THE World Baseball Championship is upon us again. Apart from being great fun and good for baseball, we also get a front row as journalists try their hand at connecting world politics to the great game. When they try to explain the success of amateur clubs like Cuba against the titans of MLB, the results are predictably coarse.
Typical is the New York Times slant, which takes great pains to assure us Americans that any perceived unity, cohesion and healthy sportsmanship on the Cuban side is “forced” and “not by choice.” From MSNBC we get snide jokes about Cuban defectors hiding in luggage and 8th grade mockery of heartfelt quotes from Cuban players about not playing for the money. And that is the “liberal media”…
We have to go to the (normally) right-wing Chicago Sun Times to get some semblance of truth about the pure wonder that Cuban baseball. It is the pretty boring story of how personal fave White Sox player Alexei Ramirez came to leave Cuba and how he thinks the media gets the Cuba baseball story wrong almost every time.
There is an image the words ‘‘Cuban defector’’ conjure in the minds of most U.S. baseball fans, but Ramirez is here to change that.
‘‘There are a lot of misperceptions,’’ he explained through interpreter Lou Hernandez. ‘‘There is no pressure to play [in Cuba]; there are no guns pointed at you. There is just pure love of wanting to play the game by Cuban baseball players.
‘‘The difference between Cuban ballplayers and players from the United States [is] players here play because that’s their job. Cuban ballplayers play because of the encouragement from the province they’re from, the town they’re from, the region they’re from. There is a sincere pride and passion for playing for your province. But no pressure.’’
The story of former Sox right-hander Orlando ‘‘El Duque’’ Hernandez risking his life by escaping on a raft in 1997 captured headlines in the United States. That story has been disputed over time (YEAH BC IT IS A LIE), but that didn’t change the fact that, to many Americans, he risked his safety and the safety of his family that remained in Cuba to chase a dream to be a major-leaguer.
Ramirez had dreams, too – to play for the Cuban national team. Standout Cuban players earn a level of recognition in their country that Derek Jeter and David Wright never could imagine. To the young Cuban player, baseball is still pure sport. It’s untainted by cash bonuses, and the pride Cuban players feel by playing for their country doesn’t have a price tag on it.
‘‘My dream was to always play for the Cuban national team, and I achieved that dream,’’ Ramirez said. ‘‘Then the Olympic Games, and I achieved that. That was a dream of mine, too. Then to play in the World Baseball Classic with the Cuban national team. Again, another great experience.’’
During that time, Ramirez married Mildred, a woman from the Dominican Republic. When she finished school, she wanted to return to the Dominican. Ramirez simply went with her and their two children at the time.
No manhunt, no shark-infested waters. That was his ‘‘defection.’’