“I’d rather play for 11 million Cubans than $11 million.” – Omar Linares
At least 100 Cuban baseball players have defected this year. The actual number is unknown because more and more leave every day. They sneak out in the middle of the night, ferried along by men they’ve never met, into a boat they’ve never seen, onto a destination they’ve never known. They leave behind wives and children, mothers and fathers, house and homeland, because the blaring siren of what can be in America finally overwhelms the reality of what is in Cuba.
Against the starkness of that truth – the scent of capitalism wafting 200 miles from Miami to Havana and proving irresistible for so many – stands Omar Linares, the greatest baseball player you’ve never heard of. He is a son of the Cuban Revolution, born a generation after Fidel Castro first sought power, reared during the height of Castro’s reign, lionized not just because of his aptitude at third base but because of his loyalty. More than a million people have fleed Castro’s Cuba. Linares is not one of them.
As the one-year anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States approaches, the success of modern Cuban players allows the baseball world to lament those like the 48-year-old Linares, whose greatness exists only in grainy YouTube videos and the minds of the scant few lucky enough to have seen him play in person. He stayed in Cuba, as did Victor Mesa and Orestes Kindelan and Antonio Munoz and Javier Mendez and almost all the heroes in the first 30 years of post-Castro Cuban baseball. They were propagandized, their success co-opted into an endorsement for the power of the Revolution. Championship after international championship, medal after Olympic medal, Cuba’s baseball team served as a beacon. Baseball wasn’t just Cuba’s sport; it was its weapon against those who doubted what the Revolution could achieve.
Publicly, players like Linares lauded Cuba’s commitment as the reason behind the team’s success, and the baseball world viewed him as an almost-mythical creature: the man so pure and incorruptible that the money running the modern game couldn’t divorce him from his country. And though in some respects this applies, the actuality – like everything with Cuba – is far more complicated.
Greatness in sport, if anything, increased the scrutiny and responsibility on baseball players, to the point where fear strangled the thought of leaving. The dread of harm being done to the family of the traitorous was palpable. The punishment for failed defections ranged from bad to worse. The sense of abandoning Cuba tortured consciences raised in a society built on systemic mistrust.
And yet it happened, starting on the Fourth of July in 1991, when a Cuban national team pitcher named Rene Arocha hatched a plan to defect during a tournament in Miami. Six days later, he did, leaving in Cuba a wife and a daughter and a sick grandfather. Rey Ordonez followed in 1993 and Livan Hernandez two years after that and his half-brother Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez two years later. It was a trickle, a fraction of the greatness on the island. It was also a reflection of the time that changed Cuba forever.
When Omar Linares grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, Cuba was a stable country. The Soviet Union essentially bankrolled it, buying its sugar at inflated prices and selling it cheap oil. The subsidies lessened starting in 1988, and by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Cuba faced a crisis that led to famine. The Special Period in Time of Peace – a euphemism preposterous even by Cuban standards – stretched for years, and its effects colored the lives of the generation after Linares.
Cuba’s isolation from the United States didn’t disconnect it from the rest of the world, and the difference between Cuba after the Special Period and what life in the U.S. could be like was compelling. Jose Contreras, one of the best pitchers in Cuban history and an outspoken Castro loyalist, left in 2002. He later said his support of the Revolution was a defense against reprimand.
The handle finally turned on the drip-drip-drip of players in 2009, when Aroldis Chapman left the national team in the Netherlands. He was the hardest-throwing pitcher in the world, a 21-year-old left-hander and a child of the Internet, which finally had wormed into Cuba. For all the restrictions the country put on web access, it couldn’t stem the flow of information entirely. The country in which Linares and Mesa and Kindelan and Munoz and Mendez grew up no longer existed, and Cubans now could see life outside of their bubble.
Seventeen players who have defected since Chapman have played in the major leagues, including stars Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu. Another, Yoan Moncada, is among the best prospects in all of baseball. And every day comes another name, another bonanza. The Los Angeles Dodgers on Nov. 22 gave $15.5 million to 19-year-old outfielder Yusniel Diaz and $6 million to 17-year-old second baseman Omar Estevez. Because they’ve exceeded spending limitations, the Dodgers pay a dollar-for-dollar tax on every international signing. Which means for the rights to two Cuban teenagers, they forked over $43 million less than five months after shelling out $32 million in signing bonus and tax for another teenager, right-handed pitcher Yadier Alvarez.
Dozens more names, younger and younger, muddy the minds of executives with cash burning holes in their pockets. There is Lazaro Armenteros, known simply as Lazarito, a 16-year-old whose body already looks like a big leaguer’s and whose talent screams of one sooner than later. He’ll be a millionaire many times over before he can drive.
Another 16-year-old named Miguel Vargas recently defected with his father. Lazaro Vargas is no ordinary Cuban. He spent 22 years with the Industriales, Havana’s team in the Serie Nacional, the Cuban league. He later managed the Industriales. He won two Olympic gold medals. He once was featured on a 15-centavo stamp in Cuba. He’s a hero in Cuba, part of the gilded generation with Linares, and the bounds of his loyalty stretched only as far as his son’s future allowed them.
A lowercase “r” Cuban revolution is happening in baseball now, a happy bit of timing that rewarded a generation of Internet-influenced kids because the game placed spending restrictions on amateur talent and needed a new place to lavish its money. The world changed. Priorities evolved. A few Cuban ballplayers summoning up the courage to leave begat more than 100. Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to those who used to make $25 a month. And whereas the defectors were once the outliers, now those who stay are the aberrations.
Yulieski Gourriel is 31 years old and the best player left in Cuba. Friends of his swear he was offered $50 million in an elevator to defect at the first World Baseball Classic in 2006. He instead plays third base for the Industriales, his biggest perk a silver Lada sedan from Russia, his wages ostensibly same as everyone else. Earlier this year, Gourriel told Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff that he is waiting for permission from the Cuban government to play in the major leagues. A source close to the Gourriel family told Yahoo Sports: “He wants to do it legally.” Lourdes Gourriel, the family’s patriarch, was a longtime Serie Nacional star and friendly with Castro. Lourdes Gourriel Jr., also known as Yunito, is a 22-year-old shortstop who might attract even more interest than big brother Yulieski
For the Gourriels and the Mesas – Victor Mesa’s son, known as Victor Victor, has major league talent – and other families, the tug of home is strong enough still to keep them on the island. Because even as Cuba struggles to understand its identity today and into the future, the familiar comforts those who stayed enough to make them consider the future and how soon they might be able to leave and return.
Over the last two years, Frederich Cepeda, a switch-hitting outfielder and one of the last stars who hasn’t defected, spent part of the summer with the Yomiuri Giants in Japan, where the Cuban government occasionally allows players to ply their trade. Both years, he has been teammates with Leslie Anderson, a first baseman who defected in 2009. At the end of both seasons, Cepeda returned to Cuba. Anderson didn’t.
And that, friends of Cepeda said, resonated with him, the idea that home is still home and not a land on which he turned his back to chase greater competition or material things or whatever motivates a man to sneak out and hop a boat and put his lives in the hands of the gangsters who smuggle people out of Cuba. This isn’t romantic, necessarily, because little about Cuba is, and this isn’t foolish, either, because free will – or at least what passes for it in Cuba – is incontrovertible.
This is just life in the dying breaths of the embargo. When it ends, and when the Revolution cedes to the inevitability of modernity, these choices will be far more straightforward, much easier for those lucky enough to get to make them. Until then, it is the epistemological debate of the Cuban baseball experience: To go or not to go, that is the question. And it has no right answer.