Major League Baseball returned to Cuban television for the first time since 1961 Sunday, but under odd circumstances. Instead of a live broadcast, Cuban authorities showed a game from two months ago between the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves. Neither team features any of the 18 Cubans who have appeared on active Major League rosters this season, though Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez was born in La Habana before his family defected to Miami when he was a child.
As a result, the Baseball International broadcast, which has featured games from South Korea, Japan, and other professional leagues in the past, the game didn’t garner much attention in the baseball-crazed country. “It’s interesting to see how they play, but I can’t say it thrilled me all that much because I don’t know any of the players,” one Cuban told the Associated Press. “I would really like to see the Cubans, see how they are developing in that league, really see how well they are doing.”
That’s understandable, considering that the most exciting young player in baseball today, the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, is Cuban, and that Cubans have a rich history in Major League Baseball. 175 Cuban-born players have reached the majors, according to Baseball Reference, including 97 since the Cuban revolution ended in 1958 and 86 since 1961, the first season that began after the United States embargo began. There have been more than 30 Cuban defectors who debuted in the league since 1990, and that pace appears to be quickening — two-thirds of the total has debuted since 2000.
Most of them, including Puig and Chicago White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, are street-level superheroes in their home country. News of their success, both on the field and financially, spreads by word of mouth, since the government-owned media outlets quit covering them once they leave. They are, in nearly every circumstance, banished from the island, meaning their defection requires a willingness to leave families and even children behind. As Yahoo’s Jeff Passan detailed today, Puig lost count of the number of times he defected unsuccessfully, risking prison each time he was returned (Cuba banned him from baseball after one failed attempt). He ultimately made it to Mexico under unknown circumstances that he won’t talk about. Other players, like former Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez, covered the 90 miles from Cuba to Florida on makeshift rafts. Many of those hardships don’t lead to Major League opportunities, but when they do, they can be lucrative: Puig signed for $42 million in 2012, the same year the Oakland A’s gave Yoenis Cespedes $36 million.
It’s no surprise given that money that the game Cuba chose to broadcast didn’t glorify those players. Still, it is another sign of the slow liberalization of baseball that has taken place in Cuba in recent years. Cuba recently allowed three players to play professionally in the Mexican league, though it is rumored that the government garnishes large portions of the wages they earn for doing so. It also, as the AP noted, welcomed defectors like Jose Contreras and Rey Ordonez back to the island last year, and it will play in the Caribbean Series for the first time in 50 years this fall. It also has exhibitions scheduled in Miami and Tampa once the MLB season ends.
Part of that liberalization has resulted from decreasing opportunities for the Cuban national team, since the Olympics announced that it will no longer include baseball and the Baseball World Cup folded in 2011. Absent the World Baseball Classic, the team just doesn’t have many opportunities to play against top competition. But bringing a broadcast, even if an old one, back to the island would seem an ever bigger step, one that likely intrigues a league that hasn’t been shy about its desire for Cuban talent. It’ll be interesting to see if this was a one-time occurrence or if Cuba makes an actual effort to broadcast more MLB games (a move that would likely attract the attention of MLB officials, since it’s unlikely Cuba obtained rights to air the game), or if MLB and the players like Puig who’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to escape the island will remain largely ignored by one of the most baseball-crazed countries on earth.