Monday, December 6 2021

Scan the list of MLB playoff teams and you’ll find rosters dotted with key players from a specific island nation: four in the Chicago White Sox‘s starting lineup, two starters each for the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays.

Cuba will be well represented when the 2021 postseason begins on Tuesday.

First baseman José Abreu, third baseman Yoán Moncada, center fielder Luis Robert and catcher Yasmani Grandal start for the White Sox. The Rays have Randy Arozarena in the outfield and Yandy Díaz at first or third. The Astros start Yuli Gurriel at first and Yordan Álvarez at DH or in left.

“The White Sox have a team that’s studded with Cubans. … That is a team that is almost a Cuban team,” said Yale professor emeritus Roberto González Echevarría, author of “Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball.”

“Cuban players have come out (of the island) and developed in the systems of the major leagues to become stars. It’s all over (the majors).”

Jose Abreu (79) of the Chicago White Sox celebrates at the plate with Luis Robert (88) and Yoan Moncada (10) after hitting a three-run home run.Jose Abreu (79) of the Chicago White Sox celebrates at the plate with Luis Robert (88) and Yoan Moncada (10) after hitting a three-run home run.

Jose Abreu (79) of the Chicago White Sox celebrates at the plate with Luis Robert (88) and Yoan Moncada (10) after hitting a three-run home run.

One could easily put together a formidable starting lineup entirely of Cuban-born players in the playoffs:

C: Yasmani Grandal, White Sox (.240, 23 HR, 62 RBI)

1B: José Abreu, White Sox (.261, 30, 117)

2B: Yoán Moncada, White Sox (.263, 14, 61)

3B: Yandy Díaz, Rays (.256, 13, 64)

SS: José Iglesias, Red Sox (.271, 9, 48)

RF: Randy Arozarena, Rays (.274, 20, 69)

CF: Luis Robert, White Sox (.338, 13, 43)

LF: Yordan Álvarez, Astros (.277, 33, 104)

DH: Yuli Gurriel, Astros (.319, 15, 81)

And that wouldn’t include Atlanta Braves right fielder Jorge Soler (.223, 27, 70) or two worthy Cubans whose teams failed to make the playoffs: Toronto Blue Jays left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (.276, 21, 84) and Texas Rangers right fielder Adolis García (.243, 31, 90).

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Impressive, considering there were only 19 Cuban-born players on major-league opening day rosters this season, third behind the Dominican Republic (98) and Venezuela (64) for the most players born in countries and territories outside the 50 United States.

It speaks to the impact Cuban defectors have made in MLB the past 10-15 years. Putting together such a “fantasy” lineup would not have been possible as recently as a decade ago.

“But at this point, given the dire situation in Cuba,” González Echevarría said, “it’s something a little bit frivolous to be talking about baseball players and not about the terrible situation on the island.”

Amid rising COVID cases, food shortages and power outages, antigovernment protests erupted across the island in July. Cubans took to the streets with chants of “Libertad”, Spanish for “freedom,” and “Patria y vida” – a play on “Patria o muerte”, “Fatherland or death” – the closing exclamatory for the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s speeches.

Meanwhile, player defections continued.

In May, Cuban infielder César Prieto defected from the Cuban National Team during the Olympic qualifying tournament in Florida. In September, nine players defected from the Cuban team playing in the U-23 Baseball World Cup in Mexico.

“I hate the word ‘defect’ because it makes Cuba (sound) like an army,” González Echevarría said. “What has to be taken into account is that all of these players, including the ones doing well in the major leagues, are looking for freedom. … They want freedom just like those Cubans who are going through the frontier in Mexico or the many others who are risking their lives in boats.”

As defections became more common in the 2000s, so too did the dangerous practice of dealing with human smugglers to facilitate players escaping from Cuba.

At least in part to end that practice, MLB and the Cuban Baseball Federation in December 2018 struck a deal allowing players from the island to be signed without having to defect. But the deal was scuttled by the Trump administration four months later.

“This is one of the few things that I think that the Trump administration did right,” González Echevarría said. “Sure, we want the players to be able to come in a more regular way, but the Cuban regime has to ask itself, ‘Why do they want to escape?’ … Cuban players like Cubans in general, want to leave the island. Why? Because of repression.”

Houston Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez (44) hugs first baseman Yuli Gurriel (10) after hitting a three-run home run against the Seattle Mariners.Houston Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez (44) hugs first baseman Yuli Gurriel (10) after hitting a three-run home run against the Seattle Mariners.

Houston Astros left fielder Yordan Alvarez (44) hugs first baseman Yuli Gurriel (10) after hitting a three-run home run against the Seattle Mariners.

Cuba led Latin America before revolution

Before Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959, most Latino players in the majors were coming to the United States from Cuba.

Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida began the wave of Cuban players to make an impact in the majors when they debuted with the Cincinnati Reds on July 4, 1911, Marsans playing eight seasons and Almeida three.

