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THE CUBAN EXPERIMENT

DIAMOND DIPLOMACY

The Quebec Capitales are making history by fielding a roster featuring the first Cubans to play legally in Canada and the United States in more than half a century. The improbable arrangement with the Castro regime has helped lay the groundwork for negotiations with MLB, which could forever alter the face of baseball.

Posing for a group photo are from left Ismel Jimenez, Yordan Manduley, Alexei Bell, and Yuniesky Gurriel. Four Cuban baseball players were legally allowed to leave the country to play baseball in Canada for the Quebec Capitales. This is a new venture for Cuba which is now only beginning to see a thaw in it's relationship with the United States.

Ismel Jimenez, Yordan Manduley, Alexei Bell, and Yuniesky Gurriel, four Cuban baseball players, were legally allowed to leave the country to play baseball in Canada for the Quebec Capitales. This is a new venture for Cuba that signals a thaw in its relationship with the United States.

Fred Lum/The Globe and MaiL

Michel Laplante leans forward in his seat, marvelling at the play he’s just witnessed.

The president of the Quebec Capitales, a pro baseball team in Quebec City, has travelled a long way to scout players. While the diamonds in Canada have been abandoned for the winter, a new season is in full swing in Cuba. The hometown Havana Industriales – as storied on the island as the Yankees are in New York – are in a tight game against the Matanzas Cocodrilos when a Matanzas hitter smacks a grounder toward second base. It looks like a sure single – until the Industriales shortstop sprints over, lunges and, in one fluid motion, side-arms a throw to first. Perfect.

“Look at this,” Laplante says. “This guy’s probably worth $50-million in the majors.”

Laplante is not exaggerating. It is often said there’s a few hundred million dollars of big-league talent toiling on Cuba’s diamonds at any given time. It sits there, fenced in by the decaying Cold War politics of two opposing forces: a U.S. embargo that prohibits Major League Baseball from employing Cuban citizens, and a Cuban government that for decades has guarded its athletes, denounced the capitalists to the north, and refused to let its players leave.

Cubans have found their way to the big leagues during that time – but always as defectors. Unlike other MLB players, they must choose between baseball and birthright, signing rich contracts abroad yet barred from going home or seeing their families. The money involved has spawned a flourishing underground economy: In exchange for handing over a lucrative chunk of their future earnings, Cuban talent is spirited off the island in the dead of night on boats, by organized networks of smugglers who then sell those players on the open market.

The U.S. government and the Cuban Baseball Federation are rarely on the same page, but they agree on this: The increasing number of players being escorted out with multimillion-dollar price tags on their heads – and threats of physical harm if the money isn’t paid – are pro baseball’s version of a human-trafficking problem. The 2012 defection of Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, held captive by a Mexican cartel while his smugglers shopped him to agents in the United States, is exhibit A.

THE CUBAN EXPERIMENT

Grant Robertson follows the journey of four Cuban baseball players who hope an unlikely stop in Canada will help them realize their Major League dreams.

  • Part One: Diamond diplomacy
  • Part Two: Thursday
  • Part Three: Friday

But there are signs the baseball landscape is about to shift in a big way – and that’s where Michel Laplante comes in.

Against a backdrop of unprecedented change in Cuba, Laplante has travelled to Havana to do something no Canadian or U.S. baseball executive has done since Fidel Castro abolished pro baseball in 1961. He is here not only to scout Cuban players but, ultimately, to take several of them back to Canada – to play professionally in Quebec City, with road games in the U.S.

It is a groundbreaking agreement. The Capitales landed their first Cuban player halfway through the 2014 season; this year they added three others, and next year there will be more. The implications are significant: Amid the historic reopening of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana over the past 12 months, Cuban officials tell The Globe and Mail they are using the Canadian team as a test case for how the country soon hopes to open its doors to Major League Baseball.

“We have set a precedent with the contracts we have done,” says Heriberto Suarez, Cuba’s commissioner of baseball, in an interview.

