The baseball stars who ignore MLB to stay loyal to Cuba ... and Canada

Cuban players can make millions if they defect to the United States but others prefer to plot a career path that will keep them close to their families.

Most of the year, Noelvis Entenza pitches in Havana’s historic Estadio Latinoamericano, a ballpark that shakes from the 55,000-capacity crowds and where the buzz of fans’ horns drowns out the players on the field.

But when Entenza’s season ends, he gets on a plane and flies north – to Kitchener, Ontario, where he pitches in front of crowds of a few hundred in a semi-professional baseball league a world away from his life as a star in Cuba’s National Series.

“In Cuba, it’s so crazy. Here, they sit quiet, like in church,” he says, through a translator.

Entenza, a 33-year-old right-hander for the Havana Industriales, is one of four Cubans playing in Canada this summer under a unique agreement with the Cuban baseball federation. While dozens of their former teammates have defected from Cuba in pursuit of millions in Major League Baseball, they’ve chosen to stay loyal to their country.

Entenza, Miguel Lahera, Jonder Martinez and Yorbis Borroto, all veterans from Cuba’s national team, play for the Kitchener Panthers of the Intercounty Baseball League. But while they’re good enough to pursue much bigger paychecks in the US, they say there’s more at stake than just money.

“It’s a decision each person has to make. Every one is different,” said Entenza, who has watched teammates from Jose Abreu to Yasiel Puig to Lourdes Gurriel Jr flee for riches in the MLB.

These players, meanwhile, say they’re happy to be allowed to play abroad, without breaking any laws. After their season in Canada ends, they’ll return home to their families, and their respective Cuban teams.

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“Playing in the MLB is the dream, but we want to play legally,” said Borroto. “We play for our family and our country. To play for a million dollars and be away from Cuba, that’s a big change … We feel good to play in Cuba.”

Two years ago, there were great hopes things were improving. MLB and Cuba were discussing ways for Cuban players to sign with big league teams without having to defect. President Obama went to Havana to watch a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. Lahera, Martinez and Borroto all played in that game, and say they felt they were close to something historic.

“It was very emotional,” said Lahera, who has also pitched for Cuba in the Olympics and World Baseball Classic. “I was proud to know we could play with major league players.”

“We came here because it’s a new experience. We wanted to show other countries that Cuban baseball is a good quality,” said Borroto, who plays for the Ciego de Avila Tigres in Cuba. “We wanted to get experience from another country and learn a different style to play.”

By coming to Canada, the four Cubans hope they’re starting something bigger, something that could eventually lead to other Cubans playing legally in the MLB.

WBSC names SSK as Official Ball for Premier12, 2020 Olympic Baseball and Baseball World Cups

The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) and the Osaka-based SSK Corporation today announced a partnership expansion that makes the iconic Japanese brand the Exclusive/Official Competition Ball and Kit Supplier of baseball’s biggest upcoming international events through 2020, including the top-tier 2019 Premier12, the 2020 Olympic Games and 2018-2020 Baseball World Cups.

The agreement expands upon WBSC and SSK’s already existing global partnership, which made SSK the exclusive Umpire Kit Supplier for the inaugural 2015 Premier12 and Baseball World Cups (U-12, U-15, U-18, U-23, and Women’s) for the 2015-2020 cycle.

As part of the newly expanded agreement, and beginning with the upcoming WBSC U-15 Baseball World Cup 2018 in Panama this August, SSK will have a major presence on the field of play of WBSC international baseball events, with the umpires kit, WBSC officials apparel and competition ball all derived from SSK’s elite product line.

In addition, the SSK logo will be featured on all outfield fences and within team dugouts, and the SSK corporate video will be shown on the scoreboard during select WBSC Premier12 and Baseball World Cup games. The innovative Japanese baseball brand will also have an in-stadium presence that includes space for setting up exhibitions. SSK will also have the right to use the WBSC, Baseball World Cup and Premier12 logos for other promotional and advertising activity.

WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari said: “Only an iconic and elite baseball brand like SSK could be trusted to fill this critical role during what will be some of the most impactful and most watched international baseball events in history. WBSC is delighted to welcome SSK as the Official Competition Ball and Kit Supplier of international baseball and expand upon our partnership that has spanned more than 20 years. With committed partners like SSK, we will continue to drive baseball into a new and golden global era.”

SSK President Kyoichi Sasaki said: “SSK’s brand motto is ‘Baseball, it’s our game’. We strive to connect the world through the sport of baseball and help them achieve a better life. SSK will be providing official competition balls to Baseball World Cups of all categories, from U-12 to professional – competitions that crown the best baseball country in the world. SSK has been supporting WBSC with umpire gear and apparels for over 20 years, and through this agreement with WBSC, we aim to contribute to baseball’s further development in the world.”

Established in 1950, SSK has evolved into one of the most elite and innovative baseball brands whose products are used by many top professional players and clubs around the world.

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Cuba overflowing with talent despite defections

There's not much Roberto Pacheco has not seen during his five decades in the radio booth calling baseball and boxing for Cuba.

He has been to five Olympics, countless international tournaments and all four World Baseball Classic tournaments.

He's one of the most famous figures on the island, the eyes and voice of the Cuban people.

"With the internet, people can hear me all over, not just [in] Cuba," Pacheco, 76, said in Spanish. "It's such a great pleasure to be able to share the game with all of the passionate fans we have. Baseball is life in Cuba, so to have this job is honor."

The baseball landscape continues to evolve in Cuba, but a few things remain the same: The Cuban team enters every international tournament confident it's going to win it, and Pacheco is there to call the games. The confident team from the province of Granma won its first game of the Caribbean Series on Friday, and the island's famous radio broadcaster was delighted to send the news back home.

"Good game, right?" Pacheco said after Cuba's 6-4 victory over Venezuela. "I told you we can play." Cuba later improved to 2-0 in the tournament with its 5-4 win over Mexico late Saturday night.

The bearer of mostly good -- and sometimes bad -- news, Pacheco still believes Cuba's Serie Nacional, the island's top league, and the national team is a force on the international baseball scene despite the defections that have depleted its rosters in recent years.

"Players leaving Cuba was not good for us," Pacheco said. "But we have talent, and we should be respected. The players might be young, but we still have good players."

Supporters of Cuban baseball point to the island's success in international tournaments in the 23-and-under category and younger. There's also the belief that outfielders Yoelqui Cespedes, younger brother of Yoenis, and Victor Victor Mesa could be the face of Cuban baseball in the future.

Additionally, there are signs that young pitchers Yariel Rodriguez, Yosimar Cousin, Yosver Zulueta, Javier Mirabel and Pablo Guillen will eventually become leaders on the mound. Infielders Norel Gonzalez, Yolbert Sanchez and Ariel Martinez could also develop into national-team stars.

"I do think baseball in Cuba is advancing," veteran Cuban outfielder Alfredo Despaigne said in Spanish. "We are getting there little by little. We have a lot of young players who want to play, and we hope they stay that way, but we have lost a lot who have left the country."

In the short term, Cuba is focused on winning its ninth Caribbean Series title. The team has 17 members of its most recent World Baseball Classic team in Mexico, but it will still have overcome some uneven play in recent years.

In 2014, Villa Clara became the first team from Cuba to participate in the Caribbean Series since 1960, and it was eliminated in four games. The next year, the team from Pinar del Rio won the title. Cuba was eliminated in the semifinals in 2016 and finished with a 3-2 record last year.

"We have a chance to be great again," Pacheco said. "But that's only if the players don't leave."

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U.S. Falls to Cuba, 7-2

  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
USA Baseball 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 2 6 1
Cuba 0 3 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 7 13 1
Win: Dachel Duquesne Loss: Gianluca Dalatri
Box Score | Play by Play | Cumulative Stats | Series Stats

CARY, N.C. - Andrew Vaughn and Tyler Frank each drove in a run as the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team fell to Cuba, 7-2, on Thursday in the fourth game of the sixth USA vs. Cuba International Friendship Series from Bill Coleman Field. This marks the first loss for the United States in international play this summer but the U.S. still holds a 3-1 lead in the best-of-five series.

Cuba scored three runs in the second inning for the opening runs of the game led by Juan Torriente singling in a run and Yoelkis Cespedes hitting a RBI-double. Cuba pushed its lead to 5-0 in the fifth inning as Norel Gonzalez and Torriente each drove in a run.

