Posted January 27, 2006 by I-taoist in Cuba Culture.
Joselito of the mound
In the upcoming US Major League Baseball games that will include Cuba’s national team, no mention will be made of Jose Ibar (e-bar). Unlike his teammate Jose Contreras who recently signed a four year 32 million dollar deal, Jose Ibar never made it out of Cuba.
Touted at one time as the hardest thrower in all the Cuban leagues, Ibar was the first player ever to win 20 games in a season. He was the pitching star who helped Cuba win Olympic gold in ‘92 and ‘96. Inside Cuba he was one of the superstars. Everywhere he went people recognized and lionized him. He was even given a new sports car by that ultimate baseball fan Fidel. The picture of Ibar standing beside his new Mitsubishi made it to the US press.
In the 90’s, when MLB scouts began to court various Cuban players to defect with the promise of millions of dollars and freedom’s they could not enjoy in Cuba, Jose Ibar resisted. Like most loyal Cubanos, his first allegiance was to his family and the system that had brought him along as a player. Numerous times he passed up the chance to jump the Cuban ship for greener pastures. As he aged, though, and saw the dismal condition lived by former star Cuban baseball players, he began to have second thoughts. By then, in his early 30’s, the writing was on the wall; he had only a few more years to play at the top level. Any chance at financial security and some prosperity beyond the paltry existence of most Cubans had to be soon. Cuban baseball players live for a month on less than the one-day food allowance of their American or Japanese counterparts.
But, ever faithful to the Fatherland, rather than defect to the Cruel Neighbor To The North and play, Jose requested to be able to go to Japan and play the few remaining years of his illustrious career. Some former Cuban players had been granted this “privilege” by the Castro regime and it had enabled them to secure a buffer against the hardships facing most Cubanos on a daily basis.
Unfortunately for Ibar the decision coming down from on high was “no, no es licito (not permitted).” Perhaps it was his own fame that worked against him. For such an idol of Cuban nationalism to choose to play out his last years in a capitalist society, coming home “filthy” rich by Cuban standards: well, what would that say about the virtues of “La Revolucion?”
Having passed up multiple opportunities to defect while on foreign soil, one can imagine Jose’s feelings at hearing this. It must have seemed the ultimate insult. Having given the best years of his playing career to the all powerful Cuban state and Fidel, at a salary that was dwarfed by the income of chambermaids and bartenders in the tourist hotels, he was now expected to finish out his career in “Fidel’s Baseball Army” and settle for the meager life that projected into his old age: An icon perhaps, but one scrambling daily just to hold body and soul together, like almost all his countrymen.
Is it any wonder that Jose chose to try and leave? Even at the cost of leaving his lovely wife, children and family, Jose realized that his last chance at any real financial security was quickly passing. His arm, once mightier than all others, capable of throwing 100 mph fastballs all afternoon, could take only a few more seasons. He simply had to leave soon, or not at all.
Heading out to sea from anywhere in Pinar del Rio, the most western province in Cuba, is a perilous voyage. The Gulf Stream flowing up from the south rushes through the Yucatan Straits like a river torrent, reaching speeds of 10 mph in some areas. If there is a north or easterly breeze, the rushing flow against the winds produces sharp, jagged, high-topped waves that break over a small vessel. It is a notoriously treacherous stretch of water, and full of hungry sharks. Even heading out from the north shore of the peninsula toward the US is dangerous, given the much longer distance to land and again the very rough seas.
No one knows the details of the trip or how Jose and his party were found out and captured at sea. Such things are not spoken of in public in the land of the bearded one. When there is such fear of reprisal that none dare speak the name “Fidel,” but rather stroke an imaginary beard on their chin to signify his name, anything that might embarrass “el gran jefe” is swiftly swept under the carpet and goes unreported.
The rumor mill has it that Jose was in possession of a gun at the time of his arrest; a big taboo on an island of dictatorship. But, no one can say for sure. When apprehended, any independent thinker in a land of demanded conformity is quickly demonized. Even if the gun story is untrue, the additional stain of the charge will surely mean a long imprisonment.
So, you will not be hearing about the former superstar of Cuban baseball in the upcoming games; the magnificent Joselito who could throw a ball like a bullet and do it all day, the one who led the Cuban team to such golden glory over all the world in ‘92 and ‘96, the one who came through in the clutch, the kind and devoted, good-looking black kid from Granma Province, the one most admired and looked up to by all.
For, during the upcoming games in the US – where he will be – well, “no es lecito” to go there.
John R. Bomar
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