On Cuban baseball – interview with Peter Bjarkman

After all, why should the Cubans allow their baseball talent pool to become a bargain basement fire sale for the sole benefit of greedy big league clubs? – Peter Bjarkman

BACK AT THE Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico earlier this year, I had the good fortune to meet Peter Bjarkman, author of several books on the international side of baseball, including the recently published A History of Cuban Baseball: 1864-2006, Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball, and Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball. After spending a few days with Mr. Bjarkman in the Caribbean Series Press Box (and serving as unofficial chauffeur to him and Baseball America’s Chris Kline for a few days), it became clear that he was a man with amazing stories to tell and a wide breadth of knowledge about the game of baseball in the one place I am forbidden from traveling to in my year of study: Cuba. Seizing this opportunity, I pestered Mr. Bjarkman with questions about Cuban baseball all week long, and got him to agree to do a Q&A that I could put up on Global Baseball, which I’ve included below. I encourage anyone reading this to visit his website, http://www.bjarkman.com, and buy any/all of his books. You won’t be sorry. –  Jonathan Helfgott, Global Baseball blog

* * *

GB – How did you develop your interest in Cuban baseball, and how do you get away with your several trips to Cuba each year?

Peter Bjarkman and Frederich Cepeda

BJARKMAN – I have always been enthusiastic about baseball and I first developed an interest in Latin America while working in Ecuador and Colombia (as director of bi-national U.S. Dependents schools in the early 1970s) and again later while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Florida in Spanish linguistics. When I turned to writing about baseball history fulltime (after I gave up my academic career in 1987), the two interests naturally merged. I published my first book on the topic in 1994 (BASEBALL WITH A LATIN BEAT, McFarland). Later, photo researcher Mark Rucker approached me (in 1995) about doing a coffee table picture book about Cuban baseball (this was published as SMOKE: THE ROMANCE AND LORE OF CUBAN BASEBALL, 1999) and that is where the Cuban adventure began. I rapidly fell in love with the island, its people and its baseball (which in 1996 was a most pleasant change from the owner-player financial battles then plaguing the majors) and have been making 3-5 trips a year to Cuba since 1997. I travel legally with Treasury Department (OFAC) license as a researcher, and therefore most of my trips to Havana originate from Miami (on sanctioned charter flights), though I sometimes travel the Cancún route simply for convenience sake. In the Introduction to A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, I write extensively about [the] background of my travels in Cuba, for those who want further details.

GB – What are the biggest differences between the way baseball is organized in Cuba and the rest of the world?

BJARKMAN – I have just written an entire chapter on this topic for my new McFarland book, and Milton Jamail also provides some useful information on the differences in his earlier volume FULL COUNT: INSIDE CUBAN BASEBALL (1999). The differences are major and boil down to both organizational structure and also physical appearances. Cuban League games are mostly (Havana is the exception) played in small stadiums of 15,000-20,000 capacity, on natural grass, and with no video screens or other intrusive electronics. There is no “entertainment” in the ballpark outside of the baseball game itself, and the experience is very much akin to attending a minor league game in the States back in the 1940s. The one oversized park is Estadio Latinoamericano (earlier called Cerro Stadium) in Havana, but it was built in 1946 and is a 55,000-seat throwback to old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, without the upper deck. For the flavour of Cuban baseball, by the way, there are some excellent video clips available on the Cuban League website (http://www.BaseballdeCuba.com).

More importantly, however, is the league organizational structure. There are 16 teams (one in each provincial capital and two more in the city of Havana), but these are not capitalist franchises with private owners. INDER (the government sports ministry) owns and operates the entire league. Players are professional (i.e., they are paid and they devote full-time to their baseball careers) but they are not free agents. Players perform only for their hometown provincial team and thus there is no trading of players. (A Cuban player stays with one club his whole career. There are some exceptions, since players in Havana are sometimes shifted from the unpopular Metros team to the fan-favoured Industriales club, but there are no trades as we know them, or free agent movements.) Therefore the rivalries are intense during to 90-game National Series (which runs from November through April) and playoffs (which follow in May).

One additional (and not insignificant) uniqueness about the Cuban League is that no players are imported or even allowed from outside this country. Cuban has the only truly “national league” in existence. Thus the National Series is in reality a long audition period for that particular year’s crack Cuban national team (which will perform in international tournaments such as the Olympics or World Cup during the late summer months).

GB – On the off chance we ever get to legally enter the country while the current Cuban baseball system is still in place, what’s the best place in Cuba to catch a game?

