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Baseball in Fidel Castro’s Cuba is a story of obsession, propaganda and oppression

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Fidel Castro’s death over the weekend has, not surprisingly, led to a lot of commentary about the contradictions presented by Cuba’s late dictator. The best and most thorough example I’ve seen so far is the Miami Herald’s extensive, incredibly researched and no doubt long-in-advance written obituary of Castro. Go read it in full if the topic interests you, but nowhere will you read a better handling of the life of the man who cloaked brutal dictatorial autocracy in hopeful, revolutionary rhetoric of societal transformation. The brutality he achieved was manifest. The transformation was noticeable in places, but almost always greatly overstated by those who would defend him and, ultimately, inextricable from the oppression.

Castro’s legacy in our area of interest, baseball and sports in general, is something of a microcosm of all of this.

As Peter C. Bjarkman’s article about Castro and baseball over at The Society for American Baseball Research from last March* reveals, unlike a lot of dictators who use sports solely as propaganda, Castro had a genuine love for baseball. He never played it at a high level — those often-repeated stories of him getting a tryout for the Washington Senators are completely bogus — but he certainly enjoyed it a way that, say, East German officials did not enjoy swimming and Soviet officials did not enjoy hockey. Yet, like his communist counterparts, Castro unquestionably used baseball for propaganda purposes. Primarily as a means of showing up the United States:

But Fidel’s consuming interest and latent talent was never foremost in baseball itself. His strong identification with the native game after the 1959 Revolution – he followed the Sugar Kings as dedicated fan, staged exhibitions before Cuban League games, and played frequent pickup games with numerous close comrades – was perhaps more than anything else an inevitable acknowledgment of his country’s national sport and its widespread hold on the Cuban citizenry. It was also a calculated step toward utilizing baseball as a means of besting the hated imperialists at their own game. And baseball was early on also seen by the Maximum Leader as an instrument of revolutionary politics – a means to build revolutionary spirit at home and to construct ongoing (and headline-grabbing) international propaganda triumphs abroad.

Yet, as Bjarkman argues pretty convincingly, Castro’s use of baseball revitalized the sport in Cuba in many ways. For baseball purposes, Cuba had increasingly become the playground for the Major Leagues, with the Reds Triple-A team playing in Havana and the Cuban Winter League serving as a greater professional training ground and showcase. It was not anywhere near as fully developed on the amateur level as it would later become, however. Professionally, baseball collapsed in Cuba post-revolution, as Castro kicked out American interests and banned all professional sports. But it began to thrive on an amateur level after that, with the game coming to play a far greater role in the lives of everyday Cubans than it ever had before. The fruits of that transformation can be seen in virtually ever neighborhood and village in Cuba. It can be seen in Cuba’s long (though now somewhat waning) period of international amateur dominance. It can be seen in the country’s development of scores of elite ballplayers who began to make their way into the majors in serious numbers in the 1990s and are coming still.

Which, of course, is no defense of Castro or his methods. While amateur baseball may have thrived as an institution, the institution has long been itself a source of control and, often, oppression. Oppression of both the boys and men who played it as well as their families and friends. An elite young ballplayer could be a hero in Cuba, but his life and fate was in Castro’s hands. The institution Castro created has led to some Cuban-born players making millions, but it also put them in a position where their choices were few and the making of them led to suffering. For others, it put their very lives risk. For others still, it made them victims of human trafficking or extortion plots or worse.

Castro may have helped create the means for baseball to grow and advance in Cuba, but his brutal rule arrested the development and limited that advancement of the game’s top players and sent them hurtling into chaotic uncertainty. It was used as a lever to control them and their loved ones. And, as we have read about time and again in stories of ballplayers who attempted to defect, the politics of baseball and freedom under Castro could and did land people in prison and almost certainly cost many their lives. As time goes on and more is learned about the Castro regime, we’ll no doubt hear more about how the players who did not rise to the top were likewise harmed as Castro’s simultaneous passion for and propagandist use of baseball manifested itself.

As with almost everything about Castro’s legacy, there are elements of his baseball legacy which someone, if they were so inclined, could point to and characterize as a positive thing. But to do so without including the oppression and brutality of Castro’s autocratic regime is to fail to tell the whole story. Nothing occurs in a vacuum and, by definition, no dictator’s ends are achieved without tyranny, thus tainting those ends. Tallying pros and cons is an exercise in false equivalency when the cons are counted in human lives.

*Bjarkman’s article was summarized in today’s New York Times.

Miguel Sano fouls a ball off his shin, so a columnist slams him for his weight

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As Bill wrote last night, the Twins have placed third baseman Miguel Sano on the 10-day disabled list with a stress reaction in his left shin. He sustained the injury Friday after he fouled a ball off of his leg, attempted to play through it, and left the game on Saturday when the pain became too great.

That’s baseball, though, right? Sometimes you foul a ball off your foot or your shin or something. Stuff happens and you just gotta accept it. Unless, of course, you’re Jim Souhan, columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, in which case you use it as a pretext for going after Sano for his weight:

Souhan acknowledges that Sano injured himself with the foul ball and says that he’s not fat-shaming him. He says he’s merely concerned about him and how well a man of his size can recover from injuries. Maybe that would wash for most columnists, but it doesn’t for Souhan, who has made it his business over the years to treat illness and injuries of sports figures as moral failings and evidence of poor character.

His most famous target has been Joe Mauer, who he has slammed as “fragile” for years, arguing that he was coddled for missing time and losing effectiveness to a concussion — a concussion! — which he compared to “a bruise.” Given that Souhan had a front row seat for a concussion all but destroying the career of Justin Morneau you’d think he’d have a bit more empathy about that, but apparently not. Then again, this is a guy who once wrote that the University of Minnesota football coach should be fired because he has epilepsy, so empathy is not his strong suit.

