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Emotions run deep as Cuban baseball team returns to Miami for WBC


MIAMI – Until Sunday, the Cuban national baseball team had not played here since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

The island’s flagship team played in the United States in the decades that followed, but not in this American center of the Cuban diaspora, a city reshaped by Cubans fleeing political and economic repression. More than 750,000 Cuban-born people live in the Miami area, according to a recent census. Hundreds of thousands more claim Cuban heritage.

So Sunday’s World Baseball Classic semi-final between the underdog Cuban team and the mighty American team felt less like a historic baseball game and more like a historic event. It was, in some ways, a contentious matchup in the fifth iteration of a tournament that had never reached the level of importance required to incite political tension.

But hours after Cuba advanced to Sunday’s semi-final at LoanDepot Park in Little Havana, calls to protest the team’s presence spread on social media. Rapper El Funky, famous for his protest anthem “Patria y Vida”, posted an Instagram video asking Cubans to speak out. Prominent YouTuber Alex Otaola, a vocal critic of the Cuban government, did the same. Just like SOS Cuba, a group that defends human rights on the island.

Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo Jr. released a statement in which he called the Cuban team’s presence “the greatest disrespect to the entire Cuban community in exile that this team is here.”

“I am outraged and I stand with the families of political prisoners who are currently being tortured in the regime’s prisons without being able to see their families. I stand with the opposition and all those who peacefully express their opinion on the baseball game,” Bovo said. “We cannot tolerate agents of the regime enjoying the freedoms of this country while the Cuban people are in need and are subject to abuse and repression by cowards of the regime.

MLB officials had prepared to demonstrate outside the stadium and factored in the possibility that activists would try to buy seats in visible locations to hold protest signs where the world would see them. Extra security followed the Cuban team to training on Saturday and then back to the stadium on Sunday.

But in the relatively quiet hours before the match, the variety of perspectives of Cuban fans were on display inside and outside the stadium, and the nuance of sentiment towards the national team was evident. American star Nolan Arenado, whose father grew up in Cuba, said: “There are a lot of anxious feelings.

As the Cuban team practiced batting Sunday afternoon, fans with Cuban flags and jerseys clung to the right field wall, hoping for high-fives, baseballs or autographs. Cuban shirts outnumbered American shirts on fans outside the stadium. Some fans wore Cuban flags draped around their shoulders. Some had written “Patria y vida,” the protest slogan that translates to “homeland and life” — an inversion of the revolutionary slogan “Patria o muerte,” or “homeland or death” — in the white lines of these flags. Others carried placards that translated “Down with dictatorship” or chanted “Freedom for Cuba!”

Manager Armando Johnson, who answered questions about the team’s meeting with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Saturday before leaving for the tournament, spent the moments leading up to his team’s biggest game in recent memory asking questions about what might happen outside the stadium.

“We’re not thinking about what they’re saying there or a possible assault,” Johnson said, a message echoed by his players in multiple interviews since arriving in Miami.

“It doesn’t affect us. [At] events, you have fans supporting you and fans against you. It’s natural in baseball,” said Alfredo Despaigne, a longtime Cuban baseman, designated hitter who played professionally in Japan. “… Everyone is free to feel and think what they want. It won’t affect us.

But in practice, these differences of opinion have already affected the team dramatically.

For the first time, the United States granted a license to the Cuban Baseball Federation that would allow the major leagues to represent their country at the World Baseball Classic. On paper, the way was clear for stars such as José Abreu, Yordan Alvarez, the Gurriel brothers and others to restore Cuba’s status as title contenders.

The Cuban government presented their participation as a positive sign for Cuba, suggesting that the country was opening its arms to players who had to defect to earn a living at the majors – the same players the government has often branded as traitors when they are gone.

The Cubans have long been an international juggernaut, even without the stars who left to pursue more lucrative professional careers in the United States. Cuba won three of the first four Olympic gold medals awarded to baseball. It reached the finals of the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, while discouraging its stars from moving to the United States and denouncing those who did.

Slowly but surely, Cuba’s restrictions on professional sports have forced more and more talented players to defect. Some of the tournament’s biggest stars, such as the remarkable Mexican Randy Arozarena, have adopted new countries of origin.

Other expatriates, including a group of Cuban players led by reliever Raisel Iglesias, organized the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players to give Cuban pros abroad “a voice and representation in professional tournaments, exhibitions and other international activities”.

From 2021: ‘Patria y Vida’ and more Latin Grammys

This group hoped to earn entry to the World Baseball Classic by representing Cubans abroad. But because he was not part of a national federation, and therefore not a member of the World Baseball Softball Confederation which governs international competition, he was not allowed to compete.

None of the players involved in this effort joined this Cuban national team. In fact, of the top major leaguers, only Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox have agreed to do so. As a result, they received mixed reactions.

This weekend, a reporter asked Moncada about “Patria y vida,” a slogan associated with Cuban government protests in 2021 that led to a massive government crackdown on those demanding more rights and pushed people into exile. another generation of activists.

Moncada said he couldn’t answer the question, that “I’m a baseball player; I have nothing to do with it. On Saturday, the clip was circulating on social media, where activists expressed frustration that he had not only agreed to represent Cuba, but had not spoken out against the government despite his comfortable position in the major leagues.

“That boy who never raised his voice to say ‘Stop crushing the Cuban people’, that boy who never raised his voice to say ‘Free political prisoners’,” Otaola said in a video released Friday, pleading for his compatriot. Cuban Americans refuse to support players who he says are not defending their compatriots.

“I am not a brother of accomplices,” he said. “I am a brother of victims.”

Moncada was part of Cuba’s starting lineup on Sunday night, batting at second and playing at third base. He’s a crucial if somewhat controversial member of a legendary, if still controversial team – a team that was nevertheless one win away from making the finals of the World Baseball Classic.

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