As April yields the start of baseball season once again, players of all make and model can be seen trotting out to the field . In a sport that has begun to yield crops of high-caliber players from all over the world, there is one country that is gaining more notoriety every year: the island of Cuba.
Countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have become hotbeds for baseball scouts and representatives. Unfortunately for their neighbors in, many talented, major-league-caliber players find themselves hopelessly locked in due to the country’s notorious emigration laws. While their peers in other nearby countries can sign at any time, Cuban baseball hopefuls must take a far more difficult path.
Every year, hundreds of young 16-17 year olds in the rest of the Caribbean and South America are signed to six-digit figures by one of the U.S. teams. Representatives for each organization spend countless hours combing through the prolific talent populated under the sun. These scouts will conduct thorough investigations of each player’s ability, as well as go through a lengthy process to confirm that player’s identity. While it may sound like a lot of trouble, finding the next Johan Santana or Hanley Ramirez could make or break the future of the organization.
Typically, access these adolescent players is free and largely unregulated. Except in Cuba. There, players must resort to many alternate methods of garnering the coveted attention. Scouts for MLB teams are not permitted there to scrutinize the masses of young baseball hopefuls. Instead, most Cuban-born players must put their ability on display in international tournaments. These tournaments occur rarely, and although travel is closely regulated, it does not stop some determined Cuban stars from following their dreams.
Aroldis Chapman became a popular name at the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Then a 21-year-old lefthander, he arrived virtually unknown to the baseball world, but flashed ability that soon had scouts raving. With a dynamic upper-90s fastball and electric slider, the Cuban was quickly the talk of the tournament.
While his ultimate game results were average-at-best, scouts quickly realized the nearly unlimited potential this young man held. With plenty of upside still remaining on that young arm, they knew if he could somehow escape Cuba that he was destined for the big leagues. Chapman returned to his native country after the Classic, but knowing he was on the major-league radar, quickly began to ponder the possibilities of obtaining the coveted freedom needed to play in America.
In July 2009, just several months after the Classic, Chapman and his Cuban professional teammates were in the Netherlands to play in another international tournament. It was here that Chapman decided to make his move. The young man with the golden arm walked confidently out of his team’s hotel sometime in the evening, entered a waiting car outside and was quickly ushered away from the hotel.
Chapman wasted little time in establishing residency in the European country of Andorra. From that point on, he was eligible to sign with an American team as an unrestricted free agent.
“I walked out easily, right through the hotel door, and I hopped into a car and left,” Chapman said of his defection “It was easy. Now the plan is to sign with a major league team.”
The Cincinnati Reds made his aspirations a reality, when in January of 2010 they signed him to a five-year major-league contract worth about $30 million.
While the decision to pursue baseball in the U.S. seemed simple for Chapman, he had family considerations to weigh into the equation. He left behind him in Cuba a fiancé who was pregnant with their first child. Now making millions stateside, he has resolved to find a way to bring his young family to America to share his dream.
For the families of Cuban defectors, life is far from easy. When Phillies reliever Jose Contreras defected to Mexico in 2002, he left behind a wife and family who in turn were taxed heavily by the nation embarrassed to lose one of their star players. Despite this concern, Cuban players are still taking the risk and defecting from their travel teams, hoping to score multi-million dollar deals with U.S. teams.
Noel Arguellas and Jose Iglesias slipped away from their teammates at the 2008 World Junior Championships in Canada. They were then able to obtain visas in 2009, and did not hesitate to cash in their skill for a handsome reward. Arguellas, now 21, signed a five-year, $7 million deal with the Kansas City Royals. Iglesias signed with Boston for four years and $8.2 million. Both will have to work their way up from a minor-league level, but scouts are confident that the players will someday be productive major leaguers.
While Chapman, Arguellas, and Iglesias all escaped on foot, others have taken the more difficult route. L.A. Angels first-baseman Kendry Morales took a boat from Cuba to Florida in 2004. Orlando Hernandez did the same in 1997.
No matter how they make it, Cubans are finding ways to represent their country in increasing ways. Stories of players who go against the odds to pursue their dreams and succeed will continue to inspire baseball fans of all kinds.
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