Trailing 7-0 in the ninth inning, the U.S. would score its only runs of the game. Steele Walker started the inning with a base hit up the middle followed by Seth Beer drawing a walk. Vaughn would plate Walker with a single to center field and Beer would cross home on a Frank sacrifice fly to deep center field.

Dachel Duquesne earned the win for Cuba tossing 7.0 scoreless innings scattering three hits with five strikeouts. Team USA's Gianluca Dalatri suffered the loss allowing three runs on six hits with two punch outs over 4.0 innings. Sean Wymer threw 4.0 innings in relief for the U.S. allowing four runs on seven hits with two strikeouts.

The U.S. team ended the game with two runs on six hits with one error, while Cuba finished with seven runs on 13 hits and one error.

The United States and Cuba will play the series finale of the sixth USA vs. Cuba International Friendship Series on Friday at 6:05 p.m. from Bill Coleman Field at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.

The series is sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

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Umpire sues major league baseball for racial discrimination

A Major League Baseball umpire Monday sued baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and the league alleging racial discrimination in baseball's promotion and post-season assignment policies.

Cuban-born Angel Hernandez, 55, states in his suit that he has been passed over several times for a chance to work the World Series despite high marks on evaluations. The suit also charges that even though Hernandez was made a temporary crew chief, it has never been made permanent.

The suit accuses MLB of promoting only one minority umpire to permanent crew chief in the history of the game (a Hispanic) and that only one non-white umpire has worked a World Series since 2011.

There are just under 100 umpires currently on the MLB roster; a Cincinnati Enquirer review of the roster and the photos and biographies attached to it indicates about 10 are African-American or Hispanic.

"The selection of these less qualified, white individuals over Hernandez was motivated by racial, national origin and/or ethnic considerations," the lawsuit says.

The suit comes after Hernandez filed two discrimination charges in June with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Hernandez, who has been an umpire since 1993, worked a weekend series in Cincinnati between the Chicago Cubs and the Reds. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful late Monday afternoon.

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Yovani Aragon amid his toughest game

The commissioner of Cuban baseball talked with Escambray about strategies, hiring, and projections of our national sports.

None of the games he played for Sancti Spiritus in 16 seasons or with the national team in 1998, when he was Cuba’s MVP in the World Championship held in Italy, is being more difficult for Yovani Aragon than the challenge of heading the National Commission of Baseball in Cuba.

Surrounded by a soccer invasion, baseball is bleeding to death among players’ defections. International titles vanished. Fans are bored. U-23 tournament does not meet fans’ expectations. Some, unhappy, target the tournament held prior to the National Series because players have not been paid a dime for what they did last season. But used to tough moments, the native from Sancti Spiritus threw his slider and wipes the sweat away. Escambray follows him play-by-play.

“We are not as bad as they say. We have witnessed a tournament with acceptable technical level. We have witnessed kids motivated and it means health for the sports. Next year, we start over with the U-12 category. It is sort of a guarantee to have this concentration in a single place (EIDE –School for Sports Initiation) since existing scarce sources can be allocated there.”

But there is lack of gloves, bats, balls, stadiums…

Baseball in Cuba is not safe from the lack of resources our country is experiencing. But we have reached municipalities with balls, bats, and jerseys. We use the money earned by the Federation not only for international tournaments and representing Cuba.

Today people playing baseball are not those who love it, but those who can afford it

We know the economic conditions of some families and baseball kits are expensive. We appreciate trainers, parents, and commissions’ efforts and we suggest all provinces to go to remote places. There are talents in Cuba, we just need to go and find them.

How does the National Commission assess desertion in lower-level categories?

It is a problem. Three or four players remain in Cuba from the teams that won the U-15 World Championship and the U-18 Pan American tournament each. We insist on parents and athletes not to be deceived. Not all of them can reach the Big Leagues. We have seen some of them abandoned in the world. No country in the world gives them the attention and love they get here. Most of those who decide to return are reinstated. They have the option of being hired. Some, like Oscar Luis Cola, Raidel Martinez, and Leandro Urgelles, are very young.

What is the policy with those coming back?

Those who left legally —they had the right and did not renege on their provinces— can play the provincial tournament and then the national series, if call up. If not, those players must wait one year because there is indiscipline. One season is not too much for athletes who abandon their provincial teams amid one tournament. Let’s take into account the sacrifice of trainers who teach athletes until they have 18-19 years old and then defect.

