Cuba in the WBC, how will he feel?
He considered the question quietly for a moment.
“That’s my heritage, you know?” Sanchez said. “That’s what it is, players going out there who love to play the game of baseball. … It really is fun to watch the type of baseball they play. … Foul ball goes into the stands, and the ball has to get thrown back because they need it to play. … Two outs, guy on third, you see a guy laying down a bunt. Things of that nature. You’re like, ‘Wow, that doesn’t happen in the States.’ They’re playing. They’re having fun. You can really tell they’re enjoying baseball.
“It’s one of those situations where you’re never going to root against them, I think. In my opinion, you can’t really root against them. I feel like they have a lot of people watching their games because people want to root for them. … It’s just crazy. The players look like they’re genuine people. They look like they’re great people. It’s just a complicated situation.”
Cuba reached the championship game of the first World Baseball Classic in 2006 but isn't expected to make it that far this year because of all the stars it has lost. (Think about it: How good would the Venezuelan or Dominican teams be if they couldn’t use any players who left their homeland to play in the major leagues?)
Legendary Latin American baseball scout Andres Reiner, now retired, said recently that there are only three or four major-league-caliber players on the current Cuban national team. But it’s a different matter at the talent-rich youth levels. If relations between the US and Cuba were to normalize — one of the pre-eminent ifs in the Western Hemisphere, to say nothing of sports — Reiner said, “The whole of baseball will go to sign players in Cuba. … The first couple years after that, there would be more signings from Cuba than any other country (in Latin America).”
Perhaps there will come a day when Cuba’s best players can play in Major League Baseball and for their national team at the same time. Now, it must be one or the other. Cuba and Jay’s Team Miami aren’t allowed to play together.
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