Baseball Beyond Our Borders celebrates the globalization of the game while highlighting the different histories and cultures of the nations in which the sport is played. This collection of essays tells the story of America’s national pastime as it has spread across the world and undergone instructive, entertaining, and sometimes quirky changes in the process. Covering nineteen countries and a U.S. territory, the contributors show how each country imported baseball, how baseball took hold and developed, how it is organized, played, and followed, and what local and regional traits tell us about the sport’s place in each culture. But what lies in store as baseball’s passport fills up with far-flung stamps? Will the international migration of players homogenize baseball? What role will the World Baseball Classic play? These are just a few of the questions the authors pose.
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About the Author
George Gmelch is a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco and Union College in upstate New York. He is the author or editor of thirteen books, including Playing with Tigers: A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties (Nebraska, 2016). Daniel A. Nathan is a professor and chair of American studies at Skidmore College. He is the editor of Rooting for the Home Team: Sport, Community, and Identity and past president of the North American Society for Sport History.
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Baseball Beyond Our Borders
An International Pastime
By George Gmelch, Daniel A. Nathan
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 George Gmelch and Daniel A. Nathan
All rights reserved.
The Curtain Begins to Fall
Between innings at the ballpark in Havana, we fell into a candid conversation with a Cuban baseball official.
"What would happen if the United States lifted the embargo tomorrow?" we asked. "Maybe a freighter, a big one from Rawlings or Wilson, docked in the harbor and they began to unload all kinds of equipment. Baseballs, gloves, bats — everything that could be used down here?"
Miguel Valdes, then the technical director for the Cuban national team, looked out toward the game, seemingly ignoring my traveling partner, Milton Jamail, and me.
"What would happen?" he finally answered.
Yes, we replied. What if such a ship rolled past the Old World fortress that marked the entrance to the Havana harbor and tied up to the ancient piers?
"What would happen?" Valdes repeated, his voice low and serious. "The world as we know it would change forever."
This world began to change forever a week before Christmas 2014 when President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro announced that they would reestablish diplomatic relations, ending more than a half century of animosity between the two Cold War foes.
The move has been criticized in some quarters — labeled as a capitulation to the Castro brothers. In the short term, it may empower the current government in Havana. But in the long run, it could lead to real progress and change on the island. The Cuban people are fascinated by our culture, sports, and entertainment. This move allows more of those passions to come into everyday play.
On a corner of the main park in Havana, at the famed Esquina Caliente, or "Hot Corner," they gather almost daily under the royal palm trees to discuss nothing but baseball. To political hard-liners, such a get-together is nothing more than a curiosity. But if table tennis helped open China, baseball could now play a similar role in the relationship between the two nations.
Those at Esquina Caliente know the statistics of the big-time stars as well, perhaps even better, than most American baseball fans. They take pride that Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, and Yasiel Puig — all Cuban born — have taken center stage in the U.S. Major Leagues. Yet the borders can blur in Cuba, often about small things that Americans frequently take for granted.
On a trip to Havana's Central Park in 1999, I took along copies of USA Today Baseball Weekly. The cover story was about players nearing the end of their careers — Paul Molitor, Dennis Eckersley, and Cal Ripken Jr. Once again, I was reminded of one of the major contradictions about Cuba: they may hear what is going on elsewhere in the world, but they are rarely afforded a good look. In the United States we may not care about the latest Hollywood or sports celebrity. But, like it or not, we know enough about Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lopez or Cal Ripken to probably pick them out of a crowd.
For a half century, due to the embargo and the highly politicized tone, the relationship between the United States and Cuba has been like a giant black curtain. The kind of barrier found in an old-style theater. The kind that always muffles the sound and allows only a rare glimpse to what's going on on the other side. In 2014 the curtain of discontent and dysfunction between the United States and Cuban began to part.
In 1999 the Cuban national team played the Baltimore Orioles. On the return flight home, I ended up sitting next to Stan Kasten. Major League Baseball's charter jet rose to maybe twenty thousand feet out of Havana before beginning to descend for our approach to Miami. As American soil appeared below, the Florida Straits already well behind us, I asked Kasten, "How tough would it be, Stan? To put a professional ball club, a U.S. one, in Havana?"
