By DOM AMORE | Courant Staff Writer
Twins veteran pitcher Livan Hernandez, who got out of Cuba in the mid-1990s, has heard it all before and said he wouldn’t be surprised if Fidel Castro declared himself back in power within a week.
“What happened in Cuba this week is not a change,” said Yale professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, who has written extensively on baseball in Cuba. “As long as Fidel Castro is alive, his brother will be his puppet. The big change will come when Fidel Castro dies.”
So for the time being an unknown number of professional-caliber players on the island must continue to wait to make the 90-mile trip to the United States and the riches of Major League Baseball.
But the news this week is a reminder that sooner or later, Fidel Castro, 81, and Raul, 76, will be gone and change will come.
And then what will that mean for baseball?
“There’s the presumption that there is a lot of high-end talent there because of the great appreciation they have for the game and what we see in international competition,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “But it’s just a presumption. We don’t really know what’s there.”
Agent Joe Kehoskie, who has been representing Cuban players since 1998, is convinced the talent pool is rich and would have a major impact on the majors, depending on how it’s made available.
“If there is no unholy alliance between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation, there would be a massive influx of talent once the embargo is lifted,” Kehoskie said. “To make a comparison, the Dominican Republic has a population of 8 [million] or 9 million, doesn’t have a particularly well-structured amateur baseball program, and there are about 1,600 players from the Dominican under professional contract in the United States. Cuba has a population of about 11 million, has one of the best structured amateur programs in the world and there are about 30 players from Cuba under contract here.
“So Major League Baseball has barely scratched the surface of the talent available in Cuba.”
The stories are well known, of players fleeing Cuba in the early 1960s and never being allowed to return, of recent players defecting at international competitions or escaping in rickety boats, establishing residency in a country that would allow them to avoid the amateur draft and sign as a free agent with U.S. teams.
The Yankees hit it big with Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, the half brother of Livan Hernandez, in 1998, and they were right in their assessment of Jose Contreras in 2003, although he did not become a top pitcher until they traded him to the White Sox — and after Castro finally allowed Contreras’ wife and children to leave Cuba.
However, Contreras, who got a four-year, $32 million contract, was the last player to defect at an international tournament. Soon afterward, the Cuban Baseball Federation began leaving players deemed defection risks in Cuba, or took them only to tournaments in the Far East.
The portal to Miami has also tightened. Agent Gus Dominguez was convicted of immigration violations in April and sentenced to five years in prison for his role in smuggling five players into the U.S.
“There’s no shortage of players [whom] I know want to leave,” Kehoskie said. “But getting them out of there is much more difficult right now.”
How many impact players the caliber of the Hernandez brothers or Contreras might be available? Others came with hype similar to Contreras, but never worked out in the United States, perhaps because the scouting was incomplete or out of date by the time they were free.