Industriales v Habana. Photo by Jesse Elise, flickr.com

BJARKMAN – In any of the league cities or stadiums. My own personal favorites are Latinoamericano in Havana (because of its historical ambiance) and the quaint parks in Pinar del Río (where Linares, Pedro Lazo and Contreras all played), and also Cienfuegos (where the ballpark sits right along on the shoreline, across the street from the beach). I have visited all the Cuban stadiums and feel at home in any of them. (My favourite team, by the way, is Sanctí Spiritus, largely because my favourite current ballplayers are there (Gourriel and Frederich Cepeda). The greatest crowd atmosphere, however, is in Havana, when the popular Havana Industriales perform (they are Cuba’s equivalent of the NY Yankees or Tokyo Giants). In short, the answer is anywhere where there is a league game. The atmosphere is electric in all Cuban ballparks. (The reader can go to the chapter on the current post-revolution Cuban League in A HISTORY OF CUBAN BASEBALL, for lists and even photos of the various stadiums and league teams.)

GB – The World Baseball Classic gave American fans an unprecedented opportunity to watch the best players in Cuba against legitimate major league competition. In particular, American fans were exposed to star second baseman Yulieski Gourriel for the first time, and immediately began speculating about what kind of player Gourriel would become should he decide to defect. Is Gourriel the best player in the Cuban league, or is he just the best young player who would have a chance at a long major league career should he choose to defect in the next couple of years?

BJARKMAN – Gourriel is neither the best player in the country, nor the best young prospect with a chance at a major league career (although he is close on both counts). My own vote for best all-around player (and also best possible big leaguer) would go to either outfielder Frederich Cepeda (Gourriel’s teammate in Sanctí Spiritus) or veteran catcher Ariel Pestano (Villa Clara). And there are some top young prospects coming along like outfielder Yoandry Urgellés (lots of power and foot speed) and slugging first baseman Alex Mayeta, both with Havana Industriales. The best young long-term prospects are probably a pair of talented pitchers named Yadel Martí and Frank Montieth (Mon-tee-yeh), also both with Havana Industriales. I discuss some of these choices below.

Gourriel is a fine prospect, but he is something of a free-swinger and undisciplined hitter. He has great power (excellent bat speed) but WBC rivals in Puerto Rico were fooling him quite regularly after only a week last March. Gourriel (whose father is his manager and was also a big star in the 1980s) is solid defensively in the infield at third or second (even at shortstop), but would need to mature a year or two in the high minors as a hitter. Gourriel received a lot of hype before the WBC, some of it because of articles I myself wrote for the BEISBOL MUNDIAL monthly publication in New York. He is a top talent, but not necessarily the best talent or most clear cut in Cuba.

GB – Obviously, Cuban media outlets are forbidden from signing contracts that would allow them to cover major league games. To what extent, if at all, are Cubans able to follow Major League baseball?

BJARKMAN – There is a great Cuban joke which says that what a Cuban needs to survive in Havana these days is simply “fe” (the Spanish word for “faith”). In this case FE means “familia extranjera” (family members in Miami). The Cubans are quite well informed about the majors and STREET & SMITH magazines are trucked to Havana on a regular basis. (I was surprised to see how many Cubans acquired copies of my book SMOKE, brought to them by Miami relatives.) Also, although the majors were a taboo subject in Cuba until recently, the subject is now increasingly mentioned in the Cuban press in the wake of the WBC. One Havana newspaper even occasionally prints big league scores. But most of the info comes through the underground, and it is an extensive underground. I regularly take American baseball magazines to Cuban friends who devour them and treasure them like gold.

GB – Name five players you’ve seen in the Cuban League who could immediately succeed in the major leagues if they were to defect.

BJARKMAN – There are many more than five. The league as a whole is Double AA level perhaps, but most members of the 25-man national team roster each year are major leaguers in talent and in preparation. To choose five is not easy, but my choices would likely be the following (with the strong caveat that you can never tell what emotional and psychological adjustments a “defector” will be able to make):