It is an experiment they hope will send a message to the U.S. after decades of impasse: The present situation is untenable, there is another way, and it doesn’t involve baseball players being held ransom by human smugglers.

“Lots of people, they became millionaires at the expense of our work, with illegal trafficking of people,” says Higinio Velez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation. “We don’t want our players to become a commodity.”

As relations between the U.S. and Cuba thaw, with the landmark reopening of each nation’s embassies this summer, Cuba wants to negotiate another kind of détente – call it baseball diplomacy. Acknowledging the problem, Major League Baseball wants to talk too.

“Our primary focus is coming to a rational, legal and safe way for Cuban players to play in the United States,” says Dan Halem, chief legal officer for MLB. “The involvement of criminal elements [in the smuggling of Cuban players] is an issue we really have to focus on and fix.”

Now a baseball team from Quebec finds itself in the middle of an unlikely peace process.

Michel Laplante, president of the Quebec Capitales, is pictured in his office at the Stade Municipal in Quebec City. Four Cuban baseball players were legally allowed to leave the country to play baseball in Canada for the Quebec Capitales. This is a new venture for Cuba which is now only beginning to see a thaw in it's relationship with the United States.

Michel Laplante, president of the Quebec Capitales, has dealt directly with Cuban baseball officials in negotiating an agreement that has allowed four players to leave the island nation to play in a Canadian-American independent minor professional league.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Risky business

The Capitales’ bus slows to a halt at the U.S. border. It is not yet 6 a.m. on a Friday in late August and the team has been driving all night through a downpour on its way to a three-game series in New Jersey.

Slowly, the bus comes to life. The 22 players onboard know the drill when they hit the border: wake up, get out their passports, and prepare for whatever happens next.

The Capitales, a team in the independent Can-Am League, comprised of players making a few thousand dollars a month trying to climb baseball’s long ladder to the majors, are never sure how these crossings will go. Taking Cuban baseball players into the U.S. – travelling freely on their own – is considered highly unusual. Some border guards have never come across the maroon Passeport de Cuba. Others are convinced the Cubans are going to defect: A few months earlier, the team was ordered off the bus for further questioning.

The border agent climbs aboard and walks the aisle glancing left and right at mostly Canadian and American passports. When he arrives at Ismel Jimenez, the agent shines a flashlight on his paperwork, squints at the pitcher, nods and moves on. It’s a moment Jimenez sees as historic.

“There is a transition happening,” he says. “They’re starting to do things with Cuban baseball, and we’re the start.”

The Cuban government has chosen four players to lead this diplomatic experiment: Jimenez, right fielder Alexei Bell, shortstop Yordan Manduley and centre fielder Yuniesky Gurriel. The deal the Capitales have struck with Cuba is momentous, but it is also risky. Once across the border, any of the players could walk away and the goodwill between the team and the Cuban Baseball Federation would evaporate.

“They told us, ‘Listen, the athletes in Cuba are property of the government. We own them, remember that.’”

Capitales catcher Josue Peley, who was present for negotiations with Cuba’s top baseball officials

Laplante knows this. He has promised Cuba’s top baseball officials – Castro’s men – that the players will make it home without an international incident. It’s a gamble more than a promise, since Laplante has no intention of policing them.

“A lot of people have wanted to do this before, and it has never worked,” he says. “This is a special agreement. It’s based on trust.”

These players are ambassadors of sorts, as Jimenez well knows. As a boy, he pushed thoughts of playing in the major leagues out of his mind, knowing what it meant – that he’d have to leave home, and he’d be branded a traitor, unable to return. He says the dreams of Cuban players who haven’t left are simple: “To go to the United States and be able to go back to my country. Something that’s legal – not like my teammates that have abandoned Cuba on a boat.”

It wasn’t always a matter of choosing between baseball and country. Cuban players were once plentiful in the big leagues.

