Review of Cuba’s Baseball Defectors

Bjarkman, Peter C. Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. Pp. xxxviii+348. Notes, Index, Appendices, Photographs. $36 hardback, $35.99 eBook.

Reviewed by Dain TePoel

Twenty-three Cubans were on MLB club rosters to open the 2016 season, an increase of five players from 2015 and the most since the Commissioner’s Office began releasing such data in 1995. Numerous Cuban stars have emerged over the past several seasons, including the likes of slugger José Abreu and the inconsistent-but-dazzling Yasiel Puig. Often in the spotlight during the 2016 postseason was the flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman, upon whom Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon relied heavily to help secure the lovable losers’ first World Series title in 107 years.

For many MLB fans, the added excitement, drama, skill, and flair these players bring to the big stage may be the beginning and end of the story. Despite the controversial and highly-publicized “defection” tales of Puig and Abreu, among several others, the increasing presence of Cuban ballplayers simply represents the latest iteration of Latino prospects to showcase their talents in the top professional baseball circuit on the planet. This, at least, is the dominant US-centric media narrative Cuban baseball expert and author Peter C. Bjarkman seeks to problematize and complicate in Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story. 

cubas-baseball-defectors

Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Drawing on nearly two decades of experience, research and writing as a fan, sports historian, and baseball journalist, Bjarkman (formerly a linguistics professor in the United States) writes from a unique position closely aligned with the social, political and cultural contours of Cuban baseball. As he acknowledges, “it is impossible to credit all those individuals who have taken risks on my behalf or provided valuable input to my understandings of Cuba and its national sport” (p. xii). Though he posits a fair share of critiques of the media, governments, and baseball operations on both sides of the US-Cuba relationship, he argues that mainstream US media accounts have “badly misconstrued and misreported” the Cuban defection phenomenon in ways that buttress understandings of Cuba as a failed socialist state and eroding society.

Contextualized alongside the December 2014 announcement of the full restoration of US-Cuba diplomatic relations, Bjarkman underscores the ideological underpinnings of baseball-defector tales. He elaborates that the “standard procedure has been predictably to frame the entire issue in the guise of yet one more inspired tale about the enticements and glories of an elusive American Dream. The story is thus dressed up as another Horatio Alger ‘rags to riches’ saga of disadvantaged athletes long exploited by a monstrous [Fidel] Castro regime heroically breaking free from their ‘slave baseball’ state while risking life, limb, and painful family separation in order to reap just rewards on lucrative major league playing fields” (p. xi). Stories of “escape from tyranny” shore up American visions and imperialist fantasies of the island nation as a despised, brutal communist regime, though one soon-to-be transformed into the long-desired tourist destination open for business and exploitation by American corporate enterprise. From a baseball standpoint, Bjarkman convincingly illustrates the one-sided nature through which MLB executives imagine total US control over Cuban labor and consumer markets in the development of academies, exhibitions, memorabilia, and television broadcast rights.

To correct the flaws in this pattern of reporting, Bjarkman intervenes by adding the often-silenced voices and differing perspectives of the Cuban government-controlled press, Cuban baseball officials, and fans throughout the island. In the process, he aims to place recent events in the context of Cuban baseball history and tradition. Additionally, chapters detail the personal histories of players and the events that led them to choose defection, while outlining some elements of their journeys to reach the United States. Importantly, Bjarkman does not limit the narrative to the more familiar names, as he also discusses players whose big league dreams never materialized. Moreover, he emphasizes the agency of the Cuban baseball system in a balanced analysis of Cuban baseball officials’ efforts to stem the defection tide through working agreements with Japanese and Mexican leagues. Smartly, though somewhat contradictory given the book’s subtitle and inner-cover claim to “reveal the complete truth,” the author contends the story “remains complex, controversial, and open to a plethora of interpretations” (p. xi).

The core idea and central premise of the work is that the failures and successes of both Cuba’s socialist baseball experiment and MLB’s corporate enterprise can be understood through a fuller understanding of the defection phenomenon. In revising celebratory versions of the defection story that situate MLB as an ostensibly disinterested but benevolent host, Bjarkman offers a scathing critique of the league’s ethics in “paying out enormous sums for defecting Cuban ballplayers when those multimillion-dollar contracts keep Cuban, Mexican, and Miami human traffickers in lucrative business” (p. 22). This claim is supported through the “defection” stories of several Cuban athletes that more closely resemble and indeed operate as high-stakes kidnapping and human trafficking.

