By Rob Biertempfel | TRIBUNE-REVIEW
The angry stares Rene Gayo used to receive from Cuban baseball coaches have begun to melt into smiles.
“In the past, if you attempted to communicate with Cuban scouts or coaches, you would get silence or heated confrontation,” said Gayo, the Pirates’ director of Latin American scouting. “Now, they are much more engaging and friendly, even though all communication still must be instigated by the Americans.”
Judging by Cuba’s success in international competition, its players are some of the most talented in the world. But only a handful have successfully defected from the communist nation and found their way to the majors.
That would change if the American and Cuban governments end their five-decade cold war. The Pirates could benefit from improved relations.
“There are more rumblings about it now than there were five or 10 years ago,” Pirates farm director Kyle Stark said. “For years, people have been talking about what if we could get into Cuba. We’re positioned well, if and when that happens.”
Gayo, who is in his sixth season with the Pirates, was born in Miami and is of Cuban descent. Euclides Rojas, the team’s Latin American field coordinator, was born in Havana and played for the Cuban National Team from 1987-94.
Domingo Zabala, a former head of baseball in Cuba, until recently scouted for the Pirates in Guatemala. When Zabala returned to his homeland, the Pirates were forced to let him go, so as to not violate the U.S. trade embargo.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama said he seeks “a new beginning with Cuba.” The administration eased restrictions on Americans visiting or sending money to relatives who live on the island.
Relations could thaw even more, Obama indicated, if Cuba implements democratic reforms.
The Cuban government gave a mixed response. Days after President Raul Castro said he was willing to negotiate, his older brother, Fidel Castro, said Cuba will not give in to American demands.
Change will be a slow process, for both sides.
“Just because the USA decides it will normalize relations, that does not negate what 51 years of the Cuban Revolution and anti-American sentiments have solidified into a society,” Gayo said.
Distrust of America is prevalent throughout Cuban government. According to Gayo, the sentiment runs especially deep at the country’s National Institute of Sports.
“The Communist Party will not go away because the USA wants to get access to what Cuba has to offer,” Gayo said. “It will take time for the Cubans to infiltrate (American baseball), volume-wise, to the extent that the Dominicans and Venezuelans have.”
Baseball is a national obsession in Cuba, which has a long history of domination in the sport. Its national team had appeared in the finals of 50 consecutive international tournaments, dating to 1959, and won 43 championships.
That streak was snapped this spring, when Cuba was eliminated in the second round of the World Baseball Classic.
International tourneys are the only forum for major-league scouts to evaluate Cuban players. Although Cuban coaches may talk with the Americans, there is a strict no-contact policy for players.
“Rene does a good job of putting together track records on them,” Stark said. “We’ve got contacts over there, so we can get a feel for a guy, his makeup and those types of things. We do our research.”
A player who wants to compete in Major League Baseball must first defect from Cuba — slipping away at a tournament or escaping the island by boat or raft.
Defectors do not go straight to the United States to be drafted by a major-league team. Instead, they establish residency in another Latin American country, thereby becoming free agents who can command huge signing bonuses.
“It’s a showcase environment,” Stark said. “Teams bid, and you can quickly get outside the value you place on a player.”
If Cubans could become MLB-eligible free agents without having to defect, the pool of players would be expanded.
“If it’s free for everyone, then I don’t know that it’s a matter of, ‘Hey, this is my only chance at this type of player,’ because there are a couple of other players (in Cuba) who I like just as well,” Stark said.
The Pirates have one Cuban, pitcher Yoslan Herrera, in their minor-league system. Stark believes improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba could lead to a rush of Cuban players.
“There are a number of players there who we’ve seen recently, guys who could step in and have an impact in the big leagues right away,” Stark said. “I think it would be a significant impact.”
MLB spokesman Pat Courtney had a more cautious reaction.
“Given that nothing has happened thus far,” Courtney said, “and we take our direction from the (U.S.) State Department, it would be speculative and inappropriate for us to comment at this time.”
Notable Cuban defectors who have played in the major leagues:
Player, pos. — Defected — MLB highlight
Barbaro Garbey, 1B-OF — 1980 — Batted .267 in three-year career
Rene Arocha, RHP — 1991 — 11-8, 3.93 ERA for Cardinals 1993
Rey Ordonez, SS — 1993 — Three-time Gold Glove winner
Michael Tejera, LHP — 1993 — Eight wins, one save for Marlins in 2002
Ariel Prieto, RHP — 1994 — Went 15-24 in 5 years for the A’s
Osvaldo Fernandez, RHP — 1995 — Seven wins for Giants 1996
Livan Hernandez, RHP — 1995 — World Series MVP with Marlins in 1997
Vladimir Nunez, RHP — 1995 — Seven wins for Blue Jays in 1999
Rolando Arrojo, RHP — 1996 — Named to 1998 All-Star Game
Orlando Hernandez, RHP — 1997 — El Duque went 17-9 for Yanks in 1999
Jorge Toca, 1B-OF — 1998 — Three hits (all singles) for Mets in 2001
Danys Baez, RHP — 1999 — 41 saves for Devil Rays in 2005
Jose Contreras, RHP — 2002 — Double-digit wins in each of past three seasons
Yuniesky Betancourt, SS — 2003 — Batted .289 for Mariners in ‘06
Alay Soler, RHP — 2003 — Eight starts for Mets as rookie in 2006
Kendry Morales, 1B — 2004 — Hit .234 for Angels as rookie in ‘06