Baseball arrived in Cuba in the 1860s, imported by college students studying in the U.S. who brought equipment home with them. The sport quickly caught on. In a country anxious to shed its Spanish colonialist past, the American game felt rebellious and new. By 1872, Cuba had its own major leaguer, Esteban Bellan, who was the first of many. By the 1950s, the island was the second-largest supplier of players to MLB after the U.S., boasting such stars as Minnie Minoso and Camilo Pascual.

But that pipeline would dry up soon after Castro took control in 1959. In his standoff against the U.S., El Jefe knew the importance of the game as an instrument of national pride. No longer just an American import, beisbol was now Cuba’s national passion. When Castro introduced socialism, he banned professional sports – decrying pro leagues as “slave baseball.” The U.S. soon placed Cuba under embargo and all ties to American baseball were suddenly severed.

While many young Cuban players already in the U.S. went on to long, illustrious careers – Tony Perez, Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant, to name a few – they eventually disappeared off the professional radar and MLB teams turned increasingly to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico for imported talent.

Rene Arocha defected in 1991 during international competition before going on to pitch in four Major League seasons. OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES

It wasn’t until 1991 that MLB would see a Cuban-trained player on its fields again, when 25-year-old pitcher Rene Arocha defected in Miami and was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. Arocha would spark an exodus, particularly as the economic situation on the island worsened and players saw the huge paydays their defecting teammates commanded. Today, the Cuban Baseball Federation estimates there are 93 Cuban defectors playing at the major league, AAA and AA levels of pro baseball.

Over the years, the Cuban government has agreed to farm out players to leagues in Japan, Mexico and elsewhere, to bring in money for cash-strapped Cuban baseball. But doing so in the U.S. or Canada – MLB territory – was considered impossible until the Quebec Capitales came along.

Fidel’s right-hand man

Had the Montreal Expos not left in 2004, delivering an emotional blow to baseball in Canada, the deal with the Cuban Baseball Federation might never have happened.

“You know when you lose someone in your family, that’s how I felt when we lost the Expos. I grieved,” says Dan Rochette, a former season-ticket holder.

Rochette and his wife soon began travelling regularly to Cuba. They went for the weather, but also to get their baseball fix – to see the Cuban National Series, the biggest collection of talent outside MLB.

“We would go and see six baseball games in a week. All of our budget was for vacations in Cuba,” Rochette says.

On one trip, a friendly waiter invited Rochette to join a local baseball game and he jumped at the offer. The field was covered in rocks, the teams shared one bat, and there weren’t enough gloves to go around – but the skill was unquestionable.

Yordan Manduley waits for his turn at the plate during game against the Garden State Grays at Stade Municipal in Quebec City. The 29-year-old hopes the Can-Am League experiment will mean to bigger and better things for his baseball future.

Yordan Manduley waits for his turn at the plate during a game against the Garden State Grays at Stade Municipal in Quebec City. The 27-year-old hopes the Can-Am League experiment will mean bigger and better things for his baseball future.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Afterward, the Cubans insisted on taking Rochette to meet a local celebrity, so he gamely piled into the back of their ‘58 Chevy. The man they met was Lourdes Gurriel, one of Cuba’s most feared hitters in the 1980s, and a personal favourite of Fidel’s for his ability to humble American pitchers at international tournaments.

Neither Rochette nor Gurriel could speak the other’s language well, but they talked baseball late into the night. On subsequent trips, Rochette brought Gurriel medicine and other sundry items for his family that were impossible to get on the island, and the friendship blossomed.

Sometime around 2008, Rochette introduced Gurriel to Laplante, his friend from Quebec City who ran a pro baseball team and once pitched in the Atlanta Braves system. The men mused about bringing one of Gurriel’s three talented sons up to play for the Capitales, but the idea didn’t go anywhere. The American embargo was far-reaching: You couldn’t just sign a Cuban baseball player to a U.S.-based league.