Are Japan and Canada the only options?

The Can-Am league is not the Major Leagues, or the Japanese League. But it has very good level with former big leaguers and other players who played AA and AAA. Cuba’s U-18 team will train in Quebec for the world championship. There are other events like the one in Rotterdam, the Cuba-USA friendly match, and the U-15 Pan American competition. Japan has increased its hiring and we have some in Italy. These are the options.

Do you agree Cuba should learn more about signings?

We have been dealing with signings three or four years now and we have done it with already experienced leagues. There are lots of clauses, legal issues that we must learn. We are training personnel so that every contract may be stronger. We are doing good business. We insert protective sections. Therefore, we are not far from the right path.

Any lights on the possibility of playing in Latin American leagues? Where are we in the talks with the Big Leagues?

Caribbean leagues or other leagues related to the MLB cannot hire any Cuban player due to the US blockade. We are still talking with the MLB. Perhaps we are not making great strides, but certain agreements are in place with mutual respect and interests.

Our stance is the same: Cuban players should be able to play that baseball and then return to our country like Mexicans, Venezuelans, and Japanese…Now, those who betrayed our country in any international event cannot represent Cuba yet.

Signings are good but hurt the National Series

We cannot be isolated. The signings are opportunities and most of the time they are positive. Most of them return and play the second stage of the postseason. The National Series will be always played with 16 teams. And there will be a time to group the quality. Cuba is baseball. Do you see a province without a baseball team?

Is it the U-23 tournament the sort of baseball the Cuban Baseball Commission aspires?

The fans are following it with other perspective. But we should understand that this is a tournament for player development.

Do you agree that baseball in Cuba is not in its prime?

No, I say it again: I do not think we are that bad as many believe we are. We played the World Baseball Classic where teams like South Korea and Venezuela —better placed in the world ranking and with big leaguers in their rosters— could not advanced. And we did it with Cuban-born players. It is true there are problems. But we do achieve things and we praise the work of trainers and workers. We are an athlete-producer machine.

But almost all stadiums remain empty, except in the postseason. Day games are hurting baseball players.

The most important thing is that we must demand more efforts from players. It is not about baseball kits or fields. Regarding the game time, we decided to unify the time. However, we are open to allow that provinces can change the time according to their needs. We are planning to change the lights in stadiums.

There are small sample of 90+ pitchers. How do you go to Japan?

Strategies, signings, young players, everything prepares us to face this new cycle to look for the qualification ticket in the Pan American Games. Japan is our goal. We have 90+ pitchers in the U-23 tournament. We are projecting a national pitching school to achieve a more specialized work.

To some, the Commission has lost credibility and authority

I do not know anything about such opinion. The Commission is working hard. Not all you read on social media is true. Everyone has his/her own opinions, and we are open to talk and help Cuban baseball.

Is this your toughest game?

This is a tough one. But we are trying to do the same we did in crucial games: to get opponents out with everyone’s help. I trust we can win this game.

Translated by Sergio A. Paneque Díaz / Cubasi Translation Staff

Cuban Participation in Can-Am Baseball League

Canadian officials will arrive in Cuba to evaluate the participation of a Cuban baseball team in the independent Can-Am League and the possible Cuban ballplayers hiring.

The Can-Am league delegation is headed by its Vice President and owner of Quebec Capitals baseball team, Michel Laplante, who will meet tomorrow and on Thursday with some directors of the National Baseball Department and National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation (INDER).

At the meeting, Cuban baseball team's second-year participation in the Can-Am baseball league, which is played in several Canadian and US cities, will be debated.

Likewise, the issue on hiring Cuban ballplayers will be also dealt with due to the interest of some Can-Am teams, as happened in previous edition.

On the other hand, among the newest issues they highlighted the invitation of an Under-18 baseball team to a youth championship, based in Quebec.

Both parties will hold a press conference on Friday at Adolfo Luque Hall of the Latinoamericano Ballpark.

In previous season, in addition to the Cuban baseball team which had 11 wins and nine losses, a great deal of Cuban ballplayers were hired and included in different Canadian baseball teams´ lineup.

For this season, Can-Am Baseball League is scheduled to begin from May 18 to September 17, with the participation of some other international baseball teams.

  • Published in Sports
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