The coming surge of Cuban baseball players.

The stadium scene.
April 15 2010 11:28 AM

The Cubans Are Coming!

Dozens of ballplayers are leaving the island for the major leagues. There's a lot more where they came from.

Check out our Magnum Photos gallery on baseball in Cuba, Japan, and the United States. 

(Continued from Page 1)

It's an open question exactly how many big leaguers are plying their trade on the island. A few players—center fielder Alfredo Despaigne and third baseman Yulieski Gourriel—are openly lusted over by major league execs. In addition to those frontline stars, Krieger believes "there are 50 starting big-leaguers playing in Cuba right now." Brito says that if he went from town to town holding tryouts in Cuba, he could fill a big boat with major league contracts.

The only way we'll know for sure, of course, is if Cuba and the United States come to some sort of détente. A baseball free-trade agreement would have a dramatic effect on baseball in both countries. In Cuba, it would drain the talent pool, potentially destroying—if you believe the mythos—the sport's last pure reserve, a sort of living baseball museum where the ballplayers are approachable national heroes. (Well, except the players who leave—those guys are forcibly forgotten.) In America, a Cuban influx would create a tighter free-agent market. The more major leaguers there are in Havana, the harder it is for everyone from Texas A&M to Tokyo to get contracts.

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One reason that more talent is probably on the way is that the Cuban government's containment efforts appear to be getting laxer under Raúl Castro. Krieger notes that Aroldis Chapman, a well-known defection risk, was allowed to travel anyway. He also says that Yuniesky Maya, a pitcher who recently worked out for the Mets, managed to defect even after being arrested once before for trying to leave. "When Fidel Castro was in command, he was very aware of the importance of sports to his system," says Ebro. "I'm not so sure that his brother has the same feeling."

The recent stampede seems to have shocked the Cuban government into taking at least some measures to stem the tide. The country's decision to pull out of July's Central American and Caribbean Games in Puerto Rico has been widely attributed to its fear of further defections. "I knew at least three Cuban players on the team who were very interested to defect in those games," says Ebro. But even increased enforcement efforts—however minor—likely won't do much to stop Cuban players from making a break for it.

If the embargo lifts, as appears to be a possibility during the Obama administration, major league general managers will be ready to fill their rosters. One anonymous G.M. told the New York Times in 2007 that the league would never allow teams to treat a post-embargo Cuba like a split piñata; instead of mass free agency, a draft or some other "orderly system" might be more likely. (Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney noted that the league takes "direction from the State Department regarding Cuba" but doesn't comment on hypothetical scenarios.)

But given the sheer volume of players already making their exit—be it via hotel lobby or high-speed boat—biding time on a Castro deathwatch doesn't seem necessary anymore. While White Sox fans may sneer at the ever-increasing girth of Dayan Viciedo and his lack of stateside achievement, baseball fans may owe him a debt of gratitude. He could be the man who finally lets the rest of the world see the extent of Cuba's baseball potential.

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Dan Morrell is a writer living in Boston.

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