OVERVIEW AND INSPIRATION
WHAT DOES President Barack Obama’s Dec. 15 announcement that the U.S. would begin to normalize relations with Cuba mean for baseball?
Will Cuban players be allowed to join MLB teams? Will Cuban players who defect be permitted to send money back to families and again be welcomed in their homeland? Will MLB place a team in Havana or Santiago? Will the Cuban National Team partner with an MLB team and become a Triple-A affiliate, a replay of the Havana Sugar Canes move to Jersey City in 1960? Will equipment and gear makers such as Rawlings, Wilson and the like flood the island with mitts and bats?
Not so fast.
THE OBAMA EFFORT certainly will alter the Cuban-U.S. dynamic, both near-term and long, but both the U.S. blockade and policies of the Cuban regime need overhauls before the first pitch can be hurled across the Straits of Florida.
Yet one result of the policy change could still spark happy homerun trots by a million beisbol-obsessed Cuban kids. By opening lines of communication, easing travel restrictions for education and athletic competitions, and widening the list of items that can be exported to Cuba, the new policy should simplify the process of delivering needed baseball equipment to partners in Cuba by non-profits such as Beisbol Across Cuba.
Baseball is the national sport of Cuba, and much attention has been lavished on the 20-or-so Cuban-born players, including five All Stars, who dot MLB rosters. All of those players, and nearly all of the 59 Cuban-born players who have reached the MLB since 1995,
developed their games in the Cuban system. Most played in the island-wide league called the National Series and for Cuba’s National Team before fleeing, some by boat, others escaping while traveling with a team, others by equally perilous third-country free agency. All left behind family and homeland, exiled by the Cuban regime’s rejection of professionalism.
Much less is known about Cuba’s youth programs. In the U.S., more than 2 million boys and girls play organized baseball., in Little League, Cal Ripken, or local town programs. Volunteer parents and paid coaches structure teams, practices, leagues and tournaments, and many parents pay an additional $100 per hour for private coaching. Kids rarely meet to choose up sides to play pick-up games.
IN CUBA, where baseball is a national passion, there is no Little League or national program, and few areas on the island offer teams or leagues for kids younger than 12. Instead, kids play pickup games with makeshift rules, anytime, anywhere they can. They choose sides and play games with one or two bases, in the street, in an alley, in parks or on vacant lots. There is little coaching or adult involvement. Instead, kids learn fundamentals by imitating Cuban stars and calling out each other during pickup games.
The other difference between play on the island and the mainland is equipment. American kids haul to games and practices oversized backpacks filled with $300 gloves, $400 bats, baseball cleats, batting gloves, baseballs, compression gear, helmets — the total cost easily adding up to more than $1,000. Many of those young U.S. players have even more gear from years past piled in a closet at home, making American players and their parents the perfect deep-pocket foils for the marketing minds at Easton, Rawlings, Wilson, Mizuno, Nike.
Cuban kids on the other hand, thanks to the U.S. blockade and Cuba’s dire economic plight, fashion gloves from cardboard and twine, and any player lucky enough to possess a real glove is expected to share with teammates and opponents. A length of tape transforms a rock into a baseball. A heavy stick or discarded table leg serves as a bat.
Several organizations over the years have sent recycled gear to partner organizations in Cuba, and several high school teams have traveled to Cuba to play games and distribute equipment. Props to all indivuals and organizations for their efforts.
THE MISSION of Beisbol Across Cuba is to build on those efforts. In 2015, BAC partnered with Christ Church Bronxville for its first trip to the island. Going forward, BAC will expand collection and delivery systems, seek to develop corporate sponsors, and, eventually, organize games for U.S. and Cuban teams, and develop educational opportunities for young Cuban and U.S. scholar athletes.