The stakes must be pretty high for the Miami Marlins to fly manager Ozzie Guillen back from the road Tuesday to make amends for his appalling praise of Fidel Castro.
But we may not know the half of it.
Of course Miami is heavily populated by Cuban-Americans, with nearly half the U.S. population of Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade County. But there's another pool of potential baseball fans – and players – that needs to be considered here.
The Cubans themselves.
That's because it's quite possible that in the lifetime of the new Marlins Park, relations between the U.S. and Cuba will normalize, opening the gates for baseball players and fans to freely travel from Havana to Florida and points north.
Think it's speculative silliness? Don't be so sure. Only a year ago, the White House took "a series of steps to continue efforts to reach out to the Cuban people in support of their desire to freely determine their country's future," steps that included the modification of regulations on "purposeful travel." As ForeignPolicy.com declared, "Whether the Castros admit it or not, Cuba is moving in a direction that fulfills U.S. hopes for a more market-oriented, open society on the island."
Normalization would not be an easy transition by any means – Castro's brother, Raul, is entrenched in power – but it's a process that might pick up steam after Fidel, now 85, dies. And it surely would affect everything in Miami.
"It's gonna happen sooner than later," says historian Rob Ruck of the University of Pittsburgh, who wrote "Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game." "There has been a liberalization of the dynamics between Cuba and Cuban-Americans in Florida that has reached a tipping point. And what happens when Cuban ballplayers can come into the U.S. without having to go into exile? That's going to happen, too."
So the Marlins might not only be protecting the fan base (and talent base) they see every day but also untold future followers who have no idea what Ozzie Guillen said in Time magazine about the Cuban revolutionary leader.
The Marlins declined to comment for this story, but it's clear by the strong rebuke of their new manager that they realize the value of the Cuban-American community. Over the offseason, team president David Samson made a run at the "Cuban Missile," rookie slugger Yoenis Cespedes, vowing to be "aggressive right to the point of stupidity." Oakland signed Cespedes, but the impact of having a Cuban émigré on the roster is going to be hard to overstate if and when the gateway to the south opens up. Ruck imagines someone like Cespedes as a "Hank Greenberg/Sandy Koufax in a city of Jews."
Are there more like Cespedes just waiting to be discovered? Hard to tell. The talent pool has been closed off since Castro took power in 1961 and made professional baseball illegal. A few stars have escaped – most prominently Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and his half-brother Livan, who both pitched for teams that won World Series – but nearly all the Cuban refugees we've seen in the majors arrived toward the end of their careers. The rare younger defectors, including Cespedes, the Los Angeles Angels' Kendrys Morales, and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who famously threw the fastest pitch in recorded MLB history at 105 mph, were overpowering almost as soon as they put on an MLB uniform. No, not all Cuban players made an impact – and as Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan wrote in 2010, the politics and bureaucracy involved in bringing Cuban players to MLB already is numbing – but with a nation that's bigger in size and population than the Dominican Republic, the Marlins can't afford to create the impression of a hostile environment.
2008 piece for Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis wrote, "There may be no entrapped pool of human talent left on earth with the dollar value of Cuban baseball players." Lewis quotes a scout who says compared to the heralded Dominicans, "The Cubans are better." That's a bold statement, considering it's hard to find too many top teams in the big leagues without a Dominican star. But Lewis has some evidence:
"Back in the old days, before Cuba was closed for business, it supplied more players to the major leagues than all the other Latin-American countries combined. In 1961, Cuba entered its first post-revolutionary baseball teams in international competitions and proceeded to beat the hell out of everyone, including the Dominicans. For a 10-year stretch, starting in 1987, the Cubans were 129–0 in major international competitions."
Yes, the fall of the Soviet Empire (Cuba's main trading partner) brought severe poverty and isolation to the island. But the tradition is firmly entrenched. "Beside politics," said Arturo Mercano Guevara, an expert on baseball in Latin America, "the only thing [the Cubans] talk about is baseball. The stadiums were packed completely."
The adoration for the sport goes all the way back to the mid-1800s, and arguably has grown over the Castro years, as bullfighting and boxing faded somewhat. (The Dodgers once trained in Havana.) So it's hard to believe a détente with Cuba wouldn't have a ripple effect on MLB – specifically, the Marlins.
Granted, the development of the Cuban middle class will take many years, but in the middle of the last century, Cubans came to Miami for weekend shopping trips. If fans fly from Tokyo to see Ichiro, they'll fly a half-hour to see the Marlins – especially if one or a few of their own are playing.
"If the [Castro] regime collapses and a new kind of government takes over, which is what we all would want, of course it would have an impact," said Roberto Gonzalez-Echeverida, a Yale professor who wrote a book about baseball in Cuba. "I think Miami and Havana would become the ends of a bridge, connecting the two cities."
Gonzalez-Echeverida thinks the Marlins have work to do. "The Marlins are not reaching out to the Hispanic community," he told Yahoo! Sports well before this latest fiasco. The acquisition of Dominican star Jose Reyes and the continued presence of Hanley Ramirez surely helps, but Guillen's comments likely undid a lot of that – especially in the Cuban-American community.
And that community, though already booming, may be only a hint of what's to come.
"These forces [of modernization] are pretty darn strong," Ruck said. "I don't think it benefits anybody to maintain these barriers. Cuba is no threat to the United States. It's an anachronism."
So it behooves fans and onlookers alike to keep that in mind as the Guillen saga unfolds. If and when the "anachronism" is righted, the meaning of baseball in Miami might change at warp speed.
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