Three years ago, when the Cuban sports authorities finally made the hiring of athletes official for different professional leagues around the world, nobody could certainly imagine at the time that Canada would become the main destination for the Antillean ballplayers.
Japan, the Caribbean leagues and even China’s Taipei seemed to be the best tournaments, with the higher remuneration for Cuban baseball; however, there wasn’t much to do with the executives of those competitions and the Canadian – American League (Can-Am League) stood out as the (almost) only option. It’s not the best one in economic terms, since wages are not higher than two thousand dollars a month, and the event’s quality is not the highest either, but the negotiations between the Cuban Federation and the heads of that event was fruitful and not only the hiring has been favored: a Cuban team is also going to play in the league.
The Canada experience was pioneered, back in 2014, by Yunieski Gourriel, Yuliesky’s older brother, who has been described as the finest Cuban ballplayer over the past decade. During a conversation with PanamericanWorld, Gourriel recalled that, in his first season, with the Capitals of Quebec, “I had a bad time in the first games. I thought I would be sent to the bench. This tournament is practically played on a daily basis, where you plan your own training, and pushing myself to the limit helped me obtain positive results.”
This first approach opened doors for Cuban players and, in 2015, the Capitals brought Gourriel back, along with shortstop Yordan Manduley, fielder Alexei Bell and pitcher Ismel Jimenez. Some lesions stopped the last two from showing their whole potential, but Gourriel was the big sensation, by finishing as the leader of the batting tournament.
In 2016, both the Cuban authorities and the executives of the Can-Am league decided to take the contacts to the next level and everybody was undoubtedly surprised by the invitation issued to a Cuban team, which has already played several of the 19 games included in the program, against the six teams that play in the event (Quebec, Trois-Rivières, Ottawa, Sussex, Rockland and New Jersey.)
This team is headed by Roger Machado, three-time winner of the National Series, and the lineup includes several of the main players that have stayed in the country, as well as other highly-experienced figures. If this experiment works for both parties —at least box offices reported record numbers during one of the games between Cuba and the Capitals, with nearly five thousand people—, then the Cuban authorities would assess the possibility of inserting up to two teams in the next season, even with games taking place in Cuba.
As for the ongoing season, the Capitals decided to hold Manduley and, due to the absence of Gourriel, who retired from active sports in Cuba, they called Roel Santos in, a versatile and fast player, and Yurisbel Gracial, who can also defend several positions on the field.
The Ottawa Champions team also signed up Cuban players: first-base veteran Alexander Malleta and third-base Donald Duarte. These are one-season contracts and these players would return to their teams in Cuba, for the upcoming National Series, to kick off in August.
CUBAN BALLPLAYERS ALSO SHOW THEIR SKILLS IN ONTARIO
While five players and the Cuban team play in Quebec, down to the south, in Ontario, this is the first time in half a century that a Canadian team legally includes Cuban players.
The executives of the Intercounty Baseball League (IBL) explain that they spent almost six months negotiating with Cuban authorities until they were greenlighted to take Antillean ballplayers to that event, where the level is lower than the Can-Am League. The first three chosen players —not hired because that league pays no salary, but the Cuban players get all expenses covered and they are given a “weekly fee”— were three representatives of Industriales in the National Series: catcher Frank Camilo Morejon and pitchers Ian Rendon and Noelvis Entenza. They play with the Kitchener Panthers and, so far, things are doing well.
Morejon has even been the main catcher of the leading Cuban team, while Entenza and Rendon are experienced enough to deal with batters in the IBL. The three players will go back to Industriales for the upcoming National Series.
Will Canada remain as the main destination for Cuban ballplayers hired by means of the National Federation? That’s a fact at the moment, but within the framework of the thaw between Washington and Havana, although an agreement between MLB and the Federation seems to be unlikely to happen due to the huge legal obstacles on the way, the truth is that Caribbean leagues look like the most favorable field for Cuban players.
The possible acceptation of Cuba as a full member of the Caribbean Baseball Confederation, along with the quality of tournaments in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico, plus the possibility to be offered better contracts are strong elements that could finally turn the Caribbean into the favorite destination for Cuban ballplayers that live on the island. For the time being, Canada stands out as the blow-off valve.