MLB teams utilize the Rule 4 Draft to fill their organizations and then further supplement their rosters with free agent signings. However, the relatively cheap labor sources outside of the U.S. and Canada are where teams can really hit it big. Lisa Carney looks at baseball in the island nations of Taiwan and Cuba and how Taiwanese and Cuban major leaguers make it to the States.
In International Talent Acquisition part 1, we explored the differences in the two paths to MLB that a player can take. Part 2 looks at the political and baseball histories of two very different countries which have exported several successful ballplayers to the United States.
Islands In The Dream
The countries of Cuba and Taiwan are both islands but that’s about all they have in common. In truth, they couldn’t be more different politically, economically, and in the style of baseball their teams play. Yet there are starting pitchers Jose Fernandez (Santa Clara, Cuba) and Wei-Yin Chen (Kaohsiung City, Taiwan) sharing clubhouse space and blending talents with the very unified goal of helping the Miami Marlins win very American ballgames.
Here’s a brief look at the history of their countries’ baseball and how it has been shaped by the different cultures of these island talent exporters.
Taiwan – Money Solves Few Problems
Baseball in Taiwan has, as recently as the early 2000s, resembled the disheveled American baseball of the early 20th century with a deadlier, modern-day gangster twist to it. As a small Asian island, Taiwan’s history has been that of little brother to older, bigger brothers of Japan and China. The same dynamic exists in Taiwanese baseball. The Americans brought baseball to Japan, and, in the early 20th century, the Japanese imposed it on the Chinese and Taiwanese people they brutally ruled. When Japan was defeated in World War II and their domination over the other Asian countries ended, baseball also faded in popularity because of its attachment to the Japanese culture. But by the 1950s, the game had picked back up, mostly because it was seen as a good way to compete with, and defeat, the players from Japan – something the Taiwanese people thoroughly enjoyed.
However, despite Taiwan’s high standard of living and the fact that their players are considered the most talented, hard-working players of the Far East, they’re paid significantly less than their Asian counterparts. When you couple this with the mafia-driven gambling culture of Taiwan, corruption is the likely cause. In the early 1990s, criminals dangled bribes to affect game outcomes and when the results weren’t coming quick enough, players and their families were assaulted and even kidnapped for intimidation purposes. The scandal ripped Taiwanese baseball apart, and the exposure of the corruption turned many fans off from the sport they once loved. The Taiwanese government reached out to the major leagues for help driving out the corruption. MLB saw Taiwan as a rich talent pool they didn’t want to lose and felt compelled to help. In 2010, the Dodgers took time out of their spring training schedule to travel to Taiwan for an exhibition game meant to reignite the passion for the sport. Ironically, MLB was rolling in its own scandal with steroids, but it still worked with Taiwan to help curb the gamblers’ hold and ensure the flow of talented players like Wei-Yin Chen (Miami Marlins) and Chien-Ming Wang (Kansas City Royals) to the States.
The people of Taiwan want to love the game for which they have felt so much pride. In 2000, Taiwan adorned their nt$500 with the images of their victorious Little League World Series players, as if the government was reassuring its citizens that they were correct to believe in the sanctity of their game. Just as American baseball has recovered from its drug scandal, Taiwan again finds its sport gaining traction.
Cuba- The Short Journey Long With Danger
Poverty statistics for the population of Cuba are nearly impossible to find. The people of Cuba enjoy extremely high literacy rates and their first world healthcare system has medical professionals in the United States questioning why we can’t keep up. However, Cubans live under the oppressive regime of a baseball-loving dictator* who has been in power since 1959. Fidel Castro takes enormous pride in the brand of baseball his citizens play. That would seem to bode well for the players but in a fascist communist country all things – including the people and their talents – belong to the nation. So, players only compete for the love of the game and tribute to their country. To make the money their talent deserves to earn, they have to defect to MLB. The first three players to defect from Cuba were Rogelio Alvarez (1963), Barbaro Garbey (1980) and Rene Arocha (1991). However, other than the history-making story of Alvarez’s defection, the players were merely average and otherwise overlooked in MLB history. It wasn’t until Rey Ordonez bolted with three other countrymen in 1993 that a player of note made the dangerous play of defecting.
Now it’s common to hear of star Cuban players disappearing from their homeland, only to pop up in layover countries where they can retool their citizenship and become eligible to be signed as an international free agent. While it may feel like business as usual for us to anticipate our team scooping up the next El Duque or Jose Abreu, there has been no change in the dangers these players and their families face when they make the decision to bolt from Castro’s control. Even as US/Cuban relations soften, there are no easy paths to play American baseball. So when your favorite team signs the next Cuban defector, it’s only fair to keep his history in mind when you judge his growth in the organization. Transitioning through MLB is challenging enough; throw in learning a new language and assimilating to a democratic/capitalist society, all while constantly fearing for the health and safety of the loved ones left behind, and it is downright amazing that these players are even able to stick at the major-league level, never mind excel.
Ultimately, in baseball, as in life, it doesn’t matter where you begin your journey, it’s where you end up that creates your legacy. American baseball changed because the country changed. Now it changes because the world does. Sure, the system is far from perfect but “World” Series has become a deserved moniker – continue the good work baseball!
In part 3 we’ll explore the careers of three past, present, and future Boston Red Sox players – Luis Tiant, Rusney Castillo, and Yoan Moncada – who have made the complicated trek from Cuba to the Boston Red Sox organization.
*Imagine if Castro had stuck with the Cubs and one day became Commissioner. That sure would have taken a lot of heat off Roger Goodell.
Lisa Carney has written about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, Pedro Martinez, and a Yankee legend who can’t keep his trap shut.
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