By WRIGHT THOMPSON | The Kansas City Star
HAVANA, Cuba - Carlos Rodriguez is yelling now, his voice filling the small room beneath Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano. He is the Cuban baseball commissioner, and he’s just brought up a touchy subject.
Inside Cuba right now, he says, are Major League Baseball scouts. Some are trying to persuade his players to defect. Others are just collecting information in case the United States embargo is lifted.
“They come undercover,” Rodriguez says. “They come on false passports. They come with a list of 30 athletes, and they go throughout Cuba visiting them. They are violating our laws, and they end up in jail.”
Although the penalties for scouting Cuba are great, so are the rewards. The government might last 50 more years, but it could just as easily collapse tomorrow, depending on its dictator’s health. Teams would like to be ready for that eventuality, and they also want to have the best information on potential defectors.
Privately, among baseball officials, there is little debate about scouts operating in Cuba. But some teams say the risks are too high.
“There’s no way I would go there,” says Gordon Blakeley, New York Yankees vice president of international and professional baseball operations. “And there’s no way I would send any of our people.”
Most of the scouting occurs when the Cuban team travels abroad. Author Peter Bjarkman, an authority on Cuban baseball, laughed at the memory of a recent game in Canada.
“There were so many radar guns,” he says, “it’s surprising they didn’t knock out the electrical system in Winnipeg.”
Cuban baseball players may be watched more closely than the U.S. Interest Section on the Malecon, although those who do it defy the traditional definition of a baseball scout.
“It’s incredible, the methods they use,” says Rodriguez, a portrait of Fidel Castro holding an AK-47 on the wall behind him. “Their methods are more sophisticated as years go by.”
A Major League Baseball official, who said a few teams have been disciplined by the league for scouting in Cuba, knows the dangers involved.
“If you got caught over there, they throw you into jail,” says Lou Melendez, vice president of international operations for baseball. “You sort of become a number in Cuba.”
Former Cuban commissioner Domingo Zabala likes to tell a funny story. Well, it’s funny now.
In the 1991 Pan American games in Cuba, the national team was playing Puerto Rico for the gold medal. The Cubans were winning 7-0 in the fourth inning when their pitcher allowed two straight hits. Zabala was sitting next to a guest.
The guest turned to him.
“Why don’t we change the pitcher?” he said. “He has gotten soft.”
Zabala, a lifelong baseball man, pointed out that the game was well in hand. Soon, the pitcher got out of the inning. But in the fifth, the guy walked a batter, gave up a hit and had runners on first and third with no outs.
“Commissioner,” Fidel Castro said, “what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for them to make seven runs?”
Castro is more than the nation’s leader; he is the biggest baseball fan in the country. He takes any tampering with his players seriously, just as seriously as he does pilots who want to steal fighter jets and defect.
He has always publicly associated sports with the revolution, and how his “free” ball triumphed over America’s “slave” ball. The government spends fortunes on identifying kids and turning them into stars. So, when a scout talks about Cuban players, the government looks at this as it would someone stealing from Castro himself.
“The Cuban people have invested (in them),” Rodriguez says. “And no one has the right to take them away.”
Lord help the man who gets caught. In a Cuban prison doing 15 years is an American named Juan Ignacio Hernandez Nodar. A cousin of the agent Joe Cubas, who declined to be interviewed, Cuban authorities found him guilty of tampering with players. His jailing in 1996 was a shot over the bow.
Los Angeles Dodgers scout Mike Brito has been warned. On a recent trip, the authorities knew exactly who he was and told him to stay away from the players.
“Cuba is like Germany was in the Second World War,” says Brito, who was born in Cuba. “If they see something suspicious, they put a tail on you to see what’s up.”
That doesn’t mean he ignores Cuban players.
“My uncle is my bird dog over there,” he says. “I’ve got a list of all the players in Cuba right now. I’ve got good information from him. He keeps me informed when a new player comes around.”
Bjarkman says there is a big difference between a scout and a bird dog. He thinks teams have sources in Cuba, but not full-timers who collect benefits and walk around with a stop watch.
“I’ve heard of 50 different scouts going to Cuba on the sly, still in violation of Major League Baseball rules,” sports agent Joe Kehoskie says, “but I’ve never heard of a long-term payroll type of situation.”
Rodriguez said the scouts used to be easy to spot. They’d just make direct contact with players. Now, he says, they pretend to be journalists. They slide notes into pens. They find go-betweens.
“In the case of those coming to Cuba, they practically do intelligence work,” he says. “They have false identities. False passports. They come in with one passport and try to come out with another. We know many of them, although sometimes they dress up, and they mask themselves. It’s a dirty thing, what they do.”
The Cubans do acknowledge that not all scouts are wannabe CIA. Authorities focus their attention on the scouts affiliated with agents, not a baseball man with a notebook and radar gun.
“I must say there are very decent scouts,” Rodriguez says. “They come and they measure the pitcher’s speed, the runner’s speed. They even talk to us and say, `What a talented boy you have there.’ “
Cuban officials also turn their gaze north to Miami, where defectors and dissidents campaign to disrupt Castro’s government. Rodriguez suspects that disruption extends to the diamond.
“There is a political background,” he says. “They are after taking away any Cuban player, no matter his quality. When he gets there, they mount a big, public campaign: `This is a man who managed to escape, to flee from Cuba, and now he is trying to reach his dream.’ “
Today, only the rich teams can afford Cuban defectors, so it really doesn’t make sense for, say, the Expos to scout Cuba. Why spend the time and money when the Yankees can get the player if they want him?
If Cuba suddenly opened, though, the island would be crawling with major-leaguers. Some worry there’d be a huge fire sale, with the top Cuban players leaving for America.
“Would the Kansas City Royals be able to participate in that fire sale?” says Melendez of MLB International. “Think about it. The top talent would be gobbled up by the guys with the money. That’s why you need an international draft.”
A draft is just one option. Surprisingly, Major League Baseball doesn’t have an exact plan ready to go should the embargo fall a week from now. There have been discussions, however.
“We have some ideas,” Melendez says, “and once it’s a reality, we’ll be ready for it.”
There’d be scouts all over the island. Or, at least, more scouts. Before Castro took power in 1959, Cuba supplied more players to the United States than any country in Latin America. Havana even had its own minor-league team, the Sugar Kings. The talent hasn’t gone away.
Teams would operate academies, the way they do in the rest of Latin America.
“Cuba,” Brito says, “could be in the same situation as the Dominican and Puerto Rico and the other guys.”
Bjarkman said there are 15 to 20 legitimate major-leaguers playing in Cuba right now, as well as many, many more minor-leaguers. There is a fear in Cuba that all the players would leave if they were allowed, if Castro’s government were to fall. Just as the Negro Leagues shriveled up after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, so too might the Cuban league die if the best players left for America.
“I do think it’s gonna be done when it gets opened to organized professional baseball in the rest of the world,” Bjarkman says. “It is the isolation that’s made Cuban baseball special.”
Cubans think baseball will live on.
“Without baseball, there is no life,” says Zabala, the former Cuban commissioner. “There is no blood. That’s what the people want. They would play year ‘round. In Cuba, there has never been a time when there was no baseball.”