But Lourdes wanted to try. So back in Cuba, he began lobbying the baseball federation on Laplante’s behalf. Being a favourite of Castro didn’t hurt.

Then two fateful things happened. In June, 2014, halfway through a miserable season for the Capitales, Laplante suddenly got a phone call telling him to come to Havana for talks. Cuba wanted to end its decades-long baseball standoff.

That same week, Capitales catcher Josue Peley was sliding into third base during the ninth inning of a game when he felt a jolt of pain. “I felt like I was being shot in the hamstring,” he says. The torn muscle would put him on the shelf for two to three weeks – and thrust him into a dramatically different role.

“[Laplante] says to me, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Cuba on Sunday?’” Peley recalls. “Like for what? And Michel says, ‘Well I’ve been working on a thing for five years.’”

Born in Venezuela, Peley came to Montreal with his family as a boy but is fluent in Spanish. He was told not to pack a bathing suit – they weren’t going to the beach. He was needed as a translator. Aboard the plane, Laplante briefed his catcher: They were going to see about bringing a player out of Cuba and into the Can-Am league, where the Capitales play a third of their games in the U.S. It had never been done before.

When they arrived at the meeting, held inside a cramped room at the offices of INDER, Cuba’s national sports governing body, Peley froze. “I didn’t know how big it was until I got in the room,” he says. “You have the director of sport in there, and next to him is the right hand of Fidel Castro.”

Quebec Capitales player Yuniesky Gurriel signs autographs for young fans after a game against the Garden State Grays. Four Cuban baseball players were legally allowed to leave the country to play baseball in Canada for the Quebec Capitales. This is a new venture for Cuba which is now only beginning to see a thaw in it's relationship with the United States.

Yuniesky Gurriel, the oldest of three baseball-playing brothers, was selected for the pilot run of the Capitales-Cuba experiment because it was believed that at 32, his age would make him less desirable to Major League teams and thus less a risk to defect.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The negotiations were sensitive, and far more stressful than catching, says Peley, a late-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006. The Cubans had concerns. If the federation was going to release an athlete to play in Canada and the U.S., it needed assurances that the experiment would not end badly. Defections were embarrassing, but equally unpalatable would be a situation where a big-league organization swooped in and purchased the player’s contract. The whole point for the Cubans was to send a player – and have him come back – hopefully opening the door to bigger MLB negotiations down the road.

“They told us, ‘Listen, the athletes in Cuba are property of the government. We own them, remember that,’” Peley says.

Laplante explained that because the Can-Am league wasn’t affiliated with MLB, a big-league team would have to buy the whole franchise to inherit the contract, which ownership wouldn’t let happen. And since the Capitales were technically a Canadian business in an independent league, they weren’t subject to the embargo.

The two sides agreed on a single player – a symbolic gesture. The Cubans’ choice was no accident: Yuniesky Gurriel, the eldest son of Lourdes. It was a safe pick. At 32, Gurriel was unlikely to be pursued by MLB scouts. Unlike his two younger brothers, who are stars in Cuba and highly coveted prospects abroad, Yuniesky never managed to crack the national team’s roster. But he was educated and polite – the ideal ambassador.

The only item left to negotiate was salary. Laplante could only offer $1,600 a month, in addition to a 10-per-cent tax that goes directly to Cuba’s baseball federation. It was a pittance by MLB standards, but a fortune compared to the average monthly salary in Cuba – about $25.

For the Cubans, though, the Quebec deal wasn’t about the money.

Yuniesky Gurriel is pictured in the Quebec Capitalesdugout before a game against the Garden State Grays. Four Cuban baseball players were legally allowed to leave the country to play baseball in Canada for the Quebec Capitales. This is a new venture for Cuba which is now only beginning to see a thaw in it's relationship with the United States.

