An author living in Lafayette, Indiana, has established himself as America’s, if not the world’s, leading authority on the uniquely exciting, culturally essential, politically entangled phenomenon of Cuban baseball.
Peter C. Bjarkman’s latest book, due out this May from Rowman & Littlefield, is Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story. Here’s a condensed version of our email interview about a publishing event made auspicious by new diplomatic warming between the nations.
SBW: Fascinated as Americans are with both the island and its game, we have it not just wrong, but backward. Is that what you’re telling us?
PB: What I tried to stress in the book was the unique nature of Cuban baseball as a world entirely independent of Major League Baseball control and thus a true “alternative baseball universe.” Cuba has been able to control its baseball for the past half century, admittedly and largely due to the accidents of Cold War political developments.
What is special about the island’s baseball is that Cuba has also been able (until recently) to keep all its best players at home and thus foster a baseball that is a true public entertainment and not merely a corporate commercial venture.
Obviously that is now all changing due to the complex set of circumstances that have caused players to flee the island in droves in search of big league riches.
SBW: Migration of Cuban ballplayers to the United States is widely perceived as a romantic pursuit of the American dream, but it seems to have a multifaceted dark side – illegal trafficking, separation from families, failures to make the grade.
PB: One thing I have tried to raise some awareness about here is that in the process of literally devastating the rest of the international baseball world to harvest talent for big league stadiums, MLB is in the process of perhaps sowing the seeds of its own long-range destruction. This is not a new story but just a new chapter and I try here to link the current harvest of Cuban talent to the lengthy history of MLB imperialism that has over the decades shut down all perceived competition (the 1940s Mexican League, the pre-integration Negro Leagues, the once thriving Latin American winter leagues, even the thriving small town minor leagues of the ’30s and ’40s).
SBW: Does MLB owe an accounting for profiting from a talent flow that’s tainted?
PB: I don’t know about an accounting, but they need to stop secretly fostering the Cuban human trafficking by throwing millions of dollars at players whose agents are certified by the MLB Players Association and who we know are engaged in such trafficking for profit. (There is no evidence that any MLB officials are directly involved in trafficking, but that doesn’t wash their hands. The example I like to use is the case of the trafficking into the U.S. of young girls for the sex trade; if you partake in buying the services then you are sustaining the operation. The same with buying drugs brought into this country by the Mexican cartels.)
MLB needs to do several things here – institute an international draft, stop requiring (in conjunction with the Treasury Department) that Cuban ballplayers renounce their citizenship and take third country residence. I suggest in the book that a logical system might be for the Cuban Baseball Federation to institute a posting system like the one in Japan and thus reach an accord with MLB that Cuban players could be free agents only after serving a contract period at home – which would end the trafficking. But so far the Cubans have not figured out how to do that.
SBW: Given the talent drain over the past two decades-plus, plus the new political developments, can Cuba retain control of its baseball destiny?
PB: I certainly believe the Cubans will attempt to do that. But they are fighting a losing battle as long as MLB welcomes defectors with open arms and huge contracts. The Cubans have no way any longer to keep their players at home. But the developments since December 2014 are already clearly showing that the Cubans will move a lot slower than most pundits have thought in relinquishing anything of their current system – which includes their baseball.
SBW: Deterioration notwithstanding, is Cuban baseball a more enriching experience than the heavily commercialized USA version?
PB: For me it certainly has been. The stadiums are small and intimate. Fans go to the park for the baseball and not for a multimedia extravaganza. Since there is no player trading and players spend their entire careers with the team representing their province, it is truly “our team” that fans root for and not some corporate entity with mercenary athletes masquerading as a “home town team.”
The fact that players remain in their own provinces, and also the fact that their salaries are barely above those of other Cuban laborers, conspire to make the bond between players and fans a close one.
SBW: How have you been affected by these years of immersion in the Cuban game?
PB: Having remarried and left academia in the mid-1980s I launched a career writing about big league baseball and pro and college basketball, but became largely disillusioned with MLB during the 1994 players’ strike. Shortly thereafter I went to Cuba with photographer Mark Rucker to write my book Smoke and there began a life-changing series of events.
I became fascinated with Cuban baseball, the Cuban people, and the Cuban social and political experiment. I continued to travel to Cuba on an increasing scale, developed close relationships with many of the island’s ballplayers and also most Cuban baseball officials, and started following the Cuban national team around the globe. That entire saga is subject of a new book – a memoir – I am currently writing that is tentative titled The Yanqui in Cuba’s Dugout.