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By: Amaury Pi-Gonzalez
In Latin America, the Dominican Republic,Puerto Rico,Cuba,Venezuela,Mexico, Colombia, and Curacao (Dutch Caribbean island) are the main producers of baseball talent in the major leagues.
Cuba was the pioneer in Latin America. From Esteban (Steve) Bellán, who in 1871 became the first Latin-born player to compete in a top professional baseball league, to Hall of Famer Tony Perez to Minnie “Mr. White Sox” Minoso, Cuban-born players have been big-league pioneers since the game’s earliest days. Cubans like Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Iglesias and others have been keeping up with the great Cuban tradition.
My friend Roberto González Echevarría is a Cuban-born critic of Latin American literature and culture. He is the Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale University. Back in 1998, I introduced him to Giants manager Dusty Baker. In his book, The Pride of Havana, he depicted the career of Cuban-born pitcher Adolfo “Dolf” Luque, whom in 1923 with the Cincinnati Reds had a record of 27-8 with 1.93 ERA, pitched in 41 games, started 37 games and completed 28 games with a total of 322 innings pitched. He was a Cuban pioneer of fair skin, so he was able to pitch in the majors in the 1920’s. The Castro brothers have ruled communist Cuba during 12 different US Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Donald Trump, and the politics of all these leaders didn’t matter, the Cuban government has never opened to free Democratic elections and still consider the US as an enemy. However, they welcome American tourism because they need the money. When Fidel Castro died (he earlier said he wanted a socialist society where all Cubans were the same) died with about $1 billion dollars in the bank, according to Forbes.
Today, Dominican Republic and Venezuela have the majority of players in the major leagues among all Latin American countries. Most of these countries are not rich countries and some are in dire economic situations. Cuba has been a communist dictatorship since 1960. Many players had to escape in home-made rafts (balsas) across the treacherous Florida straights to make it to freedom in the US. Some defected while playing tournaments outside the island. Yasiel Puig, among others, had to entangle with human traffickers to complete his journey, while the Yankees’ Kendrys Morales tried eight times to escape and succeeded in his ninth attempt. All baseball in Cuba is centralized and ran by the Cuban government, like everything else in that country. There are no diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.
Venezuela, the land of the great Hall of Famer shortstop Luis Aparicio and many others like Miguel Cabrera, is going through an ugly part in their history. According to the United Nations, and reported by AP and Reuters, three million Venezuelans have fled economic and political crisis in their homeland since 2015. In that country, proven oil reserves are recognized as the largest in the world. Since the Hugo Chavez regime and now Nicolas Maduro, that country has collapsed with the highest inflation in the word. It is incredible that in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, people line in the streets searching for food from garbage cans and stand in line to get a bucket of clean drinking water. That is the legacy for Venezuela since they were tutored by Cuba’s communist dictator Fidel Castro. Most Venezuelan players, who usually went back to their homeland to play winter ball, have now left to live in the United States.
Mexico might have the most stable baseball leagues today in Latin America. It is another country full of riches, but mismanaged by governments for many decades. Mexico’s Vinicio “Vinny” Castilla, Fernando Valenzuela and many others in the past. Currently, Dodgers’ Julio Urias and A’s Joakim Soria and Marco Estrada, just to mention a few.
Puerto Rico was hurt by Hurricane Maria, but prior to that, they were in bankruptcy due to poor political leadership. It has been a US territory since 1898 and a “Estado Libre Asociado” (Free Associated State) commonwealth since 1952, but they can’t decide if they want to be a US state or remain as they are due to profound ideological divisions. They have three different political parties with different ideas. Puerto Rico has been a mess way before Hurricane Maria devastated most of that island. Baseball was also hurt by Hurricane Maria. For many years, they didn’t send much talent to the major leagues, but in the last few years, some star players like Astros’ Carlos Correa, Indians’ Francisco Lindor and others have been enjoying great success. The one and only Roberto Clemente along with Orlando Cepeda were both born in Puerto Rico and made it to Cooperstown.
Still, with all those bad governments, Latin American baseball talent will keep growing in the major leagues, just like the population of the US, which is approximately 50-plus million Hispanics.