Yuniesky Gurriel was the first of four Cuban baseball players legally allowed to leave the country to play in Canada for the Quebec Capitales of the Can-Am League.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Flashy brand of baseball

Anthony Ferrara Jr. walked to the mound in Quebec City on the night of July, 23, 2014, not knowing he was about to write a few lines of baseball history.

Recently cut loose by the St. Louis Cardinals’ AA affiliate, the 24-year-old pitcher surfaced in the Can-Am League, playing for the New Jersey Jackals. The Can-Am has its share of journeymen. It’s the same league that Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello laboured in for seven years before eventually landing in the majors. The level is between high A and AA calibre, and the players are hungry to move up the ranks.

The first thing that caught Ferrara’s eye was the unusual bright blue batting gloves the hitter was wearing, which matched nothing on his uniform. Where was this guy from? The minute-long standing ovation from the hometown fans soon gave Yuniesky Gurriel away.

“It clicked – oh this is the guy,” Ferrara says. The batting gloves were the colour of the Havana Industriales.

He had heard the rumblings in the clubhouse about a Cuban playing that night, but didn’t think much of it. Having bounced around the minors, Ferrara played with several who had defected. He didn’t realize he was about to throw the first pitch to an entirely new generation of Cuban player.

Ferrara opened with a few fastballs and got Gurriel to ground out to third. But his next time at bat, Gurriel adjusted. When Ferrara threw another round of heat, the Cuban knocked a pitch past third base. Gurriel’s first hit as a professional under the Cuban flag was in the books.

“You would have thought they won the championship,” Ferrara says. “He got a big roar from the crowd.”

Gurriel remembers the pressure he put on himself, knowing what it meant back home. “My performance had to be impeccable,” he says. “So that my teammates and the rest of the people who gave me the opportunity to be here are also satisfied.”

The debut, part of a 10-3 rout of the Jackals, went largely unheralded, but word soon spread among Cubans in MLB. The next day, Gurriel’s phone rang. On the line was Kendrys Morales, then a member of the Seattle Mariners. Morales had starred for the Industriales more than a decade earlier, but was suspended when the Cuban government suspected he was preparing to defect. After his banishment, he tried eight times to leave the island, ending up in jail at least once, before finally making it to Florida on a raft in 2004. He left bitter – but congratulated Gurriel on his historic moment.

For Laplante, Gurriel’s debut brought criticism from close friends who questioned why he was going to such lengths to bring in a Cuban, taking a roster spot away from a Canadian. Gurriel, meanwhile, struggled to acclimatize himself to minor-league baseball. In Cuba, the Industriales play three days in a row and then have a day off. There’s never a game on travel days. But pro ball is less forgiving. The Capitales play 100 games in 108 days, and the team will often embark on a road trip after a game, drive the whole night, and play the next day. After a few weeks, aches and pains are magnified. “Sometimes your body doesn’t respond very well,” Gurriel says.

Amid that grind, there is pressure to produce: Back in Cuba, players and fans follow Gurriel’s stats closely to see if he can hack it playing with the gringos. At the same time, Gurriel’s new teammates were getting used to him. The Cubans play a flashy brand of baseball, and when Gurriel went after fly balls in centrefield, his teammates held their breath as he caught underhand, his glove nonchalantly down at his hip.

“The way Gurriel catches some balls, I feel like I have a heart attack on the mound,” pitcher Deryk Hooker says. “But he hasn’t dropped one.”

U.S. road trips were also uncharted territory. The first time the team travelled to the border with Gurriel, the Capitales sent a car trailing the bus, in case he was turned away. There were some anxious moments as border guards scrutinized his documents, but he was eventually allowed to cross.

“That was a very big test for the Cubans,” Capitales manager Pat Scalabrini says. “They wanted to see what would happen. ‘Let’s see if he can go over to the States without any problems.’ They were very curious how it went at the border.”

With tension between the United States and the Cuban government, there is a strong possibility that Cuban baseball players will soon be legally allowed to opening pursue their Major League dreams.