Kasten is one of the sharpest guys in professional sports. He was part of the ownership group that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers, and before that he was in the front office with the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Thrashers, and Atlanta Hawks — all at the same time. While with the Hawks he led his National Basketball Association team on an unprecedented trip to the Soviet Union for an exhibition tour. In other words, he knows, perhaps better than anybody else in professional sports, what it takes to turn a socialist country toward capitalism with sports.
"A team in Havana?" Kasten replied.
"Sure, either Minor League or even someday a Major League franchise."
"Turn around the politics," Kasten smiled, "and it would be a piece of cake."
Of course, even the Kastens of the world have a ways to go before a Minor League team sets up shop in the old stadium in Havana, where we once talked with Miguel Valdes. (Valdes eventually left Cuba and works for the New York Mets.) But in the weeks after the December 2014 announcement between Washington and Havana, a group formed that wanted to transform the Cuban league into the premier winter-ball format in the world. It would be a league that would once again welcome U.S. players to the island.
In the months after the announcement, Major League Baseball (MLB) found itself in the same boat with American tourism interests. With Republicans in control on Capitol Hill, the Cuban Embargo was still in place, but change was certainly in the air. At least initially, the new relationship with Cuba meant better banking relationships and easier imports of Cuban rum and cigars. As for the rest of it? As trade attorney Robert Muse told the Washington Post, for many American companies the sanctions look "like a scary forest with monsters."
What this means for professional baseball has yet to be determined. While MLB issued a statement saying it was "closely monitoring" matters, many experts felt the new developments would only accelerate the movement of Cuban players to play professionally in the United States. At the very least it would end a deteriorating situation that had players going to great lengths, sometimes making deals with drug cartels and crime syndicates, to leave the island.
Almost a quarter century ago pitcher René Arocha ducked into a waiting car outside the Miami International Airport and left Cuba forever. In doing so he became the first baseball star from that country to defect. Many of those who followed in his footsteps — José Contreras, the Hernández brothers Liván and Orlando — still speak of him in reverential tones.
"He was the one who opened the door for the rest of us," Orlando "El Duque" Hernández said.
In demonstrating that Cubans could play in America, if they had the courage and guile to get away, Arocha wrote the script that has been followed until now. A player could slip away while the Cuban national team played in another country. This was often more difficult than it seemed. On the road Team Cuba brought its own security detail to keep any eye on everyone. To be caught usually meant being excluded from the roster for the next international tournament or Olympics. A player could also be blackballed from playing in the Cuban leagues.
To try to leave directly from Cuba was even more dangerous. Since the early 1960s, as Castro's grip tightened, thousands of everyday Cubans took to rafts and tried to cross the Florida Straits. An estimated sixteen thousand died trying to do so. And any rafter knew that he had to step foot on American soil to fully escape. If apprehended at sea, the U.S. Coast Guard could return him to Havana to face the consequences.
As the curtain began to fall, Cuban ballplayers were among the top stars in the game. Nobody generated more excitement or debate than outfielder Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nobody enjoyed the spotlight more than outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, a Home Run Derby champion. And nobody threw harder than fireballing relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Yet few of these stars followed the same exit strategy as Arocha or even the Hernández brothers took to play on baseball's biggest and most lucrative stage. This new path often involved high-dollar promises, plenty of cloak-and-dagger, and deals with dangerous crime syndicates. The parade of new stars coming out of Cuba reads like something from a Graham Greene novel.
Yasiel Puig was caught repeatedly and sent back to Cuba before finally making it to Southern California. In December 2014 a South Florida businessman pleaded guilty to taking part in a conspiracy to smuggle Puig out of Cuba. In return Puig promised him a cut of his multimillion-dollar salary. Court documents detailed how Gilberto Suarez was one of the Miami-based financiers of the 2012 smuggling venture in which Puig was taken by boat from Cuba to a village near Cancún, Mexico. The baseball star eventually crossed into the United States at Brownsville, Texas.
Aroldis Chapman has been sued under the Torture Victims Protection Act in Florida after somebody who tried to help him get out of Cuba ended up in prison there. According to Yahoo! Sports, Chapman served as a government informant to stay in the good graces of Cuban baseball officials.
Yoenis Cespedes also found himself in court, where a judge eventually ruled that he needed to pay eight million dollars of the thirty-six-million-dollar deal that he originally signed with the Oakland Athletics to the gambling-hall proprietor who helped get him off the island.
