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.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.