By Nelson Rodríguez Roque
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
As of last February 16, it was admitted, through a circular of the Provincial Baseball Commission, the insertion in the 43rd edition of the Holguinera Provincial Series of the baseball players Lerys Aguilera and Yusmel Velázquez, who returned to Cuba before the historic agreement between the U.S. Major Leagues and the ball of the Island.
Those who are trying to sabotage the December 19 pact are deaf to stories like those of these boys, victims of human trafficking, but officially returned to the national sport, as evidenced by the fact that they represent their respective municipalities and are invited to the Holguin Stars Game, to be held on Dec. 31 at the Feliú Leyva Stadium in the City of Parks.
– “It’s inhumane what happens to you.”
An extreme situation is traumatic for any human being. That’s when the fibers of what’s made have to come out. This was experienced by Lerys Aguilera, when he decided to leave his country in April 2014 and try on another baseball. Before he emigrated, he was a consolidated figure in our National Series.
Born in Levisa (1985), Mayarí, province of Holguín, “El Búfalo”, at the time of his departure, had played 11 seasons on the Island and had 108 home runs and 434 runs-batted-in. Generally, he occupied the fourth wood of the holguinero representative.
– You declared that you did not advise anyone to take that path…
“Really, I said it and I reaffirm it, because it is something inhuman that happens to you, you become a bait, a commodity. You risk your life, in the end you go through moments you can’t even imagine. In good Cuban, they are siren songs, they promise you and say a lot, but not even 80 percent of that is fulfilled. Unfortunately, I had to live that experience. It’s a good thing I’m still here, to be able to tell it.
– You also talked about your journey in the illegal boat trip.
“I wouldn’t do it again at all. I was in danger twice. I have no idea where we’re going. I almost drowned, even knowing how to swim, but I was in a situation in which, due to ignorance, the clothes, the backpack and other things I carried weighed heavily on me. If I don’t grab the boat well, I fall and nobody would wait for me, as the night was a wolf’s mouth. It’s unspeakable.
– What are the conditions of the Cuban baseball players who do not win contracts and live in the Dominican Republic?
“It’s an odyssey what they live, we communicate continuously and it’s hard to be like this. When you can’t reach opportunities to play in the U.S. or elsewhere, everything becomes a save yourself. You have to do the unspeakable and work in jobs you’ve never done before, to have an economic income that allows you to survive.
“There are many young people who are in the Dominican Republic ‘eating a cable’, in good Cuban I tell you, having a tremendous job. Without support, without hope. I was able to receive help from many people, even before I left for Nicaragua, but not everyone is so lucky. It has been and continues to be difficult for the Cuban baseball players there.
– Many of them illegal?
“Yes, it’s the safest thing. What happens, most of them do their migratory procedures, stay, in Haiti. But once they cross into the Dominican Republic they become illegal. They are from here to there or they are deported. I managed to get my Dominican identity card, which I first saw as a way of being legal, but then it allowed me to be hired. On October 11, 2017, after coming into contact with the Boer Indians, I left for Nicaragua.
– Do you think that other baseball players can be seen with no apparent way out, like you?
“Of course, it’s desperate. When they cease to have an interest in you, everything becomes more complex. The issue of age can also marginalize you. I spend a lot of time thinking about everything I’ve been through. I had depressions and even tried to attack my life. I suffered from extreme hunger in the Dominican Republic and other very hard moments. I had to train on my own. Thanks to the Lord, those kinds of situations didn’t go to the extreme in me and I didn’t carry out my thoughts.
“What is being done now with legal hiring is a magnificent thing. The baseball players can return to their country without any problem. That’s the way I recommend. Ignore the propositions. The opportunities Cuba opens are the right ones.
– Another Puppy in “return plan”
2015 was a record year in terms of departures of players from the country, legal or illegal. Some, such as colleague Francys Romero, put the number at 150. Among the baseball players who left Cuba was right-handed pitcher Yusmel Velázquez, from Holguín, who had played six National Series, with 34 wins and 35 failures, but at the time was already considered the puppies’ best pitcher.
Velázquez, 27, after entering Haiti three years ago on a risky sea crossing from Maisí (Guantánamo) and staying in the Dominican Republic, returned to his province.
“He had been thinking about returning for months,” he said at home in the City of Parks. The native of the municipality of Urbano Noris is on the island since last November 4, after arriving in the company of his wife and son. But that is present. The future can play a good trick on him.
– Why did you decide to emigrate, just when you were already the pítcher leader of the holguinero staff and perhaps you could have integrated some team Cuba?
“At that moment, I went out in search of better economic conditions. Knowing that I had had good previous years, such as when I made the pre-selection for the Central American and Caribbean Games Veracruz-2014 and, personally, I thought I deserved to be on the team, but I was left out.
“Then, we were told that those of us who had been eliminated were going to the Rotterdam Tournament and then I didn’t make the trip either, without any explanation. Everyone who plays ball in Cuba aspires to become a national team and represent the country. I was a little disappointed that, on so many occasions, I had been pushed aside.
There are still some who think that signing with a U.S. franchise is just a formality. How was your particular case in the Dominican Republic?
“It’s not easy, it’s too big a change. You get to a different baseball, you face difficult training, very different from what you did in Cuba. Sometimes you have to spend several months getting in the right shape, so the Major League teams can see your skills. In the case of pitchers, they have to shoot over 90 mph. I saw very few Cubans who managed to sign.
“There’s still a lot of work going on there, because it’s hard to get hired. I came to be in the form required by the franchises, but for reasons beyond my control, for people who decided for me, I couldn’t be signed. They were three years lost, although at the same time I do not deny that I gained in experience and learning, and perhaps, with the knowledge acquired, I will be able to be a better pitcher in Cuban baseball and help my teammates.
– The “Dominican dream”…
“To the boys who go that way, I say it’s complicated. That it’s an area where you can’t believe in everyone. They, who capture us, promise many things that, in the end, when you are there, are not fulfilled. There’s a lot of ambition for money and you depend on others.
“I was never foreign to the Holguín team, I always followed it on the Internet, I was watching it all the time. Since I returned to Cuba, I didn’t miss a game at the Calixto García Stadium.
By Manuel E. Yepe
A CubaNews translation.
Edited by Walter Lippmann.
Over the last few years, groups of baseball history aficionados from the U.S. and Canada have been flying to Cuba to visit historic sites related to this sport and various ballparks to watch Cuba’s provincial teams at play.
Because of the measures implemented by the George W. Bush administration to strengthen the U.S. economic blockade, especially the travel ban imposed on American citizens, these groups are made up exclusively of Canadians, all of them Major League Baseball fans.
While here they meet with some of the country’s great sporting figures who used to play in a number of professional baseball leagues in the U.S. or elsewhere in our continent and whose careers and records are known to them, and share memories and news with the ex-players about others who live here or there or have passed away.
These groups also visit the graves of outstanding Cuban athletes, as well as commemorative plaques and monuments put up either to Cuban ballplayers or Canadian nationals in honor of their achievements in domestic or international matches.
Likewise, they get to greet, always with great admiration and respect, many of the current first-class players of Cuban baseball whose performance in Olympic or Pan American Games, world baseball championships or friendly games with MLB or other professional teams have brought them stardom.
Some of these Canadians even keep up with our National Tournament through the Internet.
Particularly emotional is their usual visit to the cemetery of Cruces, a town in the province of Cienfuegos, where Martín Dihigo (1912-1971) lies buried, and to the Municipal Museum, where there’s a hall dedicated to the famous Cuban player deemed by many the most complete the world has ever seen.
Martín Dihigo filled in every position in the field and is the only one included in four Halls of Fame in three countries: Cuba, Mexico and the U.S. (for his record in both the Big Leagues and the Negro League). He was a fantastic pitcher and a great hitter who set plenty of records, some of which are yet to be broken.
Another significant event is their meeting with Cuban veterans who played in the Majors and gladly share highlights of their life as ballplayers.
