Why Cuban big leaguers want to form ‘everybody’s dream team’ for World Baseball Classic


The Cubans would come from Arizona and Florida, shed the uniforms of their major-league teams and don something more patriotic. If their audacious vision somehow became reality, they would slip on jerseys with “Cubanos” across the chest, and wear hats bearing a vertical adaptation of Cuba’s flag above the brim. Then they would head out of the tunnels of LoanDepot Park in Miami, site of the championship round of the next World Baseball Classic, a tournament the Cubanos have long ached to conquer.

Yuli Gurriel and his younger brother, Lourdes Jr., would step out to autograph bobbleheads sporting their trademark towering hairstyles. Jorge Soler, with his gold chain bouncing against his chest, would run drills in the outfield. Yasmani Grandal would get into a crouch in the bullpen, preparing to catch a pitch from Nestor Cortes as Aroldis Chapman watches on. Randy Arozarena would flaunt his boots of power and Yordan Alvarez would stand bemused, watching Adolis García and Guillermo Heredia try to out-perform each other in right field.

Later, with the thump of drums and blares of trumpets in a city that is home to the nation’s largest Cuban population, fans would scream, overjoyed to watch ex-patriates like themselves take the field together, at last.

“Imagine a team from Cuba filled with all the talents and all the players that are in pro baseball,” Angels closer Raisel Iglesias said of his countrymen in Spanish when reached by phone last week. “Imagine a team of 26 players filled with superstars. That’d be magnificent.”

The idea is fraught with complications. For starters, Cuba is one of 140 countries in the World Baseball Softball Confederation, which sanctions the WBC. Major League Baseball might risk losing that designation if a team not affiliated with any national governing body is allowed to participate.

Undaunted, a group of current and former Cuban players joined forces earlier this year with lawyers and men who made their livelihoods in computer software and journalism to form the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players (ACPBP). Their goal: To include the world’s top Cuban players in the WBC, on a team independent of the roster the country of Cuba plans to field when the sport’s premier international event returns next spring for the first time since 2017.

The group is preparing to petition Major League Baseball and the WBSC. Though the league declined comment, the first meeting between the parties is scheduled for next week. That’s when the association intends to officially introduce to the world what they’ve referred to on its social media platforms as “Everyone’s Dream Team.”

In the previous four iterations of the World Baseball Classic, nations collected some of their most promising talents and fielded them against the best lineups other countries could muster. But Cuban major leaguers — the best players Cuba had to offer — were not permitted to play for their home country because they defected to play abroad without the Cuban Baseball Federation’s consent.

The few active MLB and minor league players who have participated in past tournaments did so before they fled their country to play in the major leagues. Only a fraction of the active players the Association represents — a total of about 150, including the 26 Cuban natives who have already appeared in the major leagues this season — have had a chance to honor their heritage under the Cuban flag on an international stage.

Cubans, both on the island and elsewhere, are excited about the prospect of their ex-pat stars joining the fold. Mario Fernández, the president of the ACPBP, said he has seen debates about roster composition break out on social media. Fans like to argue over who should play third base. Cardinals star Nolan Arenado, whose father is Cuban, might be an option over Yoán Moncada. At first base, the choices could include José Abreu and Eric Hosmer. Another popular discussion topic has been deciding who would start on the mound in a game against the reigning champion United States.

With more than 100 players in support of the ACPBP, whittling down the roster wouldn’t be easy even for Orlando Hernández, the former Yankees star named general manager of the team, and ex-MLB catcher Brayan Peña, tabbed to serve as field manager .

Leaders of the Association are still far from turning the thought exercises into reality. They presumably would need help from MLB, which operates the WBC in conjunction with the Players Association. That could be a difficult task. Just a few years ago, MLB made a deal with the Cuban Baseball Federation that would have allowed the country’s players to sign directly with major-league teams through a posting system similar to the one used by players from Japan and South Korea. It was blocked by the United States government under President Trump, and politics almost certainly would be part of any discussion about a team of Cuban ex-pats entering the WBC.

Although support for the Association is widespread among fans and players, the entity in charge of baseball in Cuba denounced their efforts in April. Juan Reynaldo Pérez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, said in a press release distributed to state-run media members and other outlets that the Association’s “objectives are political and not sporting, and one of its first actions is … to usurp the place that rightfully belongs to the Cuban national baseball team in the next World Baseball Classic.” The official cited a WBSC statute that says only recognized members “can select their national team and have the exclusive right to represent the country or territory name, flag and colors.”

The Cuban Baseball Federation is also fighting the possibility of seeing the level of play in Cuba diluted further. Although baseball still reigns supreme, the country’s national teams have not fared as successfully as they did earlier this century. Players seeking better means for themselves and their families have been defecting from the country at a high rate for years. Cuba’s failure to qualify for the summer Olympics in Tokyo and the continuing exodus of players has officials on edge, particularly after at least nine players on the national team defected while participating in the Under-23 World Cup in Mexico last fall.

