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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.

Dodgers clinch NL’s top seed, West title with win over A’s

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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Wrapping up an NL West title has become routine for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but in a year in which no one was sure three months ago if there would be a baseball season, manager Dave Roberts wanted his team to still savor the moment.

The Dodgers clinched the NL’s top postseason seed and eighth straight division title Tuesday night with a 7-2 victory over the Oakland Athletics. They are third team to win at least eight straight division titles, joining the Atlanta Braves (14 straight from 1991-2005) and New York Yankees (nine straight from 1998-2006).

“To fast forward a couple months and be crowned NL West champs is a credit to everyone. It should never be taken for granted,” Roberts said. “Truth be told a lot of guys didn’t know we could clinch. We were responsible but I let it know that it has to be appreciated.”

The Dodgers, who own the best record in the majors at 39-16, were the first team in the majors to clinch a playoff berth on Sept. 16. They will open postseason play on Sept. 30 by hosting every game in a best-of-three series against the No. 8 seed.

Los Angeles came into the day with a magic number of two and got help with the Angels’ 4-2 victory over the San Diego Padres.

Instead of a wild celebration on the mound after Jake McGee struck out Sean Murphy for the final out, players briskly walked out of the dugout to celebrate with teammates. Everyone grabbed a division clinching shirt and cap before heading to the mound for a group photo.

The clubhouse celebration was also muted. Champagne was still involved, but it was players toasting each other with a glass instead of being showered in it.

“We talked about it instead of dumping stuff on people. It’s a moment you need to celebrate and we did,” said Corey Seager, who had three hits and one of Los Angeles’ four home runs, “It stinks not being able to do champagne and beer showers because some of the younger guys haven’t been able to experience that.”

Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and AJ Pollock also went deep for Los Angeles, which leads the majors with 104 home runs.

“This whole year has been weird. There’s no other way to describe it,” Muncy said. “It’s sad not to be celebrate as usual but we know there is a lot more at stake.”

Dustin May (2-1) went five innings and allowed two runs on three hits. The 22-year-old red-headed righty set a team record by not allowing more than three earned runs in his first 13 career starts, which include 10 this season.

Robbie Grossman homered for Oakland, which clinched its first AL West crown in seven years on Monday during a day off. The Athletics, in the postseason for the third straight year, currently are the AL’s No. 3 seed.

Mark Canha had two of Oakland’s five hits.

Seager tied it at 1 in the first with an RBI single and then led off the fifth with a drive to center off T.J. McFarland to extend LA’s lead to 6-2.

Muncy gave the Dodgers a 3-2 lead in the third inning with a two-run homer. Taylor and Pollock extended it with solo shots in the fourth off Oakland starter Frankie Montas (3-5).

Grossman quickly gave Oakland a 1-0 lead when he homered off the left-field pole in the first inning. Sean Murphy briefly gave the Athletics a 2-1 advantage when he led off the third with a walk and scored on a wild pitch by May with two outs.

Montas, who allowed only four home runs in his first seven starts, has given up six in his past three. The right-hander went four innings and yielded five runs on seven hits with a walk and three strikeouts.

“They’re a pretty good team that when you make mistakes, they make you pay,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “They’re pretty good laying off and making you throw it over the plate. They made Montas pay, unfortunately.”

Cody Bellinger added two hits for the Dodgers, including an RBI single with the bases loaded in the seventh.

ATHLETICS ADVANCE

The A’s have a team text thread they used to celebrate clinching their first AL West title since 2013 during their off day Monday, when the Mariners beat Houston.

“We didn’t really celebrate too much yet. It’s exciting,” Chad Pinder said. “We wanted to do it on our own terms. We still won the division and that was our goal. It’s nice to know we’ll be playing home for the series.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Athletics: INF/OF Pinder (strained right hamstring) planned to run at Dodger Stadium and test his leg with hopes of still playing before the conclusion of the regular season. …. RHP Daniel Mengden has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Triple-A Las Vegas. He was designated for assignment after being medically cleared and reinstated from the COVID-19 injured list following a positive test from Aug. 28.

Dodgers: 3B Justin Turner was scratched from the lineup less than an hour before first pitch due to left hamstring discomfort He came off the injured list on Sept. 15 and has not played in the field since Aug. 28. … Joc Pederson was in the lineup at DH after missing five games while on the family emergency medical list. Roberts said before the game that he wasn’t sure if Pederson will remain with the team during the entire postseason.

UP NEXT

Athletics: LHP Sean Manaea (4-3, 4.50) is 4-1 with a 2.25 ERA over his last five starts dating to Aug. 20.

Dodgers: LHP Julio Urias (3-0, 3.49) will make his team-leading 11th start.

AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this story.

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports