The book: “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story”
The author: Peter C. Bjarkman
The vital statistics: Rowman & Littlefield, 386 pages, $36. To be released May 5
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, and at the publisher’s website
The pitch: Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman made us read this.
So did President Obama, who paraded in with the Tampa Bay Rays onto Cuban soil this past spring for an exhibition game/demonstration of what ports of business American baseball can open.
Our curiosity about how this all plays into human trafficking also drew us in.
And, because it’s Bjarkman, a writer for BaseballdeCuba.com and frequent SABR award winner in this field, we felt we were getting it straight.
For example, he’s already won an award from the baseball super-research group for this particular effort.
Aside from his resume of biographical histories and encyclopedias, kids series books and baseball “scrapbook” series, he did, In 2014, did a history of Cuban baseball from 1864-2006.
In 2005, he did “Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball” which also won a SABR award. In 1999, it was “Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball.”
Bjarkman writes in his intro that his attempt to “explore the daring and often tortuous migrations of some of the better-known Cuban stars who have abandoned low-wage celebrity status in their homeland to endure life-altering (and occasionally life threatening) pilgrimages in search of multimillion-dollar celebrity status on center stage in Norther American major leagues” is as complex a thing to watch as well as write about.
There are “proud successes” and “soft underbelly failures,” not just of the Cuban socialist baseball structure but how the MLB operates and benefits itself.
Bjarkman most notably argues “our mainstream media – especially in the wake of Barack Obama’s bold December 2014 efforts at placing a belated wedge in a long-standing United States-Cuba stalemate – has rather badly misconstrued and misreported the stories of Cuban ballplayers” flocking to the U.S.
“Popular press accounts have mostly gotten the whole story essentially backwards” and in the end, “Cuban talent drain may now haunt MLB’s survival every bit as much as it haunts Cuba’s own baseball future.”
From the very first pitch, he senses our desires to seek the truth, or as closest to the truth as we can get, by making “The Essence of ‘Puigmania’” the content of the first chapter. Bjarkman interestingly compares Puig’s arrival in L.A. to that of pitcher Hideo Nomo, also considered to be a defector in his native Japan in the 1990s, but admits the Puig story “carried a different tone entirely” since he was not the first to have such a quick impact as a Cuban player. Bjarkman wonders if Puig was actually trying to defect while on a team trip to the Netherlands or whether he was detained on a shoplifting charge, which put him in limbo in Cuba for almost a year before he got off the island in April of 2012, soon signing a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Dodgers orchestrated in a Mexico City hotel by Logan White. This was happening along the same timeline that the Oakland A’s were herding Yoenis Cespedes.
Bjarkman includes the accounts of Los Angeles magazine’s Jesse Katz expose, and one soon after by ESPN’s Scott Eden called “No One Walks Off The Island,” as what we are led to believe happened with Puig’s escape from Cuba’s shark-infested waters and then the harrowing adventures in Mexico, held prisoner by a cartel, threatened personal harm and having more money demanded from him. But it’s not an unusual tale — Bjarkman compares it to a story similar to what happened to a player named Leonys Martin in 2010.
Bjarkman doesn’t seem to dispute the essence of these accounts. But he also points out that stories of these itinerant mercenaries go back to the sport’s roots and is hardly a creation of the Castro regime.
There is much more for Bjarkman to cover, and it’s incredible how so much is contained. The writing may not be as engaging as the stories themselves, but it resonates on many levels.
Bjarkman dials it back to a chapter entitled “The Best There Ever Was.” In 2015, he did a story for a Cuban arts magazine with a local journalist about how he saw the strength in numbers of today’s Cuban players. Cuban fans, however, were apparently not as aware as how the landscape had changed and how isolated they had been to concur with this premise, and the story was criticized. Bjarkman’s piece made a case for Jose Abreu as one of the country’s most productive players, well before he made a splash with the Chicago White Sox.
The book ties together in the end with a list of the 193 Cuban-born major leaguers (starting with Enrique Esteban Bellan in 1871 and including Chapman and Yasmani Grandal). There’s also a list of the Cuban baseball defectors (Puig is No. 193 of 369) that Bjarkman can verify. But of course, there is likely more.
So is there a downside to all this player movement from Cuba to the U.S.? It is a one-way flow out, unlike Japan where some come to the U.S. then return as something of a hero.
Cuba’s stadiums are crumbling and playing fields are becoming more crude, and this could lead to the country seeing its top-flight leagues go extinct like the U.S.’s Negro Leagues.
Or, Bjarkman flat-out asks: “Shouldn’t we all heartily cheer on a much-delayed happenstance that finally sinks the rickety Castro ship and upgrades our own beloved big-league spectacle?”
These questions are “far more uncomfortable to ponder than they are difficult to answer” he writes. But with this book, which is more a requiem, they are brought up in a much clearer path that leads to better information rather than script that seems to blend “Escape from Alcatraz” with “The Jungle Book.”