On Yoenis Cespedes and baseball in Cuba

Thearon W. Henderson

Yoenis Cespedes recently had a huge burden lifted when his family arrived safely in the United States.

As the 2012 season raged on, there was much more on Athletics' left fielder Yoenis Cespedes' mind than a playoff berth: the family he left behind in native Cuba. As San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Susan Slusser notes, 14 members of Cespedes' family were stranded in the Dominican Republic during the waning days of last season. This led him to become even more stressed out, and he pretty much refused to speak to the media.

On Saturday, Cespedes was overjoyed, looking for a reporter with whom to share the news, Slusser wrote:

"Noticias, noticias!" he said, racing up to a reporter. News, news!
"Mi familia, Miami, 2:30 today!"

Cespedes was more than happy to say that his family (minus his son, Yoenis Jr., and his son's mother) arrived safely in Miami. He's hoping that changes in Cuban law will allow his son to visit, too.

Slusser wrote in January, when it seemed like Cespedes' family would be able to move to America, just how much of a stress reliever this would be for the Cuban slugger.

"I wasn't that worried about me, but I was very concerned about my family in the Dominican," Céspedes told The Chronicle on Sunday. "I was worried a lot about them being there in that country.
"Once this situation is resolved, I will feel a lot better. I will play a lot better."

Something you don't often read about with regard to Cuban defectors is the effect of family. Once you leave Cuba (if you can survive the rickety boat ride to Miami), you leave everything behind. Many players don't tell friends or family that they're planning to leave, out of fear that a Cuban official would find out and the player would be punished and blacklisted.

I recently read an incredible story by Moneyball author Michael Lewis, who made his way to Cuba to detail the lives of baseball players and discover what it's like to defect. Lewis also spent time with Victor Mesa, currently managing Cuba's team in the World Baseball Classic.

Lewis wrote that the Cuban national team has changed over the years. In the past, it used to truly showcase the best talents on the island. But after players would find ways to leave (former relief pitcher Eddie Oropesa one day hopped a fence behind home plate in Buffalo, N.Y., and took off running), Cuban officials made sure that the national team didn't just contain the best players in the country, but those who were good, but least likely to defect.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the free market became even more elusive for the Cuban players. To flee the Cuban national team you needed to be selected for it, and after several small waves of defections, the Cuban government became shrewder in its selections. Any player deemed a flight risk was kept on the island. Families became hostages: older players with wives they loved and lots of children were preferred to younger ones without emotional attachments. A player caught talking to an American, or on the phone with a defector, might find himself suspended from baseball. The paranoia became self-fulfilling. After Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez left, the sports ministry dropped from the national team a pitcher named Adrian Hernandez, who shared not only a last name (he was no relation) but also the same quixotic high-leg-kicking windup, which they took as a sign that he admired the defector. His blackballing compelled Adrian Hernandez to flee Cuba in 2000 and sign a $4 million contract with the Yankees.

If you have time to read the entire story, do so. You'll definitely gain a greater appreciation for what Cespedes has gone through in an effort to improve his life and ensure a greater standard of living for his family.

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