  1. Ariel Pestano (catcher for Villa Clara). As viewers saw in the WBC, Pestano is a definite big leaguer defensively, though now in his early 30s and therefore on the downside of his career. He has been the national team starter since 1999 and was both the batting champ and MVP of the Athens Olympics. Pestano is a clutch hitter, has a great arm, is a proven team leader, and handles pitchers beautifully.
  2. Frederich Cepeda (left fielder for Sanctí Spiritus). This is the guy whose late-inning homer almost brought the Cubans back against Japan in the WBC finals. A powerful switch-hitter with great discipline at the plate (he owns the third best career on-base percentage in the 45-year history of the Cuban League). Cepeda is the closest thing to a legitimate five-tool player on the island and likely the best all-around player in Cuba today. In his early 30s, he hit the longest homer I have every seen in Latinoamericano Stadium (during last summer’s Olympic trials tournament).
  3. Pedro Luis Lazo (right hander with Pinar del Río). Lazo is the national team closer (the one who shut down Venezuela and the Dominicans in crucial WBC games), but he is a starter back home and closing in on the league career victory mark of 234. He is now topping out in his mid-thirties, but he approximates Lee Smith in stature and talent. After facing him in the WBC, Albert Pujols said Lazo had the most un-hittable sinker he ever saw. I always thought Lazo was a step ahead of Contreras when they were teammates at Pinar del Río.
  4. Osmani Urrutia (outfielder for Las Tunas). This guy looks like a right-handed Tony Gwynn and is one of the best natural hitters I have ever seen. Urrutia (Ur-route-tee-uh) has won the Cuban League batting title five out of the past six years and also hit over .400 every one of those years but one. His lifetime .370 BA is the career record in Cuba (ahead of Linares), after 13 seasons, and big league pitchers didn’t slow him down in the WBC either. He is much more disciplined at the plate than Gourriel, though he has less power and is not that strong defensively. But he is a DH for any big league team.
  5. Yadel Martí (right hander with Industriales). Impressed scouts with his start against the Dominicans in the WBC semifinal at San Diego. In his early 20s, he owns great control, a huge breaking ball, and great changes of speed. He is durable and improving rapidly, though small in stature (150 pounds). Martí throws in the low 90s, but although he has international experience against the big leaguers, he may not actually be the best prospect on his own CL team. Industriales righty Frank Montieth (Mon-tee-yah) was left off the WBC squad yet earned MVP honors with a dominating performance in last summer’s Havana Olympic Qualifier. Martí has more experience, but Montieth may have an even livelier arm.
  6. GB – Back when Omar Linares was the face of Cuban baseball, there were rumors that the Toronto Blue Jays were considering working out a deal with Linares and Fidel Castro that would allow them to sign the third baseman and use him only for home games, thus allowing Linares to maintain his Cuban citizenship. Is there any truth to that, and would it be even remotely possible today?

BJARKMAN – No, not possible under the current U.S. embargo, and also not under the regulations of the Cuban League itself. This was a great story (like the one about Fidel being a one-time pitching prospect!) but a tale with little actual substance. It is true that the Yomiuri Giants tried to pursue a deal to bring Linares and Orestes Kindelán (Cuban career home run king, now retired) to Japan in the mid-nineties, but the Cubans would not compromise their stand against dealing with “professional” baseball. Linares was finally allowed to go to the Chunichi Dragons in 2002, but only after his career was effectively over. (Several other top Cuban stars, including Germán Mesa and Antonio Pacheco, also went to Japan with Linares, but only to the industrial league in Tokyo. It was a way to give these stars some perks in terms of foreign currency, while at the same time clearing spots for Gourriel, Michel Enríquez and several other new young prospects on the national team.)

GB – The world has been anticipating the death of Fidel Castro for almost a decade. Now that Castro’s death appears truly imminent, there exist many different ideas about what will happen to the island nation, with little in the way of consensus. Having traveled to Cuba and observed Cuban baseball extensively, what are the best and worst case scenarios for both Cuban baseball and the game at large in the event of a significant restructuring of Cuba’s relationship with the United States?

BJARKMAN – I am not so sure the whole world has been “anticipating” Fidel’s death, as you say. Certainly many have been celebrating its arrival in Miami and Washington. But there are also many folks in Mexico City, Caracas, La Paz, Santiago (Chile) and elsewhere in Latin America who look at Fidel’s passing with much less optimism. But let’s not digress into politics and away from baseball, as tempting as that might be.

The best case scenario is easy. Cuba will hopefully follow the model long adopted by Japan. That is, it will keep MLB scouts out, will develop its own talent and maintain its own league, but will also (and here is where the change will come) after a certain number of seasons, when a Cuban player has earned his free agency (say after five years in the Cuban League) the Cubans will then put their top stars up for lottery bidding by the major league clubs. That is, Cuba will do with Gourriel or Cepeda or Lazo in the future what Japan has done with Nomo and Matsui, and most recently Matsuzaka. Open the bidding for Frank Montieth or Yulieski Gourriel and let the MLB clubs throw millions of dollars at them (a certain share to go to the Cuban League itself). Let the big leagues buy these players at top dollar market prices. Why shouldn’t the Cuban League recoup something from its own natural resources?