With tensions easing between the United States and Cuban governments, there is a strong possibility that Cuban baseball players will soon be allowed to freely pursue their Major League dreams.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A political statement

Gurriel returned to Cuba with a respectable stats line, hitting .321 in 78 plate appearances in his first half-season with the Capitales. But Cuban authorities weren’t focused on the numbers.

In 2013, the country started farming out players to leagues around the world to bring in revenue. It shipped a few of its very best to Japan for million-dollar salaries, and several hundred thousand dollars came back to the federation in the form of a tax of up to 20 per cent.

The experiment in Quebec, though, wasn’t about making money but about testing a new frontier for baseball. With the first test passed, the Cubans wanted to expand the deal, sending four players north instead of one. So Scalabrini began the daunting task of scouting the Cuban league from afar, sifting through stats tables and binge-watching games on the Internet.

“I knew not to ask for the 24-year-old top prospects. They wouldn’t let me have a kid that could defect and sign for big bucks,” he says.

Scalabrini drew up a list of 10 players he liked, and the Cubans whittled it down. At a meeting held in Havana in January, they agreed to send Jimenez, 29, a starting pitcher on the national team; Bell, a 31-year-old slugger who starred for Cuba at the 2008 Olympics and 2013 World Baseball Classic; and Mandulay, 27, one of the island’s top defensive shortstops, in addition to Gurriel.

The Capitales were to begin the 2015 season on a marathon 11-game swing through the U.S. “Make sure our players are playing,” Peley remembers the federation insisting.

After decades of Cold War grudges, the Cubans were out to make a statement. “They just wanted to say: We got players into your country on their own – legally. And they’re coming back,’” says Peley, who had come along as interpreter again.

A few days later, the players signed their Can-Am contracts at a news conference carried live on Cuban television. The players shook hands with their new Canadian employer and, through a translator, relayed a question they’d been wondering about pro baseball: Do we have to bring gloves or do you provide them?

When Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez defected in 1997 to play for the Yankees, he told of how the national team shared six bats between them. To his new teammates, the story seemed apocryphal. While that situation has improved since the worst of Cuba’s economic despair in the 1990s, there are still deep problems. National team players have some access to better gear, but the lower ranks in particular struggle.

Ismel Jimenez in the Quebec Capitales dugout. Four Cuban baseball players were legally allowed to leave the country to play baseball in Canada for the Quebec Capitales. This is a new venture for Cuba which is now only beginning to see a thaw in it's relationship with the United States.

Ismel Jimenez, a 29-year-old pitcher and member of the Cuban national team, chose a different path than some of his former teammates and opponents, which includes Yoenis Cespedes, who defected in 2011 before becoming an established Major League star.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“We have the talent to be in the best leagues in the world,” Suarez, Cuba’s baseball commissioner, told The Globe in Havana. “”Sometimes we don’t even have a baseball, a pair of spikes, a jersey. It’s very difficult — but we have the heart, the passion.”

One of the first things Laplante did in Quebec was take the players shopping for equipment, driving them to a big-box sporting goods store filled wall-to-wall with gloves, bats and cleats.

As the players loaded up, Laplante watched as Mandulay, the shortstop, picked out a $250 glove meant for outfielders. It was a lesson in baseball’s cultural differences. An MLB infielder will use the smallest glove possible, to limit the time it takes, in milliseconds, to pluck the ball from the pocket and fire it to first base. But in a country where the fields are in poorer condition, the larger gloves give shortstops like Manduley a better chance to corral bad hops.

“In Cuba, we have gotten used to wearing big gloves,” Manduley says, adding that he compensates for the extra bulk with speed and agility. “I try to relax when I play the ball, that way I have more mobility.”

Being a baseball player in Cuba means making the most of what you have. When Capitales hitter Ty Young ripped his left batting glove one afternoon, he did what many pro players do: He pulled off the pair and went to toss them in the trash. But Jimenez hurried over. “No, no, don’t throw them away, give me the right one,” the pitcher told Young. He would take it back to Cuba and give it to a player there.