With MLB’s color barrier in place, newspapers rushed to paint both players as fully white, with one proclaiming them “two descendants of a noble Spanish race, with no ignoble African blood. … two of the purest bars of Castilian soap that ever floated to these shores.”

No one was more prolific at finding Cuban talent — often for a pittance — than Washington Senators scout Joe Cambria, credited with signing hundreds of Cuban players from the 1930s until his death in 1962.

“He signed Camilo (Pascual), he signed Pedro Ramos, he signed everybody,” Orlando Peña, who pitched 14 seasons in the majors between 1958 and 1975, said in a 2015 interview. “He didn’t give bonuses to anybody. He wouldn’t even give away shoes.”

When Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba had the most players from Latin America on MLB 40-man rosters with 16 (Puerto Rico was second with seven and the Dominican Republic only had two). And Cuba still had Latin America’s highest representation in the majors 10 years later with 23 players (the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico each had 18) despite diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. ending in 1961.

“Cubans have produced top-notch baseball players throughout,” González Echevarría said. “It’s not new. (Orestes “Minnie”) Miñoso in the late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, Tony Pérez, Camilo Pascual. This is recent, but I mean, go back to Adolfo Luque (1914-1935). In the Negro leagues Cristóbal Torriente, Martín Dihigo, Luis Tiant, the father. And so Cuba has very early produced top-flight players.”

But with the island’s baseball talent isolated for decades because of Castro’s revolution, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela quickly eclipsed Cuba as Latin America’s biggest exporter of major-league talent during the second half of the 20th century.

For example, only three Cubans played in the majors in each season from 1982 to 1986, compared to between 32 and 37 Dominican players each of those seasons, according to Baseball Almanac.

Cuba’s numbers only began to increase again as defections ramped up in the 1990s. In 1991, pitcher René Arocha became the first player to defect while traveling with the Cuban National Team during the Castro regime when he slipped away at Miami International Airport.

Arocha’s defection sparked a flood of defections throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with players such as Liván Hernández (1997 World Series MVP), Aroldis Chapman (more than 300 career saves) and Abreu (2020 American League MVP) making significant impacts.

In fact, most of the Cubans playing in this postseason defected: Iglesias in 2008, Chapman in 2009, Soler in 2011, Aledmys Díaz in 2012, Abreu and Yandy Díaz in 2013, Arozarena in 2015, Álvarez, Robert and Yuli Gurriel in 2016.

If not for the Castro revolution, Cuba today might be on par with the Dominican Republic in terms of producing MLB talent.

“It would be greater than the Dominican Republic because Cuba is significantly larger and had been in 1959 and one supposes would be much richer than the Dominican Republic,” González Echevarría said. “It would be overwhelming, even if you count the Cuban players who are in the majors now.”

White Sox’s Cuban connection continues

Four of the 10 playoff teams have multiple Cuban-born players on their roster. Aside from Gurriel and Álvarez, the Astros also have Aledmys Díaz. And in the minors, Houston also has Pedro León, 22, who signed for $4 million in March and is the organization’s No. 2 prospect.

But no team has more Cuban players in its starting lineup than the White Sox, whose Cuban connections started with Miñoso, who played 10 seasons in Chicago from 1951-1964 before returning for brief stints in 1976 and 1980.

Last season, the White Sox made history as the first MLB team to have Cuban-born players in each of the top four spots in the batting order – Robert, Moncada, Abreu and Grandal – in an 11-5 victory against the Kansas City Royals on Aug. 1, 2020. The quartet went 11 for 22 with four RBI and scored seven runs.

Among the Cuban defectors who have played for the White Sox, José Contreras pitched six seasons and won 15 games for the 2005 World Series championship team. Shortstop Alexei Ramírez played eight productive seasons (2008-2015) in Chicago. Abreu has hit 228 home runs in eight seasons. Robert looks like a star in the making with a .338 average in his second season.

And three Cubans are among the White Sox’s top 15 minor-league prospects: outfielder Yoelqui Céspedes, the younger brother former Mets outfielder Yoenis, is at No. 2; pitcher Norge Vera at No. 8 and infielder Yolbert Sánchez at No. 15. In May, MLB.com reported that the White Sox were the favorites to land Oscar Colás, known as the “Cuban Ohtani” who is currently training in the Dominican Republic and ranked as the fifth international prospect.

“Having the amount of Cuban players in our system, not only at the big league level, but at the minor league level, it creates more awareness and guys are more inclined to like what we do and how we do it,” special assistant to the general manager Marco Paddy told MLB.com before the start of the season. “It helps tremendously having that publicity of these guys and how well they’ve done with our major league club.”

Cesar Brioso is author of “Havana Hardball” and “Last Seasons in Havana.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB playoffs: Cuban stars dot lineups, now they can shine on big stage

Source: Yahoo Sports

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