Perhaps the most original escape from Cuba belonged to Yoan Moncada, a nineteen-year-old shortstop prospect. He avoided the smugglers and contract deals entirely by filing for a visa in Havana to travel to Guatemala. For some reason the Cuban authorities gave it to him, and Moncada legally left the country and never looked back. After establishing residency in Guatemala, which allowed him to avoid baseball's amateur draft, he began shopping his services to Major League teams.
But there is more to the story of Moncada's departure. After all, this is Cuba we're talking about. According to VICE Sports, Nicole Banks, a California sports agent, aided Moncada. While nobody is certain of the particulars of Banks's role, she reportedly became romantically involved with Moncada.
Such is the power of baseball in Cuba. It can break through any rules and regulations, especially in today's changing climate, and it can cause people to dream of the impossible. That's the way it has been for more than a century on the island. In the United States the national pastime will always be the game of red, white, and blue bunting and Mom's apple pie. In Cuba, from its very beginnings, the game was deemed dangerous and radical. So much so that it allowed Cubans to turn their backs on the old colonial ways, never more so then when Spain controlled the island, and demonstrate their preference for a new, independent nation.
"For many years, baseball in Cuba was a sport encased in amber," author S. L. Price said. "That's changing now. It had to change, sooner or later, for the game and the country itself to move ahead."7 More than a half century after Fidel Castro's revolution, the debate still rages about him and baseball. Is he a national hero or the devil incarnate? It often depends on which side of the Florida Straits you have that conversation. But any student of history concedes that Castro's decision to play baseball and form a ragtag barnstorming company from his rebel army called Los Barbudos (the Bearded Ones) was a stroke of genius. Castro knew how important baseball was and will always be for Cubans.
Los Barbudos played a series of exhibitions in the months after Castro took control of the island in 1959. The new president sometimes took the mound to show off his loopy curve ball for cheering baseball aficionados. That Fidel Castro has outlasted several U.S. administrations (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama) and counting is a credit to his understanding of his country's soul more than any success in national health or education.
Was Castro a legitimate baseball prospect? Again, it depends upon whom you talk to or what you choose to believe. According to Tad Szulc's acclaimed biography Fidel: A Critical Portrait (1986), Castro was an impressive athlete before enrolling in Havana University's law school in 1945. While attending Belen College, a preparatory school, he was the institution's top athlete, starring in track, table tennis, basketball, and baseball.
While researching his book Szulc had full access to Castro and his closest associates. Szulc says that Castro was so determined to be Belen's best pitcher that he often practiced "until eight o'clock in the evening at the school's sports grounds. Long after the catcher got tired and left, Castro would go on throwing the ball against the wall."
Whether such effort attracted the attention of big-league scouts has never been confirmed. While researching my novel Castro's Curveball (2000), I spoke with several scouts and players from the old Cuban winter-ball league. Some dismissed such speculation about Castro's prowess, while several insisted that Castro was pretty good and had even pitched batting practice for them. Legend has it that the Washington Senators and New York Giants were interested in signing Castro in the waning years of World War II. At that point Castro was not overly politically active and had not fully aligned himself with the growing revolutionary factions in Cuba.
Searches at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, turn up a Sport magazine article from 1964. In it Don Hoak, who spent eleven years in the Major Leagues and several winters playing in Cuba, details a strange evening at the old ballpark in Havana, the same place we spoke with Miguel Valdes decades later. The year was 1951, Hoak said, and it was not unusual back then for students to come out of the stands and interrupt games to protest the government or the hold that such corporations as United Fruit had on their country. Once again, baseball was seen as a path to an independent nation.
On this night, Hoak recalled, a tall, skinny student wearing a white shirt, black pants, and suede shoes took the mound. Hoak was the next batter due up. To his dying day Hoak maintained that the interloper was a young Castro.
"Left-handers as a breed are eccentric, but Castro, a right-hander, looked kookier than any southpaw I have known," Hoak later told Sport.
Hoak fouled off two Castro pitches before the field was cleared of demonstrators.
So the question remains: Was Castro a legitimate prospect? Probably not. But right when you're ready to dismiss such notions, somebody steps out of the past.
On another trip to Havana we were talking with several fans at the Esquina Caliente, and one of them, an old man, claimed to have played baseball with Castro as a boy on the eastern end of the island, where they both grew up. We asked about that part of the world, trying to catch the old-timer in a fib. But he fielded all of our queries flawlessly.
Finally, we asked, "What did Castro throw?"