I attended one of such meetings where the fantastic African American hitter and Negro League Hall of Famer Monte Irving was present. Now in his eighties, Irving held a friendly argument with the Cuban former MLB pitcher Conrado Marrero, currently a nonagenarian, about a game they played 60 years ago in which the Cuban first struck him out with runners on base and then, in his next at-bat, Irving hit a huge homerun. They both remembered every detail of that game and had a great time exchanging other unforgettable moments of their long-lived friendship on baseball diamonds.
Striking, the way these visitors are delighted at the noncommercial character of Cuban baseball, something they put on a level with the original spirit of the game that North America has lost or is on its way to losing as a result of the growingly suffocating profit-oriented schemes imposed on sports.
If any of them grumbles about a defensive error caused by a flaw of the infield surface or complains that a quality game should not be marred by the use of worn-out balls, there’s always someone who remarks that the authenticity of this sport justifies everything.
It’s incredible to see, when they visit any of the many baseball fans’ discussion circles spread across the country, how well they communicate with the Cubans despite the language barrier, shatter by gestures that all baseball buffs master and use at will, not only in the hurly-burly of a stadium but also in their raucous give-and-take with foreign fans.
Batting averages, ball exit speed ratios, base-running skills, a coach’s strategy and tactics… they’re all described with baseball-like mime and lots of shouting on the side, enough to turn Havana’s Parque Central or any other venue into a genuine, if noisy, friendship forum.
I must point out that some local fans are somewhat distrustful of the visitors, as they don’t rule out the chance that the Canadians might be talent scouts with their eyes on Cuban ballplayers, motivated by political or simply profit-making purposes. They banish all suspicions from their mind, however, as soon as they hear Professor Kit Kriger, a longtime leader of teachers’ labor unions in the city of Vancouver and organizer of these trips, exhort baseball players and fans alike to maintain the purity of the game and keep it beyond the reach of merchants and state with certainty that Cuban baseball outranks American baseball both in terms of competitiveness –as evidenced by the final standings in the 2006 World Baseball Classic– and sportsmanship.
He urged our athletes to devote themselves totally to community sports, turn a deaf ear to siren songs, and always stand by their people, whose support is worth more than any amount of money or consumer goods.
Many of these Canadians interested in the history of baseball have strongly condemned the action taken by the U.S. government to prevent Cuba from being in the abovementioned Classic, as they came within an inch of frustrating one of the most significant events in baseball’s recent history. On the other hand, they highly praised the decision taken by the Cuban government and players to donate any money received at the tournament to the victims of hurricane Katrina, which had destroyed New Orleans only days before, mainly for lack of official involvement. It was Cuba’s attitude what saved the Classic, they assured.
The fact that Cuba finished second –ahead of every other team of the American continent– and even knocked the superpower’s super-team out of the Classic was described by some of them as proof that, far from contributing to the quality of the game, the exorbitant mercantilism ruling over baseball in today’s world detracts from it.
The damage caused by the four-decade-long U.S. blockade on Cuba amounts to more than $80 billion, that is, some $2 billion a year on average. And every year the world votes almost unanimously in the General Assembly of the United Nations against such a flagrant violation of international law.
Something that hardly any U.S. citizen knows is that every time a Cuban player succumbs to a financial offer –made for political reasons rather than for the athlete’s intrinsic qualities– and accepts a contract to play professional baseball in another country, the news travels fast as part as the smear campaign against the Island and its social and political achievements.
How sad that a game otherwise helpful to bring together the peoples of Cuba and the U.S. who love it so much –as shown by these group visits of North American baseball historians– should be used to distort the facts of the Cuban Revolution and encourage defection by promising resources completely alien to the humanism and solidarity values inherent to Cuban sports players.
“Socialism is voluntary”, goes a motto that Cubans proudly voice whenever any high-performance athlete makes such an unfortunate choice and decides to relinquish his or her compatriots’ admiration and affection.
Por Manuel E. Yepe