Bjarkman: Cartels, gangsters, and their Cuban superstars

From SABR member Peter C. Bjarkman at The Daily Beast on April 18, 2014:

Flashy, super-talented, and more than just a little mysterious, the latest wave of Cuban League refugees have become just about the hottest story on the big-league baseball scene in recent seasons. These high-profile “defectors” from Castro’s “evil empire” hold a special charm for so many flag-waving Americans if only because they have reportedly endured multiple hazards in their heroic struggle to find personal freedom and garner the untold riches offered by a showcase capitalist enterprise that doubles as America’s cherished national pastime.

A few years back, flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman, a wiry slingshot southpaw pioneered in Cincinnati with a record-busting $30 million contract and an unprecedented 105-mph fastball that sent radar guns into meltdown mode, shocked fans and sportswriters alike, and left most National League hitters immediately impotent. Next came slugging outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, busting down fences with his titanic home-run blasts in Oakland, to be quickly followed last summer by the even more impressive Yasiel Puig, who swept into the headlines with both on-field exploits and off-field antics perfect for media-rich Los Angeles. Puig almost single-handedly rescued the Dodgers’ sagging fortunes and led them to an abbreviated postseason run. This month, the new media darling was massive first baseman José Abreu (Puig’s former teammate in Cuba), whose rags-to-riches saga includes a stunning six-year $85 million deal from Chicago’s White Sox. In the new season’s opening three weeks alone, Abreu has already convinced doubters that he is indeed a legitimate candidate for this summer’s top rookie honors.

But there is an ugly underbelly to this otherwise charming story and it is not exactly a new wrinkle either. By the early ‘90s, Cuban players were beginning to “defect” in mere trickles from a Cuban system that for many decades had produced dominant squads on the international amateur baseball tournament scene, yet didn’t allow its loftiest stars to abandon the homeland for the free-agent riches offered by North American professional leagues. Early escapees from the island nation’s hidden communist baseball scene were promptly and perhaps inaccurately labeled by a North American press as “defectors” because they could only reach U.S. shores and thus big-league ballparks by sneaking off under the most mysterious circumstances, abandoning the system and government that had nurtured and trained them, and tossing away any immediate hopes of revisiting families, friends, and possessions left behind on native soil.

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Originally published: April 18, 2014. Last Updated: April 18, 2014.