These tales of dangerous, crime-syndicate-controlled human smuggling often involve numerous captures and imprisonments, murder, bribery, forgery, money laundering, and stranded Cuban refugees. They directly challenge notions of an innocent MLB simply offering freedom and the right for young Cuban men to ply their trade in the US; instead, Bjarkman holds MLB team officials, scouts, and agents accountable in their “lust” to obtain new talent “at just about any cost” (p. 24). At the same time, he cites flawed American cold war policies and MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which treats non-US and non-Puerto Rican born athletes as unrestricted free agents, as partial impetus for the development of such high-stakes smuggling schemes. On a broader scale, the findings join those of others such as Robert Elias in condemning MLB imperialism over the past century for the way it decimates independent international baseball leagues, and in the process, cannibalizes the popularity and sustenance of the game at home and abroad.

On the Cuban side, excessively harsh control and surveillance of players in the name of revolutionary purity leads several players to  leave the island, with push factors exacerbated by social, political and economic conditions in the decades since the revolution and collapse of Soviet support. Bjarkman cogently argues that these internal issues have as much if not more to do with the defections as the supposed promise of wealth and riches in the US. In the final analysis, he acknowledges that Cuba’s “playing conditions, fan enthusiasms, and ballplayer morale have sunk to all-time lows” and that change will inevitably come to Cuban baseball, as much as its state-controlled and centralized national economy (p. 230).

While there is much to appreciate in Bjarkman’s thorough treatment of the current plight of Cuban baseball, in particular his rich understanding and deep passion for what he calls an alternative baseball universe, the book has its weaknesses. There is much repetition of content and claims without additional intricacies or nuance over the course of what essentially amounts to eleven chapters. While the writing, argumentation, and development is strongest near the beginning and end of the text, material in chapters four through seven can be erratic and exhausting to read. Here, the work mostly appeals to those most die-hard of fans of Cuban baseball who will benefit from Bjarkman’s firsthand knowledge and accounts of players, teams, leagues, statistics, and tournaments. Further, chapter titles and topic sentences do not always foreshadow or clearly relate to the content thereafter; similarly, the addition of headings and subheadings would aid the book’s overall flow and coherence. These imprecise, and in some places altogether missing transitions can frustrate readers’ ability to follow the “inside story” not-so-subtly hinted at in the book’s title.

Scholars interested in sociopolitical and historical treatises of baseball may find scant new information in the insights, arguments, and discussion. As mentioned, Bjarkman reinforces claims put forth by Elias in The Empire Strikes Out regarding connections between baseball, US imperialism, and MLB’s jingoistic form of “globalization.” He also briefly touches on the excellent work of Thomas Carter  to support the central importance of baseball to Cuban identity and politics, though the contributions of Adrian Burgos, Jr. are surprisingly absent. Of course, Bjarkman can and does rely on his own history of Cuban baseball in crafting a historical narrative of Cuban baseball dating to 1864. In sum, Bjarkman is well-versed in both popular and scholarly accounts of baseball, US/Cuban history, culture, and politics, though it is not necessarily his intention to reach an academic audience. The bulk of chapter endnotes, for example, engage with popular media accounts (online, blogs, print, and television) and secondary sources from his unique standpoint based on decades of relationship-building and extensive travel with the Cuban national team, baseball officials, and other informants.

Ultimately, Bjarkman fiercely refutes any notion that MLB will simply run roughshod over Cuba’s baseball interests and operations. “Baseball is far too ingrained in Cuban society and far too important an instrument for building both domestic social cohesion and an effective foreign policy propaganda machine to now be abandoned by a socialist regime struggling for survival and continued popular legitimacy” (p. 243). Indeed, his strident support for strengthening Cuban baseball independence, infrastructure, and vitality merits worth and consideration. The notion has as much credence, anyway, as the uncritical and often misguided celebrations of those who survive specious defection journeys – let alone withstand the meager pay and travails of the minor-leagues.

Dain TePoel is a PhD candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. He can be reached at dain-tepoel@uiowa.edu, or on Twitter @DainTePoel

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