10/01/13 - The Economist (blog) - Sports in Cuba
THERE is a good story one sometimes hears recounted in the bars of Havana
or Miami that Fidel Castro once auditioned for the New York Yankees. He
was apparently so despondent not to be selected that he decided to take
revenge by spending the rest of his life haranguing the United States.
Sadly, the tale is apocryphal. While a keen player, Cubas former
president was not good enough at baseball to secure a tryouthe didnt
even make the University of Havanas varsity team. But what is true is
that ever since his alternative career path led him to the pinnacle of
power in Cuba, he has stamped his beliefs on precisely how the game, and
indeed all sports, should be played there.
For more than half a century, rule number one has been that athletes
should compete for love of the sport and their country, not for money.
There have been some exceptions made over the years, and prized sportsmen
have received perks such as hard-currency bonuses and free houses and
cars. But those were always gifts from the state, not earnings by the
players. Officially their salary was the same as everyone elses: a paltry
$20 a month.
Ever since Mr Castro handed the reins to his younger brother Raúl in 2006,
the government has undertaken a halting, cautious liberalisation
programme. First the authorities began allowing self-employment in
carefully selected professions; then they approved the sale of homes
and cars and relaxed rules on foreign travel. Now reform is coming to
sports. In June Cuba agreed to return to the Caribbean Series, an
annual tournament of club teams in the region that it quit in 1960. Then,
on September 27th the islands daily newspaper, Granma, announced perhaps
the most symbolically resonant reform yet: Cuban athletes in all sports
will now be allowed to compete in foreign leagues, as long as they pay
taxes of around 20% at home and remain available to play for their country
in major competitions.
No matter how much the government wanted to maintain ideological purity in
sports, its hand was forced by a wave of defections that has ravaged
baseball on the island. From 1966 to 1993, not a single player who grew up
in Cuba went on to have a significant career in Americas Major League
Baseball (MLB). And many of those who did jump ship in the 1990s and 2000s
failed to meet expectations. But in recent years the pace of defections
has risen sharply: 21 Cubans are now on major league rosters. By
authorising athletes to ply their trade abroad during the local leagues
off-season, the government hopes both to raise much-needed hard currency
from taxing their salaries and to reduce the number of players who choose
to leave for good.
The news immediately had American teams salivating over the prospects that
might conceivably become available to them. The latest crop of Cuban
exports has enjoyed extraordinary success. Aroldis Chapman, who
received $30m from the Cincinnati Reds after slipping out of the national
teams hotel in the Netherlands, now owns the record for the fastest pitch
ever thrown at 105 miles (170 km) per hour. Duly nicknamed the Cuban
Missile, he led all relievers in strikeouts this season. Yoenis
Céspedes rewarded the Oakland Athletics for his $36m deal by leading them
to an unexpected playoff appearance last year and winning the Home Run
Derby at the leagues annual All-Star Game this July. After paying $42m to
the 22-year-old Yasiel Puig, the Los Angeles Dodgers handed a starting
outfield job to the youngster in June, and he promptly hit as well as
anyone in the National League during the past four months. Perhaps the
most impressive of all is José Fernández, a 20-year-old who had to
fish his mother out of the water while escaping Cuba on a boat to Mexico.
His earned run average this year was 44% better than the league average,
the best ratio for a rookie pitcher since 1911. Moreover, the best may
still be yet to come. Just this August José Dariel Abreu (pictured),
who has put up statistics in the Cuban league previously seen only in
video games and is universally regarded as the countrys finest hitter,
established residence in Haiti and announced his availability.
Unfortunately for MLB, however, the new policy will have only a minimal
impact on the leagues access to Cuban stars. For that American teams have
their own politicians to blame. The United States trade embargo bans any
transaction that would fund the Castros government. As a result, the
requirement that Cuban athletes playing abroad pay local taxes on their
income would prevent MLB clubs from signing players who plan to comply.
Only outright defectors would be cleared to suit up.
Americas loss is likely to be other baseball-playing countries gain.
Because the Cuban season runs from November to April, local authorities
will probably be reluctant to let elite players jump to rival Caribbean
winter leagues. But Mexico has a summer league as well, and salaries in
Japan regularly reach seven figures. As Nippon Professional Baseball
reels from the loss of its own stars, most notably the Japanese-Iranian
pitcher Yu Darvish, its teams have compensated by attracting popular
foreigners: Wladimir Balentien of Curaçao, who failed to make an
impact in MLB, just broke the leagues single-season home-run record. Cuba
probably has scores of players whose abilities far exceed Mr Balentiens.
Signing them could represent a marketing bonanza for Japanese clubs, who
very rarely get the chance to sign MLB-caliber hitters.
For now, the embargo against Cuba remains a sacred cow in Washington. As a
presidential candidate, Barack Obama called for an end to the policy,
and since taking office he has loosened restrictions on travel and
remittances to the island. Nonetheless, he has steadfastly renewed it year
after year, and has vowed to continue doing so until the country
liberalises politically as well as economically. The embargos durability
is usually attributed to the influence of the conservative Cuban-American
organisations that defend it. If enough Yasiel Puigs and José Fernándezes
wind up playing in Japan, well-heeled MLB teams would be well-advised to
start lobbying for the other side.
Original Source / Fuente Original:
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