"So-so fastball, sneaky slider at the knees," the old man answered. "But his best pitch was a curve ball. Castro had a great curve."
So appropriate for all that happened over the past half century when it comes to the rocky relationship between the United States and Cuba, don't you think?
As we are witnessing once again, affairs of state can remain locked in place until one event causes a major upheaval. It has happened before in Cuba, and it is beginning to happen again.
In 1949 Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso broke in with the Cleveland Indians and spent much of that season and the next in the Minor Leagues. Early in the '51 season he was traded to the Chicago White Sox, where he had to confront racial discrimination as well as opposing batters. "First you had Jackie Robinson. Then Larry Doby and then you had me," Miñoso said. "I was the first black-skinned ballplayer to play in the city of Chicago."
To make the leap, Miñoso explained, he had "to be strong in the mind." That required him to remember that Cuban players such as the great Martín Dihigo had not gotten a chance to play in the Major Leagues. Also, star players such as Ted Williams told Miñoso that he had talent. That he could hit in this league. He just had to stick it out.
"I cannot tell you how good that made me feel," Miñoso said. "How I remembered that when I was going through difficult times, on and off the field."
Between 1951 and 1961 Miñoso scored more than one hundred runs four times and was among the leaders in hits. But such accomplishments were often overlooked because the first wave of Latino ballplayers was routinely marginalized. They were often given nicknames they didn't want. "Orestes Miñoso, with his proud classical name, became 'Minnie' Minoso in the United States," Yale scholar Roberto González Echevarria wrote.
Yet such struggles paled in comparison to the decision Miñoso made regarding his homeland of Cuba. When Castro's armies took control of Havana in 1959, they were greeted as conquering heroes. Huge crowds lined the streets, cheering their arrival. Few of Castro's countrymen realized what the new leader had in store for the island as his tanks and soldiers streamed into the capital. But at least one ballplayer had a feeling that things were not as they seemed.
Excerpted from Baseball Beyond Our Borders by George Gmelch, Daniel A. Nathan. Copyright © 2017 George Gmelch and Daniel A. Nathan. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Contents List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction: Around the Horn George Gmelch and Daniel A. Nathan Part 1. The Americas 1. Cuba: The Curtain Begins to Fall Tim Wendel 2. Dominican Republic: From Paternalism to Parity Alan Klein 3. Puerto Rico: A Major League Stepping-Stone Franklin Otto and Thomas E. Van Hyning 4. Canada: Internationalizing America’s National Pastime Colin Howell 5. Mexico: Baseball’s Humble Beginnings to Budding Competitor Jorge Iber 6. Nicaragua: In Search of Diamonds Dan Gordon 7. Venezuela: The Passion and Politics of Baseball Arturo J. Marcano and David P. Fidler 8. Brazil: Baseball Is Popular, and the Players Are (Mainly) Japanese! Carlos Azzoni, Tales Azzoni, and Wayne Patterson Part 2. Asia 9. Japan: “No Matter What Happens, Stand Up” Dan Gordon 10. Japan: Professional Baseball Enters the Twenty-First Century William W. Kelly 11. Korea: Straw Sandals and Strong Arms Joseph A. Reaves 12. China: A Century and a Half of Bat Ball Joseph A. Reaves 13. Taiwan: Baseball, Colonialism, Nationalism, and Other Inconceivable Things Andrew D. Morris Part 3. The Pacific 14. Australia: Baseball’s Curious Journey Rick Burton 15. Tasmania: Baseball Struggles to Survive George Gmelch 16. New Zealand: Baseball between British Traditions Greg Ryan Part 4. The Middle East 17. Israel: From the Desert to Jupiter . . . and Beyond William Ressler Part 5. Africa 18. South Africa: The Battle for Baseball Marizanne Grundlingh Part 6. Europe 19. Italy: No Hot Dogs in the Bleachers Peter Carino 20. Holland: An American Coaching Honkbal Harvey Shapiro 21. Great Britain: Baseball’s Battle for Respect in the Land of Cricket, Rugby, and Soccer Josh Chetwynd 22. Finland: Pesäpallo, Baseball Finnish Style Mikko Hyvärinen Part 7. World Baseball Classic 23. The World Baseball Classic: Conflicts and Contradictions Robert Elias Afterword George Gmelch and Daniel A. Nathan Source Acknowledgments Contributors Index