Yet given MLB’s resources, power, and especially its clear game plan for ‘internationalizing’ the sport (i.e., for turning other countries into cheap talent plantations and also into venues for selling TV rights to MLB games, and thus not actually developing independent baseball universes in those other countries) I am not optimistic about chances for such alternative baseball universes. MLB effectively ruined independent baseball in the DR, PR and Venezuela. Hopefully Cuba won’t be next. 

The worse case scenario would be to turn Cuba into the DR (i.e., a baseball colony open to full exploitation), let MLB scouts roam the countryside and sign every fifteen-year-old prospect in sight, and thus suck all the talent out of the country before it gets to develop within its own home-grown league. Why should MLB be able freely to scout Cuba (or Venezuela or that matter) as though it were Kansas? A far better scenario than turning Cuba into, say, Kansas would be to turn Venezuela back into something more like Cuba or Japan (and I am speaking here of baseball systems and not government systems). Let these countries run their own leagues and then sell their best players after they earn free agency at the local level. Yet given MLB’s resources, power, and especially its clear game plan for “internationalizing” the sport (i.e., for turning other countries into cheap talent plantations and also into venues for selling TV rights to MLB games, and thus not actually developing independent baseball universes in those other countries) I am not optimistic about chances for such alternative baseball universes. MLB effectively ruined independent baseball in the DR, PR and Venezuela. Hopefully Cuba won’t be next.

GB – Should Cuba truly “open up” in the next few years, do you see it surpassing the Dominican Republic as the primary international source of major league talent? Does Cuba have the depth of talent to warrant a Cuban Summer League to compliment the leagues that already exist in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela?

BJARKMAN – I agree with Milton Jamail’s assessment in his book FULL COUNT. Cuba likely has more natural talent than either the Dominican or Venezuela. The young athletes there also have enjoyed better nutrition and health care on the whole, and are far better educated (they all read and write, and some of the Cuban Leaguers work on graduate degrees in sports management in the off-season). I don’t want to speculate about a Cuban summer league, because the infrastructure of the country is now so bad that this might not be feasible (it will take several years after any political change just to upgrade the crumbling transportation system). I am also not sure it would be good for Cuban baseball (as I said above), or the best way to develop the talent that is found there. Such a summer league run by American interests would certainly mean a change that would be geared to serve MLB needs only, and not one aimed to do anything for local baseball in Cuba itself. All I will say here is that Cuba has more raw talent than any region in Latin America (or anywhere else in the world outside the U.S.). If the politics of the last 40 years had been different, it would have been Cuba clearly supplying most of the Latino big leaguers and not the Dominican. But, of course, that also would have meant no alternative baseball universe in Cuba during those decades and thus a great loss for Cuban fans back on the island. (That is to say, Cuba would have been just like the Dominican, which effectively lost most of its local baseball over recent decades, with all their top prospects fleeing to New York and Chicago and not playing at home in Santo Domingo or San Pedro.)

GB – Major league teams, journalists, players who have been lucky enough to reach the game’s highest level, and conscientious agents have at times lamented the corruption inherent in the buscon system that governs Dominican talent acquisitions. While I understand the difficulty of speculating about a system that does not yet exist, is there any reason to believe that Cuba will develop a more open, more organized system if/when Major League Baseball is allowed to scout the island again?

I know I stand in the clear minority on this issue, but I believe the future of healthy international baseball lies in maintaining independent alternative baseball universes far outside the sway of the corporate business known as major league baseball.

BJARKMAN – I have no idea. It depends entirely on what type transition we have after Fidel Castro, or perhaps in the wake of his immediate successors. If Cuba becomes a MLB baseball colony, exploited by pro scouts the way the DR and Venezuela have been, then there is little reason to hope that the system would be any different than it has been in the DR. If a future Cuban government maintains full control of its own resources (including its baseball talent), on the other hand, I would speculate that they would limit scouting and sell players to MLB for the highest price they could get (somewhat like what Japan and Mexico have long done, and like Chavez is now threatening to do in Venezuela). After all, why should the Cubans allow their baseball talent pool to become a bargain basement fire sale for the sole benefit of greedy big league clubs?

I know I stand in the clear minority on this issue, but I believe the future of healthy international baseball lies in maintaining independent alternative baseball universes far outside the sway of the corporate business known as major league baseball.

Source: http://globalbaseball.wordpress.com/2007/03/27/interview-with-peter-bjarkman/

Leave a comment

Filed under Baseball, Cuba

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s