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Baseball Duel: Cuba vs. USA: Cuba takes on USA in Baseball World Cup with MLB experts

Baseball Duel: Cuba vs. USA: Cuba takes on USA in Baseball World Cup with MLB experts

Yoan Moncada (right) came on late against U.S. catcher Will Smith in Miami, but hopes to play more often for Cuba in the future.

Photo: imago/Sam Navarro

The great party fell — and twice more. After Cuba’s national baseball team made a surprising splash in the unofficial world championship, the World Baseball Classic (WBC), public viewings were planned across Cuba for Sunday evening’s semifinal against the United States. However, in Havana and the entire western part of the island, it rained non-stop since the afternoon. And in the game itself, the all-star USA team clearly defeated Cuba 14:2.

In the fifth edition of the tournament, which has been held since 2006, the two baseball-crazy nations have met – and of all places in Miami, with the large Cuban community abroad. As expected, there were protests against the Cuban government before and after the game, albeit from a relatively small group.

In Cuba, on the other hand, it feels like the whole country is rallying behind the team and cheering on television sets. It’s been a long time since a baseball game electrified the nation. “These days people don’t talk about queues, they don’t talk about (bad) local traffic anymore, they don’t talk about power outages, but about baseball,” he wrote on state online portal Cubadebot, speaking of “balm for the soul”.

In fact, the economic crisis was not forgotten for a moment, but so was the game. After years of failure, the team’s resurgence has reignited the interest of millions of fans. The start of the domestic league was pushed back a week, with President Miguel Díaz-Canel constantly tweeting his support and musicians from the island composing a song specifically for the national team.

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However, the real meaning is sports-politics: for the first time, Cuba’s baseball association has changed its practice and appointed active professionals from the North American professional league Major League Baseball (MLB) to the team of an international tournament. Two Chicago White Sox players, Luis Robert Jr. and Yoon Moncada, as well as some minor leaguers and Cuban professionals play abroad with government permission. Only eight of the 30 nominees are active in the domestic league.

Recruiting active duty soldiers in the US is almost impossible due to decades of US embargo policy. To be hired by a local club, Cubans must take up residence in a third country and cut all ties with Cuba. In 2019, Donald Trump terminated an agreement between the Cuban Association and MLB that would have allowed players to play legally in the United States. After some back and forth, the new US government gave Cuba’s association special permission to call up players from their own professional leagues for the WBC.

The now long list of possible internationals soon became shorter. From the beginning, Cuba’s federation declared that no “absentee” would be invited during international competition. And, according to association president Juan Reynaldo Perez, only players who “maintain a positive attitude toward our baseball and our country” should be selected. In other words, soldiers who did not publicly criticize the Cuban government. Yoan Moncada, for example, was granted permission to leave the country in 2014; Louis Robert left the island illegally in 2016, but not during a match. Both maintained their political views.

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However, others refused to play for Cuba, including seven-time All-Star and 2016 MLB champion Aroldis Chapman and Aledmis Diaz, who said they would only play for Cuba “when everyone is allowed to.” In his opinion, that will only happen when baseball is no longer politicized.

Cuba’s association for the first time created a joint group of professionals active in the United States and Cuba, which optimists see as a sign of a possible shift in the country’s relations with those former comrades who left the island. Even the party newspaper “Granma” called for the jersey to be worn on behalf of “the residents of the island and Miami” before the semi-finals. The Cuban group “and the way it represented all Cubans around the world is a call to rethink this relationship.” Sounds you’ve never heard before.

Yoan Moncada spoke of his dream of playing for Cuba and “one of the best experiences of my life.” He was very optimistic that this was the first step towards Cuban MLB players representing their country in the future. And then the defeat against America will not be the end, but the starting point for a reconciliation between the island and its diaspora that can go beyond sports.