Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, one of the most prominent and controversial leaders of the past century, died last Friday at the age of 90. For all the things Castro believed in that stood in opposition to the U.S., there was always one glaring irony — Castro loved our national pastime: baseball.
The Cuban leader was a frequent attendee of games around Cuba and adored playing baseball as well. There are many photos of Castro in full baseball uniform, elated to be on the diamond. As The New York Times noted in their obituary for Castro Friday, only five days after the leader rose to power in 1959, he played a game with his fellow revolutionaries. The team was named Los Barbudos — the Bearded Ones — after Castro’s guerrilla army. His admiration for the game was so strong that many believed an urban legend that Castro once tried out for the New York Yankees in Havana. Although scholars debunked this tale, it embodies the legend of Castro in baseball.
Despite his love and promotion of baseball, Castro’s influence in the sport mirrored some of his oppressive political tactics, outlawing professional sports in Cuba the same year that the country severed diplomatic ties with the United States in 1961. As a result, the Havana Sugar Kings, a class AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and a team beloved by Castro, was forced to relocate back to the United States.
While both countries were at fault for the rift, Castro’s ban on professional sports had a profoundly negative effect on baseball players in Cuba. Castro barred citizens from leaving Cuba and made it nearly impossible for players to skirt around that rule. Throughout Castro’s time in power, countless Cuban baseball players were denied the opportunity to play baseball at the highest level in the United States. Those who remained only made the equivalent of $125 a month, on average, according to Newsweek.
Consequently, countless players defected to the United States to pursue careers in professional baseball. Some have been successful and gone on to be stars in Major League Baseball, such as Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman. But all who made the arduous trip faced life-threatening adversity. Players traveled in makeshift boats and landed deals with “agents,” who facilitated their voyages across the ocean. Many were forced to leave their family and loved ones behind.
Some of the adversity facing the Cuban players is not Castro’s fault. Until this year, Major League Baseball, under U.S. regulation, did not allow teams to sign Cuban baseball players directly. Instead, players were forced to defect and achieve residency in another country such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic before they could sign with a team. This often put them in extreme danger. For instance, Puig, now an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, tried to defect several times. On his fifth try, he was apprehended by a Mexican cartel. Puig was only able to escape after a Miami businessman, who later demanded 20 percent of Puig’s future pay, paid for his release.
Once Cuban players made it to the Major Leagues, Castro’s negative influence continued. Cuban players’ transition from the sandlots of Cuba to the bright lights of Major League stadiums is often difficult because of the sharp contrast between Cuba’s strict speech and dissent laws and those of the United States. Puig and Cespedes have both gotten into trouble for their antics on and off the field. This past season, the Dodgers and their players became so fed up with Puig’s behavior — and his lackluster performance — they sent him down to the Minor leagues.
Now that Castro has passed away, there is hope that one day Cuban baseball players can freely sign with Major League teams without risking their lives and breaking Cuban law. But until then, his harmful influence in baseball will continue.
“I was born in Cuba and Fidel Castro was our leader,” Jose Canseco, a former Major League Baseball player and Cuban defector said in a tweet following Castro’s death. “Came to U.S.A. because of him. Can’t say I feel anything for his death. There is a reason many defected to U.S.A.”