Sunday, December 21, 2014

Toward a Third Cuban Wave

The implications for major league baseball of the US change in policy direction signaled by President Obama's decision to establish diplomatic relations and to eliminate or reduce many restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba include the likelihood of a "third wave" of Cuban players coming to the United States--although how soon remains to be seen--as well as the possibility of major league teams establishing a presence in the still-Communist-but-interested-in-promoting foreign investment Caribbean island nation. Should Cuba become open for major league business, however, the realistic opportunities might very well be tempered by potentially significant uncertainties.

Toward a Third Cuban Wave

Before the Castro Revolution in 1959, Cuba was at the leading edge of the globalization of major league baseball. As noted in a previous post on April 14, "The First Cuban Wave" (see link at the end of this article), integration proved to be the catalyst for an unprecedented influx of players from Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them black Latinos, all of whom had left Cuba in hopes of a big league career before or in the first chaotic year or two after Fidel Castro's seizure of power in 1959. The first wave of Cuban players making it big in the major leagues was effectively over by the mid-1960s as a result of Castro's crackdown on political liberties, which included severe travel restrictions to make it difficult if not generally impossible for Cubans to flee his repressive regime, but not before outstanding players like Minnie Minoso, Camilo Pascual, Tony Oliva, Tony Perez, Bert Campaneris, Mike Cuellar and Luis Tiant had left Cuba to play ball in the United States.

The next generation of Cuban-born players in the major leagues, including Jose Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro, were mostly raised in the United States after arriving as children on the so-called "freedom flights" from the mid-1960s to early-1970s that were organized by the US and tolerated by Castro as a way to diffuse dissent in Cuba. Love of the game was perhaps in their Cuban genetic makeup, but they learned the game on American diamonds.

Meanwhile, in the face of the US embargo, the excellence of its baseball league became a major foundation of Cuba's revolutionary identity. Cuba continued to impress the  baseball world in international tournaments and many players on its national team were considered likely capable of playing in the major leagues, lack of opportunity notwithstanding.

Motivated by the challenge, the money and a desire to choose their own destiny and not be constrained by a repressive regime, a "second Cuban wave" to the major leagues, characterized by top-rated players from Cuba's national team taking significant risks to defect from their home, took off in the mid-1990s and continues to this day. Pitchers Livan Hernandez (signed by the Marlins in 1996) and Orlando Hernandez (signed by the Yankees in 1998) were among the first prominent defectors. Although players from the Dominican Republic have dominated the trend, defecting Cuban players have contributed to the accelerating pace of globalization in major league baseball in the last 25 years.

The sea change in policy towards Cuba that the President announced makes it likely there will soon be a third wave of Cuban players coming legitimately to the United States, without having to defect. In anticipation of this development, Major League Baseball institutionally was farsighted enough that eight years ago MLB officials were considering options should US sanctions against Cuba be lifted. Among the issues addressed were the need for a systematic process for signing Cuban players, the possibility of teams establishing baseball academies in Cuba like those they have in the Dominican Republic, and perhaps even the establishment of a minor league team there. (An article in The New York Times on April 26, 2007 reported on this initiative: see http://www.nyti

No doubt there are Cuban players who would be among the best in the major leagues if given the opportunity, like recent defectors Yasiel Puig and 2014 AL Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. But notwithstanding the Cuban national team's international reputation, the overwhelming majority of players in the Cuban league are probably not close to even marginal major league players in their level of talent and development. Cuba failed to reach the final tournament in the last two World Baseball Classics in 2009 and 2013. The Times article cited above reported that major league scouts in 2007 assessed the overall level of competition in the Cuban league to approximate that of Double-A minor league ball in the US.

The current regime appears amenable to allowing Cubans to play in the United States, preferably in an arrangement where the regime would be allowed to profit from the major league contracts given to Cuban players, either by directly brokering deals through government agents or by a posting system similar to MLB's relationship with the Japanese leagues. (See the December 14 article in Baseball America, "How Will MLB Handle Big Changes in Cuba," Such an arrangement could be problematic from the US perspective, however, especially if the current regime outlast the lives of Fidel and brother Raul (who replaced the ailing Fidel as top dog in 2006).

While President Obama has the executive authority to remove or ease many restrictions on interactions with Cuba by US-based persons and businesses, Congressional action to roll back legislated sanctions is likely to be required before meaningful commercial activity is possible. Pending such action--a process likely to be bedeviled by political considerations, specifically partisan push back and bipartisan concerns about human rights, democratization and respect for private business interests--the US trade embargo remains in effect, almost certainly precluding major league baseball from moving quickly, perhaps not even any time soon, to take advantage of the thaw in political relations.

As for the possibility of Cuba becoming a market for major league baseball (in addition to being a new talent pool for major league teams), establishing a minor league franchise in Cuba could ultimately set the stage for a scenario where a financially-struggling franchise might play part of its schedule in Havana, similar to when the Expos played 22 games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in their last two years in Montreal before becoming the Washington Nationals. While that would certainly test whether Cuba could eventually support a major league team, either such development would require that Cuba after the Castros be politically stable.

The legacy of the Cuban Revolution, however, and the political and economic prerogatives that Cuban leaders have come to enjoy from more than half-a-century of repressive Communist rule, not to mention the mixed record of many former Soviet Bloc countries since the collapse of the USSR, suggests a strong possibility that the transition to a post-Castro Cuba might be a time of turmoil and trouble.

