Yoenis Cespedes is the latest Cuban entry on the Boston baseball scene. Welcome to Cespedes and his much-needed bat.
The influx of defecting Cuban players has certainly picked up some heavy traction in the last few seasosn. The process is simple enough – establish yourself on the international scene, defect, have a tryout and top it off with that big multimillion dollar cherry on top.
The recent success of the capitalist defectors has created a market that continues to spiral upwards and the performance of Jose Abreu will do nothing to curtail that.
A far cry from the distant past.
Before the magnets of baseball discovered the attraction of the long ball, Cubans had come to play in America. There were two conditions: Ability and skin tone. A Black Cuban had as much chance of entering the MLB “White’s Only” club as I do of beating out Mike Trout for the MVP Award.
Boston has a tradition with Cubans but it began with that other team – the Braves.
Gonzalez managed one game with the Braves in 1912 but did hang around long enough to put in 17 years at the MLB level. The first Cuban to play for a Boston team. Luque was a different story being far above the journeyman level of Gonzalez.
Dolf put in 20 years and managed 194 wins and started off in 1914 with the Braves. Luque could also handle the stick and finished with a .227 career average.
For the Boston Red Sox Eusebio Gonzalez played three games, his only major league appearances, in 1918 and managed a .400 batting average – two hits in five at bats. Gonzalez was the first Cuban and the first Latino to appear in a Red Sox uniform.
The first Cubans to play at the MLB level were Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida who debuted together with the Cincinnati Reds in 1911. Steve Bellan also played in 1871 and some consider him the first to play professional baseball in America. That was the beginning of an influx of talent from a baseball rich island.
Fast forward to the 1950s when baseball swept the island looking for talent. Color was now no object – at least on the surface.
In the states bonus money, sometimes into six figures, was being handed out to promising prospects but a hop down to Cuba and the price was a ticket to the states and a few bucks. Legendary Cuban area scout, Joe Cambria, who incidentally could not speak Spanish, claimed he overpaid for Pedro Ramos by giving him a $150 bonus.
Great talent, cheap.
For the Red Sox, certain players do stand out in my memory banks. Tony Perez played three season primarily at DH. Mike Fornieles was once “The Man” out of the Boston bullpen and led the league in saves in 1960 with – get this – 14. Talk about a stat watered down.
For you fans of 1967 it was all about The Throw which was that years answer to The Steal. Jose Tartabull to Elston Howard. The signature play of the season to save a game in late August. That toss and Danny Tartabull represent Jose’s best moments.
Then there was Louie.
Luis Tiant was the son of one of the most famous pitchers to come out of the Caribbean and Louie is legendary in Boston. The cigar and the clutch performances. Tossing 160 pitches in a World Series game. A cult figure from the 1970s.
I could toss in a few more such as Roman Mejias, Joe Azcue and Diego Segui who made stops in Boston with varying degrees of success. Some became unforgettable and others forgettable. Then came Castro.
The famed Havana Sugar Kings moved to New Jersey and the nondescript left-handed dictator took charge of Cuba. Players, good cigars and rum were all gone.
After the boat exodus from Cuba, certain talent did surface besides Tony Montana, but most baseball stayed on the island as it has for decades with only occasional sojourns into the international play. That has now changed drastically as players are lured by money and competitive challenges.
For Boston the here and now is represented by newly acquired Cespedes. Four years and $36 M is a long, long way from what Cambria would hand out. The Red Sox paid Jose Iglesias a nice bonus and, if he can overcome the injury bug, may be a stationary object at shortstop for the Detroit Tigers for the next ten seasons.
The Red Sox are also among the suitors for the next great prospect, Rusney Castillo, and the bidding will, no doubt, be an incentive for other talented Cubans to move into the international market.
How times have changed since Sport Magazine would profile a Hispanic player with “I heet de ball,” and include comments that the politically correct or non-politically correct would roll their eyes at. Now, Cubans know the road is paved with some dollars. A lot of dollars. The bidding will continue and soon the Dominicans may find they are secondary to Cubans in dominating MLB.