’They decided on a different world’

On the Capitales’ first big U.S. road trip, outfielder Alexei Bell struggled to comprehend his new surroundings. Bell had travelled with the Cuban national team before, and was accustomed to strict rules and curfews.

“What time do we have to be in the room?” Bell asked Peley, who was his roommate on the road. “Any time you want,” Peley responded. “Just be ready for the game tomorrow. The bus leaves at 3, so make sure you’re there.”

“Okay,” Bell said, pondering the information. “But do we have a time that we have to be asleep?”

“No, man,” Peley explained. “You can sleep or do whatever you want.”

Suddenly confronted with the most liberty he’d ever had, Bell stayed in and watched TV. The next morning, Peley awoke to find Bell on the floor, dutifully stretching to get ready for that day’s game.

“We have the talent to be in the best leagues in the world. Sometimes we don’t even have a baseball, a pair of spikes, a jersey. It’s very difficult – but we have the heart, the passion.”

Heriberto Suarez, Cuba’s baseball commissioner

Cuban players are the product of a strictly regimented state system. Pitcher Jimenez, for instance, was born in Trinidad on the south coast of the island, began playing as a boy in his neighbourhood, and was soon channelled into a state athletic school after demonstrating talent.

These academies were an idea Castro borrowed from the Soviet sport machine, which churned out world-class athletes. The system also helped turn Cuba into a dominant force on the field. Beginning in 1987, the national team went on a decade-long, 129-game winning streak, a run that may never be rivalled.

This investment by the state is also the reason Cuba feels a sense of ownership over its players, and some feel an obligation to the system. When Jimenez learned he’d been selected to go to Canada, he packed his bags despite the bad timing: His wife had recently given birth.

“I told [my family] that I was going abroad for a few months, and that was the hardest part for me,” he says.

The $1,600 a month the Capitales pay each player is more money than they’ve seen, but Jimenez spends most of it buying things for the baby and his home. Over lunch, he describes the best hitters he’s ever faced. It is a remarkable list. Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki is at the top, but fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes is close. On the day we talk, the sports shows are abuzz about Cespedes’ game the night before – a three-home-run, seven-RBI performance for the New York Mets.

Jimenez figures he faced the slugger more than 50 times in Cuba, surrendering three home runs before Cespedes eventually climbed aboard a speedboat in 2011 and left for the Dominican Republic. He still follows Cespedes closely.

“They decided on a different world than we did, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop being friends,” Jimenez says.

It’s not easy to tell what the average Cuban player makes – the numbers vary depending on what he has accomplished. Puig reportedly made $17 a month before he left. But experienced players can earn between $20 and $60, depending on bonuses.

Yasiel Puig

Yasiel Puig is a recent example of a Cuban player who earned a lucrative Major League contact after leaving his country. But the troubling story of his defection and others like it serve as a deterrent to some Cubans seeking a better life through baseball in America.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Whatever the figures, they are microscopic compared to the $36-million MLB contract Cespedes signed, or the $42-million for Puig. Numbers like that are a key incentive for Cuba to send its players to the majors, so that the baseball federation can collect a portion of those contracts in tax, or by negotiating fees up-front to sign, as the Japanese leagues do. It’s one of the few ways Cuba can recoup its original investment in the athletes it loses, and put those funds back into a baseball system starved of resources.

Whether Cuba will be able to do that, though, is an open question. Under the U.S. embargo, MLB is prohibited from conducting any business that involves sending funds to the Cuban government. U.S. President Barack Obama has signalled he wants to end the embargo. But if Obama can’t convince Congress to budge, or to somehow carve out baseball from the sanctions, MLB and Cuban officials will be forced to find a workaround agreement that doesn’t involve dollars.