Political instability and an unstable business environment would not be conducive to a major league presence--including baseball academies--in Cuba. In that case, there would still be a third wave of Cuban players leaving Cuba in hopes of a big league career, although they would more likely be calculating that their best bet was to escape their country's turmoil rather than be part of an orderly systematic approach engineered by major league baseball to manage the signing of Cuban players.

The following is the link to the "First Cuban Wave" article on Baseball Historical Insight on April 14, 2014:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Minnie Minoso Dossier

Minnie Minoso, who turned 89 on November 29, is being considered for the second time in recent years by the Veteran's Committee for inclusion into baseball's Hall of Fame. Although often remembered for the sideshow of playing three games as a designated hitter for the White Sox in 1976 at the age of 50 and pinch hitting in two games four years later (so it could be said he played in five decades), Minoso should be remembered--and indeed honored--as one of the game's best players in the 1950s, when he faced the twin challenges of being one of the first black players in major league baseball and of being a native Cuban having to adapt to American culture.

The Minnie Minoso Dossier

Minnie Minoso was one of only five black players making their major league debut before Jackie Robinson retired in 1956 to become a core regular on an American League team for as many as five years as of 1960, which was indicative of that league's go-slow approach when it came to integration. Originally signed by Cleveland  in 1948 out of the Negro Leagues, Minoso played a handful of games for the Indians in 1949, excelled in the Pacific Coast League in 1950, had an exceptional rookie season in 1951, and was one of the AL's premier players for the rest of the decade. According to similarity scores developed by Bill James to compare players, the player to whom Minnie Minoso was most similar from when he was 28 through the age of 36 was Hall of Fame outfielder Enos Slaughter.

After being acquired from Cleveland in a multi-player three-team round-robin of trading on the last day of April in 1951, Minoso immediately made his impact felt in helping to turn around the fortunes of the Chicago White Sox. Still haunted by the 1919 Black Sox scandal that sent the American League team in Chicago to purgatory for decades in mostly the nether regions of the league, the White Sox had finished a dismal sixth the previous year, 34 games below .500. After changing uniforms, Minoso's batting average of .359 in his first two months with Chicago was instrumental in the White Sox reaching and staying in first place for virtually all of June and remaining competitive until August. The White Sox finished the season in fourth place, out of the running, but with a winning record for the first time in eight years.

The rookie outfielder's .326 batting average was second in the league to Philadelphia's Ferris Fain (.344). Batting third in the line-up, he was second in runs scored with 112, one behind Boston's Dom DiMaggio. Fifth in both on-base and slugging percentages, Minoso had the third highest overall combined on-base-plus-slugging percentage in the American League. Showing off his speed, he led the league in triples with 14 and in stolen bases with 31. Third in total extra-base hits, his 34 doubles were two short of the league-leaders (three players had 36). His player value of 5.5 wins above replacement (WAR) was sixth in the league, and fourth-best among position players. Minnie Minoso was better in all of these categories than any other rookie in baseball, including Willie Mays, but it was the pennant-winning Yankees' versatile infielder Gil McDougald who spent the winter polishing the AL's Rookie of the Year award.

The White Sox were still a work in progress, but with Minoso and second baseman Nellie Fox as two of the American League's best position players, and southpaw Billy Pierce one of the best pitchers, they were increasingly competitive as the decade advanced. In 1954 Minoso, with a .320 batting average and the most total bases, was the best player in the league based on his 8.2 WAR as the White Sox won 94 games. Perhaps because his team finished third in the standings, however, Minoso finished fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting; 'twas Yogi Berra on the second-place Yankees got to spend the winter admiring the AL's MVP award.

Minoso was at his best between 1954 and 1959 with a six-year average annual player value of 5.7 wins above replacement. Among American League players, only Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline had more wins above replacement during those years. When the White Sox finally did escape from under the weight of the Yankees and Indians--who were first and second in the standings every year between 1951 and 1956 (with Cleveland first and New York second only the one time in 1954)--Minnie Minoso was no longer in Chicago to enjoy the American League championship they finally won in 1959.

Despite having another strong year in 1957 with the fifth of his eight .300 batting averages and the fifth time his on-based percentage exceeded .400, Minoso was traded back to Cleveland for outfielder Al Smith and future Hall of Famer pitcher Early Wynn. After a pair of .302 seasons in Cleveland, Minoso returned to Chicago in yet another trade and, at 34 years old in 1960, led the AL in hits with 189 while batting .311. The 1960 White Sox fought valiantly in defense of their American League crown before slipping out of the pennant race in mid-September, thus ending Minoso's last chance to play in a World Series. The following year was the last that Minoso was a regular. He missed most of the 1962 season, now playing for St. Louis, with a broken wrist and never recovered to play close to the level he had. Age will do that to you, if you're a baseball player and on the other side of 35.

With a .298 lifetime batting average, Minnie Minoso never got more than 21 percent of the vote when he was on the Cooperstown ballot of the Baseball Writers Association of America. That was in his fourth year of eligibility. Among the 16 voters on this year's Veteran's Committee are Al Kaline and Jim Bunning, both of whom played in the American League in the last half of the 1950s. Bunning might remember that Minoso touched him up for a .333 average, six home runs and 18 runs batted in. The only other pitcher who Minoso tagged for that many home runs (also six) was Early Wynn, except Minoso had 85 more plate appearances against him than Bunning. And Kaline might remember that Minoso hit more home runs in his career against the Detroit Tigers--37--than any other team, along with 159 RBI and a .308 average, and 24 of those home runs Minoso knocked out at Tiger Stadium.

The Veteran's Committee Hall of Fame selections, if any this year, will be announced on December 8. Should Minnie Minoso be elected, it would be hard to argue with that.