Cuban baseball seems a throwback to American baseball of yesteryear, but the complete exploitation of players in Cuba is possible only under a totalitarian regime that disregards individual aspirations. That's why players defect, creating thorny foreign-policy issues.
There isn't any need to wonder where "Joltin' Joe" DiMaggio has gone. His spirit is alive in Cuba, where hundreds of aspiring DiMaggios are playing the game he loved. Sports Illustrated senior writer Scott Price found many of them during tours of Cuba to research his recently published book, Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports.
Price first saw Cuban baseball as a romanticized fantasy of the riffles era with players competing for love of the game and not for endorsement opportunities or contracts, since there is no money in Cuban baseball. While players there are looked upon with respect, many struggle to put food on the table. "My initial feeling," Price tells Insight, "was `Wow! This is the land of no agents, no beepers, no teams moving, no cities being blackmailed, no luxury boxes -- and where a ticket to a game costs 50 cents!'"
How ironic, writes Price, that the "more wedded to the ideal of free-market capitalism and small government, the more likely one is to despise the rootless, overcompensated athlete of the nineties and yearn for some fifties golden age when all the power in sports resided solely in the hands of owners and autocratic commissioners, when players had no say in where they worked or how much they made. It became obvious that the only place where such a thing could happen now is a place like Fidel Castro's Cuba, where the regime makes all decisions and muffles all dissent. Joe D. is alive and still playing. I have seen him in Havana."
Cuba may be a reminder of that bygone era when baseball was classless. In that golden DiMaggio era truckers and investment bankers sat together in old-style ballparks without luxury suites. Almost everyone could afford to attend. That era now is long gone. The "gap between the have and have-not fans became oceanic," Price writes. "Ticket prices and parking costs shot so high that only the rich could afford a day at the ballpark."
It's best to snap out of those romanticized illusions because sports in the United States are not likely to be that way again. Free agency has hit even Cuba in a big way, says Price. In the face of astronomical salaries and bonuses, loyalty has escaped on a raft. Price asks: What's the big difference between Cuban players defecting from the national team -- men such as superstar pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, now with the New York Yankees-- and American players such as Ricky Henderson who bounce from team to team?
When "El Duque" defected on a small boat at the end of 1997 -- and subsequently signed a $6.6 million contract with the Yankees even before earning his first World Series victory in 1998 -- he explained his reasons for leaving Cuba by saying it was about a man's right to make his own decisions.
So what's the great thing about free agency? Freedom, says Price. "America's dollar-dominated, modern sports scene is not some aberrant development, a wrong road taken," Price explains in his book. "It's the inevitable fruit of a society based on the principles of individualism and a free market, for good and bad. We may not like free agency and franchise movement and the buying of championships, but these are only the sporting expressions of what Americans deem most crucial: individual freedom and money. If, in the process, the United States has somehow become far more of a workers' paradise than a place like Cuba, so be it. Even leftists can like American sports."
Castro certainly enjoys the game. He followed the Mark McGwire/ Sammy Sosa home-run derby in that memorable summer of 1998 as closely as American fans. Castro even allowed the U.S. press to perpetuate the myth that he had been a superstar Cuban pitcher who turned down a chance to sign with the Washington Senators because he put his country first. …