The Quebec deal is interesting in this respect. The arrangement offers little in the way of funds – the 10-per-cent tax the Capitales pay to the federation amounts to a token payment of $160 a month per player. But the team has negotiated other ways to help the federation. As a show of good will, the Capitales send badly needed equipment each year, from bats and balls to batting cages and pitching screens, and help run youth baseball camps on the island.

If the Capitales deal is meant to be a blueprint for MLB talks, those sorts of tradeoffs could be a way of getting around the embargo until it is eventually lifted. It’s a complex new world both sides must figure out.

“It’s hard to know exactly what the position of the Cubans is, because just like our government, there are differences of opinions,” MLB’s Halem says. “I assume the [Cuban] government wants a piece of the players’ salaries. I assume they’re going to ask for that, but we haven’t gotten that far. To be fair to them, that has not been broached.”

Yuniesky Gurriel (CENTRE) was awarded a golden bat for winning the Can-Am League's batting title with a .374 average. Patrick Scalabrini, Director of Operations is LEFT. Four Cuban baseball players were legally allowed to leave the country to play baseball in Canada for the Quebec Capitales. This is a new venture for Cuba which is now only beginning to see a thaw in it's relationship with the United States.

Yuniesky Gurriel, at centre, was awarded a golden bat for winning the Can-Am League’s batting title with a .374 average.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

’These guys are opening doors’

Asked if he regrets that his father never got the chance to play MLB against the best, Yuniesky Gurriel shakes his head. “It’s not sadness,” Gurriel says. “It’s a matter of having to wait until you can leave legally. We don’t like going against the rules.”

It would appear the groundwork for an MLB deal is being laid. Fidel Castro’s son Antonio met with MLB lawyers in New York this fall, and officials with the league have travelled to Havana. This week the league took several players – including at least three defectors – on a goodwill trip to Cuba, and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has talked enthusiastically about playing spring-training games there as early as next season.

Sitting in the stands in Little Falls, N.J., where the Capitales have come to play a three-game series against the Jackals, Humberto Abrahantes is hopeful the U.S. and Cuba will work out their differences for the sake of the game. Abrahantes moved to the U.S. with his family in the 1950s, and now drives a half hour to see the Capitales when they come. It’s the closest he can get to Cuban baseball.

He worries about players who risk their lives to defect, including those who fail to land a contract and end up in limbo, shut out from the majors but unable to go home. There are said to be dozens of those players languishing in baseball combines in the Dominican Republic.

“Hopefully one day things will get to the point where players can go back and forth and things will be normal, like any other place,” Abrahantes says. “These guys are opening doors,” he says, pointing at the Capitales.

The season is nearly over, and Gurriel has emerged as the Can-Am League’s most consistent hitter. He goes three for eight in New Jersey and finishes the season hitting .374. Upon returning home, he’ll be named to the Cuban national team for the first time – a reward for his performance with Quebec.

A few months later, during another meeting in Havana, Cuba’s baseball commissioner tells Laplante he wants to renew the deal for another season. “We want to keep the contract with the Capitales,” Suarez says. “This relationship is about more than money.”

The Cubans understand the importance of the Quebec connection. It is a tiny but symbolic beachhead into Canada and the U.S., demonstrating that Cuba is willing to send players into MLB territory if the right agreement can be struck.

“Although the major leagues are much bigger, I think [an eventual deal] will look more like what we are doing with you guys,” Suarez says. A lot has to happen for the 54-year freeze to end, but the two sides are closer than they’ve ever been.

“We would do what it takes now,” says Velez, the president of Cuba’s baseball federation.

For the Cubans, it’s about no longer being treated as pariahs in the baseball world. It is also a question of whether two baseball powers can win at diplomacy.

“I hope so,” says Peley, the Capitales’ catcher. “Cuban players deserve better.” Eventually, someone might look back at the Capitales and be amazed at what went on in Canada, he says.

“Ten years from now, we’re going to talk about these guys – we’re going to talk about the Capitales,” he says. “This is so big. It’s history.”

This is the first story in a three-part series.



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