Still, Fernández, a Cuban ex-pat who started a semi-pro baseball league in Chile in 2014, before relocating to the United States in recent years, is confident in his group’s potential to win its case for approval from the WBSC. The Association cites both legal reasons — that the Cuban Baseball Federation is discriminating against Cuban major leaguers because of their political views, considered a violation of WBSC Article 3.1 — and a hunch that including a team of Cuban major leaguers in the WBC is what is best for the sport.

“Everybody believes that this would be one of the best teams in history, if we put together that team,” Fernández said. “And it would force everybody or invite everybody to bring the best.”

Iglesias has heard similar thoughts from players of other nationalities around the game. They marvel at how deep the lineup could be and “say things like, ‘Damn, we want to play against that great team. We want to rival them.’ … They support us and say they hope that our project comes to fruition and that MLB makes the best decision and approves the project so that we can put together a team that could be as storied as the world expects it to be. And be able to provide the spectacle that is expected of the World Baseball Classic.”

Iglesias experienced the WBC firsthand in 2013, before he defected and signed with the Reds. Chapman, who also signed with the Reds after leaving Cuba, played in the tournament in 2009. He’d like a chance to reunite on the field with fellow Cuban natives, most of whom haven’t played together since their days in Cuba.

He thinks it’d also be a treat for baseball fans to see a team of ex-pat Cuban superstars assembled.

“When you watch baseball in Cuba and see the quality of play, you realize that it’s not a team that could properly represent Cuba to the world in the Classic,” Chapman said in Spanish. “The level of play in Cuba right now is too low. The people in Cuba want to see those players that are here in the major leagues, and those who are in the minor leagues and playing (abroad). They see what they’re doing (outside our country) and they want those players to play in the Classic.”

The only way that would happen is through something like the Cubanos. In April, the president of the state-run Cuban Baseball Federation said in a news conference he would allow major leaguers to join the national team, regardless of how they left the country. But Fernández figures there is zero chance that a player who defective would play for the Cuban team in the WBC.

Instead of trying to wade through what could become a messy fight with the Cuban Baseball Federation over naming rights, the Association created its own logo with an adaptation of the Cuban flag and named its prospective team “Cubanos.” The name commemorates the Havana Sugar Kings, the Cuba-based minor league team that started in 1946 as a member of the lower-level Florida International League under the name “Cubans” before operating as an affiliated Triple-A team from 1953 to 1961.

“We are all over the world,” Fernandez said of Cubans. “We want to represent all of us.”

Seeing players don a jersey with the name “Cubanos” would almost certainly be moving for the Cuban diaspora that players and coaches want to support.

Cortes, the Yankees’ left-hander, is one of the dozens of players in the Association’s group chat. He left Cuba legally as an infant with his mom and dad, who won the visa lottery. They settled in Hialeah, part of the Miami area where in 2019 nearly 50 percent of foreign-born residents were natives of Cuba. He isn’t personally familiar with the challenges other Cubans overcame to play in the major leagues but he possesses a strong understanding of their plight. He believes his parents would relish him joining them on the field.

“They know the love I have for the island and the country,” Cortes said. “I feel like they would have loved for me to play growing up over there and have that experience, too.”

Hosmer, whose mother escaped Cuba as a child, played for the US in both the 2013 and 2017 WBCs, and wrote in a text message that his family members “would be honored for sure” if he had a chance to represent Cuba. He recalled that his grandfather used to show him videos of a young Kendrys Morales, who spent the first three years of his professional career in the Cuban National Series before coming to the United States in 2005. After Morales joined Hosmer’s Royals in their run-up to the 2015 World Series title, the two occasionally recorded video messages for Hosmer’s grandfather. “He would love it,” Hosmer wrote.

In a separate message, Arenado said, “Cuba deserves to have their best players play for their country.” He played for the United States in the 2017 WBC.

“It’s all about our professional baseball players representing our people in exile … and showing them that we are in this together,” Peña said. “That we are one heart and one soul.

“My people in exile, we suffer a lot. We go through a lot of things. We have to go through a lot of family separation and sadness and a lot of stuff that a lot of people don’t understand that we go through. (It is important) for us to be there for our people in exile, for us to make sure they know there is an organization representing them, to make sure they know there is a bunch of professional baseball players that have them in our hearts and their bread is our bread.”

Whether the ACPBP gets that chance will be determined in the coming weeks. Iglesias hopes a full resolution could arrive within the month. A decision in July would give Peña and Hernández enough lead time to build the group’s first roster, which could also feature Cubans playing in Mexico, South Korea and Japan. The extra time would also allow them to make sure that everyone committed to participating in the WBC is able to train together during at least part of the offseason.

Until then, the social media debates over which Cuban will play what position will rage on. Fernandez wouldn’t have it another way.

“They don’t have options. … They have baseball,” he said. “So it’s really important for them. We want to do this for the Cuban people.”

(Top photo of Jorge Soler: Bob Levey/Getty Images)

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