And so it is with Sano. A guy injured with a foul ball which, apparently, makes him deserving of a sermon about watching his weight. It’s a column I would bet Souhan has had written and saved for months, hoping he could use it in the event Sano went on the disabled list for some conditioning-related ailment or a pulled muscle or something, but which had to be pressed into service for this occasion.

It’s practically pathological. And it’s sad.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Tigers 6, Dodgers 1: Justin Verlander dominated the Dodgers, allowing one run on two hits over eight innings, snapping their six-game winning streak. Audition for Verlander? He lives in L.A. in the offseason and would waive his 10-5 rights to play there, I imagine. Not that the Dodgers really need any help.

Royals 7, Indians 4:  Cheslor Cuthbert homered and drove in three runs for the Royals. Between him and Whit Merrifield, Kansas City has more guys with names that sound like they belong to prep school bad guys from a 1980s snobs vs. slobs movie than any team in baseball history. Add Cam Gallagher to that list. He drove in a run too. Afterwards they had a meeting to try to figure out just how they keep losing to the nerd fraternity/poor kid camp/random band of neighborhood misfits in whatever improbable sporting event they’re all competing in. Thing is, they’ll never figure it out AND the nerds/poor kids are gonna steal their girlfriends. Sad.

Angels 5, Orioles 4:  Kole Calhoun and Andrelton Simmons homered and Cameron Maybin drove in the go-ahead run with a pinch-hit single in the eighth. The Angels have won nine of 11. Orioles pitchers issued nine walks. Yep, the Angels walked nine times.

 

Braves 8, Reds 1: Atlanta rode a six-run fifth inning to victory and that inning was powered largely by a Tyler Flowers grand slam. Braves starter Sean Newcomb tossed five shutout innings, allowing five hits but also walking five guys which is sort of what he does. I don’t have a “five times” GIF.

Twins 12, Diamondbacks 5: The Twins scored nine runs in the first — yes, they scored NINE TIMES — thanks in part to an Eddie Rosario grand slam. Per baseball rules, a forfeited game is scored 9-0 in favor of the winning team. The Dbacks shoulda just thrown in the towel after the first inning and hopped their flight to New York a lot earlier. Really, playing out the rest of this one had to pale compared to 2-3 extra hours to do stuff in New York. In other news, Bartolo Colon won his third game in five starts for the Twins. It’s his first ever win over the Dbacks, which was the last team he had never beaten.

Marlins 6, Mets 4: Giancarlo Stanton hit a three-run homer, turning a 2-1 game into a 5-1 game. It was his 45th dinger of the year. Adam Conley backed him up by allowing one run over seven innings and striking out 11 before the Marlins bullpen got a bit roughed up, but they held on. The Mets have lost six of nine, which is not nice.

Rays 3, Mariners 0: Blake Snell tossed seven shutout innings, allowing only two hits. Kevin Kiermaier homered. He went 5-for-12 with a couple knocked in on his first weekend back following a two-month absence, so he definitely landed on his feet. Seattle took two of three from the Rays, however, and remains one and a half games back of the Angels and Twins for the second Wild Card. Tampa Bay is four back.

Red Sox 5, Yankees 1Jackie Bradley Jr. drove in three with an RBI triple and an RBI single and Rick Porcello and three relievers allowed only one run on three hits. Boston extends its lead over New York to five games after taking two of three from the Yankees.

Athletics 3, Astros 2: How are things going for the Astros lately? Like this, mostly:

That’s how two of the A’s three runs scored. The third: on a passed ball. Woof.

Cubs 6, Blue Jays 5: It was tied 3-3 heading into the 10th inning and then the Jays scored two. Most times that’d be enough to win an extra innings game — in fact, per ESPN, teams with multi-run leads in extra innings were 50-0 this season before yesterday — but the Cubs scored three, with one coming in on a wild pitch and two coming in on Alex Avila‘s walkoff single. Two of the Cubs base runners that frame reached on strikeout/wild pitch combinations too. Not an inning Roberto Osuna will remember fondly.

White Sox 3, Rangers 2: Miguel Gonzalez shut the Rangers out for six and two relievers made it eight shutout innings in all. Texas made it close in the ninth thanks to a two-run homer from Rougned Odor, but it was too little too late. Tyler Saladino doubled in two runs for Chicago in their three-run fourth inning, Omar Narvaez singled in the other one.

Brewers 8, Rockies 4Jesus Aguilar hit two homers, driving in three and scored three times. Keon Broxton knocked in a couple of runs with a single. Chase Anderson allowed one run and two hits in five innings in his first start since late June.

Phillies 5, Giants 2: Pedro Florimon doubled in a run early and hit two-run single late to give the Phillies the lead. Rhys Hoskins homered for some insurance in the ninth, his fifth in 11 games. If you’re really bad, having one young kid come up late in the year and look good is a pretty decent silver lining on that cloud. No word what the Giants are doing for silver linings these days.

Nationals 4, Padres 1: Gio Gonzalez allowed one run on five hits — all singles — and struck out eight in six and two-thirds. Daniel Murphy drove in two of the Nats four runs. The Nats took three of four from San Diego.

Pirates 6, Cardinals 3: Josh Bell homered and drove in four runs in the first ever Little League Classic, which took place on a converted Little League field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, not far from the Little League World Series. Coolest part, aside from the fact that the players all hung out with Little Leaguers all day and the Little Leaguers getting front row seats at the game: after it was over, the major leaguers lined up on the field and did the “good game” high five line, just like you did when you were 12. The highlights, with the handshake at the end: