Blessing or disgrace?
Disgust, above any other reaction, is the first thing that these images, in which the youngest and perhaps the most corrupt of Fidel Castro's progeny, appears "amicably" chatting in Havana with Cuban major leaguers. Politically exploiting nostalgia and filial feeling for political gain is indecent. And that is precisely what this is about. This visit by the MLB to our island had to do with everything but baseball, though I'm not sure that all those directly involved - or all its spectators and analysts - fully understood this.
I hope, then, to be excused this time if I overlook the details as to what this development may or may not mean for Cuban baseball, in particular. In short, whether the visit is ultimately beneficial or humiliating it is not something that depends on what we Cuban baseball fans think. And much less what the regime conspires for it to (a known fact), but rather what top MLB executives decide in the near future. No one else.
Politics, the exercise of which is restricted in Cuba to the whims of the dictatorship, has produced strict rules regarding the areas to receive the attention of historians, anthropologists, economists, sociologists and other scholars of the social sciences, as well as critics and analysts of art, sports, literature and the media, the education system in all areas and at all levels, and publishers.
This is pure institutionalized madness, yielding a cultural debacle whose consequences cannot even be fully appreciated yet, because the chaos has yet to subside. However, with regards to the great Cuban professional baseball stars, it is well known that they were erased from the country's collective memory. Today's youth is utterly ignorant of figures, facts, and whole chapters of history.
The names of 68 famous players were recorded in the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame, located in Havana's La Tropical stadium, when in 1961 the revolutionary government abolished professional baseball and, by (ideological) extension, draped it in a cloak of darkness, which for half a century would prevent the list from expanding, and mean that most of those names are completely unknown by fans on the island.
The main argument wielded by the newly ordained masters of our destiny was that professionalism represented the exploitation of man by man, and that their contracts were inhuman.
Upon abolishing this practice and depriving the people, by decree, of all access to information concerning it, the regimen prevented Cubans from seeing for themselves whether the measure had really been fair and, above all, if it really represented the desires and interests of most people.
With baseball absolutely controlled by politics, it was soon clear that its players had simply changed bosses. Only for them, and for the fans, it was impossible to make comparisons between bosses, due to the absolute total isolation to which they were subjected with respect to professionalism. There is no need to dwell on the comparisons, so often drawn, between professional and amateur sports. It is enough to establish, albeit briefly, how unfair the political powers were with baseball players and fans. First, by imposing upon them their dogmatic desire and ignoring the desires of the majority. Second, by not allowing us the slightest knowledge that would allow us to compare the pros and cons of the two systems.
A new generation of Cuban players, no matter how great they were, would see their families mired in the worst kind of economic misery, without a present, and a future that was only achievable in speeches, They were owed at least the right to know that even before the triumph of the Revolution, in the 50s, Orestes Minoso, a black man who had been a sugar cane cutter at a mill in Matanzas, earned 2,400 pesos a month as the star of a professional Cuban baseball team, at a time when those earning 100 pesos could meet all their basic needs.
The players of the different teams in international post-revolutionary amateur baseball competitions, instead of remaining under humiliating under police surveillance during their trips abroad, instead of being prohibited from freely expressing their views in the press, or having the slightest contact with professionals, even when they were relatives, should have at least had the right to seek feedback (if only technical) on the practice of their sport in the majors, which represents the Mecca of baseball. Not to mention the dilemma Cuban ballplayers faced, and continue to face, when deciding whether to risk fleeing (as in the times of slavery) to try their luck at the professional level, an impulse born of an innate thirst for excellence, which our new exploiters of man decided to classify, absurdly and aberrantly, as a political crime and treason.
Martin Dihigo, Atanasio Pérez Rigal (who went down in history as "Tani"), José de la Caridad Méndez ("The Black Diamond"), and Cristobal Torriente are Cuban players honored in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, USA, a kind of Olympus for players. With the exception of Dihigo, justly called The Immortal, whose name is at least somewhat known by many fans on the island, hardly anyone knows who they are. The fans in the country able to identify them in photographs could be counted on one hand, and there are many who have never even heard their names. Not to mention the widespread ignorance about their athletic achievements. 1977, 2000 and 2006 (in the case of the last two) were the years in which these four titans were enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Whoever seeks the slightest reference to them in the news released by the official Cuban media, based on the dates when they made international headlines, will be wasting their time.
It is known that Tony Oliva, a poor black man from Pinar del Rio, who had to escape the Island with a fake passport, and who in the United States managed to break almost every offensive record in professional baseball, has languished for an entire lifetime, unable to to share each of his major achievements with the Cuban public. Much better known (because he never wearies of talking about it) is Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who, as a star pitcher of the New York Yankees, continued to consider himself a member of Havana's Industriales and in debt to its fans. A movie (a horror or mystery) could be made based on the drama of this masterful baseball player, one of the best pitchers in the history of post-revolutionary baseball.
When the dictatorship's sports authorities suspected that "El Duque" was tempted by the idea of playing as a professional, they suspended him from playing and he was subjected to constant police harassment. It seems that the official plan, as fiendish as they come, was to keep him idle for as long as possible, (as he was 32 years old) so that he would reach the professional level too late and undertrained, if he ever managed to get there. This led him to an almost suicidal attempt to escape on a fragile barge. He could have died trying (as has happened to thousands), but in December of 1997 he reached US shores. The rest, as they say, is history. One of glory for him, frustration for his fans (if he had any), and shame for our island's dictatorship.
It would have at least provided some hope if for this first official visit to Cuba by Major League Baseball, after a long story of horror and mystery, they had presented "El Duque" Hernandez as an ambassador. But we already know why he didn´t come. And that doesn´t mean that those who did were not exemplary. What happens is that they remind us - perhaps unfairly - of what Dostoyevsky wrote: "Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which he is born."