The Tampa Bay Rays won a victory for the United States Tuesday evening, beating the Cuban national team 4-1 in a friendly match-up.
But it’s more than a victory on the baseball field: it is a triumph over Cuba’s communist regime, as the Cuban team’s strength has been steadily sapped by the defection of the country’s best players.
The Rays, playing in front of U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, handily held off Cuba’s best even though the Rays themselves are among the most middling teams in the majors. The Rays finished 80-82 in the 2015 season, the seventeenth-best record in the league and a long way from a playoff spot. The game was a shut-out until the bottom of the ninth inning, when Cuban player Rudy Reyes hit a home run off reliever Alex Colome.
Cuba’s team has seen far better days, and a major reason is the island’s own political system. Quite simply, Cuba hasn’t been able to stop its stop baseball players from defecting to the U.S. and other countries in the pursuit of lucrative professional careers.
According to OnCuba, over 100 baseball players left the country in 2015 alone, badly sapping the country’s talent pool. The thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba hasn’t stopped the defections. Just a few weeks ago, two stars defected during a visit to the Dominican Republic.
Some of the departures have become stars in the major leagues. 2014 All-Star and American League Rookie of the Year José Abreu is a Cuban defector, as is Mets slugger Yoenis Céspedes. Even the loss of lesser players has helped to drain talent from the country’s national team, not the least because defectors generally aren’t allowed back in the country (and certainly aren’t allowed to play for the national team).
While the team used to regularly win international baseball tournaments, it hasn’t done so in nearly a decade. Interest in the country’s domestic league is in steady decline, while Cubans are instead increasingly interested in the exploits of Abreu and others on baseball’s most elite stage.
The country has tried to curb the humiliating defections by changing its laws so Cuban players can play in the professional leagues of Japan and Mexico. But those players are, officially, just on loan from Cuba’s state baseball league, and over a fifth of their salaries are required to go to the league rather than the players’ own pockets. Such an arrangement is currently not possible for the United States as it would violate the current embargo rules. Cut off from by far the world’s most lucrative baseball market, players unsurprisingly find defection an attractive option.
Yet the obvious solution of allowing Cuban players to freely play in the U.S. is hardly appealing to the Cuban government either, since it would almost certainly result in every talented Cuban player being snapped up by American teams. That, in turn, would be a powerful demonstration of America’s tremendous wealth and Cuba’s relative economic backwardness.
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