When talking about the island of Cuba and sports, you probably think of baseball. Plenty of Cuban players have thrived in Major League Baseball, and we’ve all heard the tales of harrowing, dangerous defections. But what do we really know about what all of these Cuban players have gone through trying to get to America? The newest edition of MLB Network Presents examines Cuba, its baseball players, and the future of baseball in Cuba.
The second MLB Network Presents program to debut this month is Cuba: Island of Baseball, premiering Tuesday, December 13 at 9:00 p.m. ET. Coinciding with the two-year anniversary of President Barack Obama moving to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba in December 2014, Cuba: Island of Baseball is an in-depth look at the decades of personal stories of many Cuban baseball players and their defection from their country in pursuit of a Major League career, from Tony Oliva, Luis Tiant, Barbaro Garbey and Rene Arocha in the 1960’s, 1980’s and 1990’s to Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig and Yulieski Gurriel today.
Narrated by Cuban-American Emmy Award-winning actor Bobby Cannavale, Cuba: Island of Baseball features interviews with Chapman, Garbey, Gurriel, Oliva, Puig and Tiant as well as current Major Leaguers Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada and Yasmany Tomas, Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, Cuban Baseball Federation Vice President Antonio Castro and Cuban baseball historians Peter Bjarkman and Adrian Burgos Jr.
The film is fascinating, because it doesn’t just focus on the Cuban players you’ve heard of, like Livan Hernandez, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Abreu. The first defectors from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Barbaro Garbey and Rene Arocha, are profiled, along with the Cuban players from the pre-Castro era, like Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant. The floodgates really opened following the defection of Hernandez in 1995, and the money began to flow at an absurd rate following Aroldis Chapman’s 2009 defection.
The second part of the documentary focuses on the difficulty that many Cuban players have adjusting to life in the US and MLB, given that they’re generally separated from their friends and family, can’t see them on off days or after the season, and have difficulties coping with the separation.
There is also focus placed on the Cuban National Team’s two-game exhibition series with the Baltimore Orioles in 1999 (which features footage of a fully uniformed Fidel Castro interacting with Orioles manager Ray Miller), Cuba’s participation in the World Baseball Classic, and the allure of defecting for many of the players who competed on an international stage against top-level competition.
Finally, this spring’s exhibition game in Cuba between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team comes into focus, and what the game means for the future of Cuban baseball.
This is a fascinating documentary, focusing on a subject that we’ve heard a lot about in the last 50 years (Cuban baseball), but don’t know many specific details about. It’s a detailed look into the country’s long history with Major League Baseball, and why things have changed so much in the present – and why the boom in Cuban salaries happened, only to fizzle back out once again.
MLB Network Presents Cuba: Island of Baseball airs on Tuesday, December 13th at 9 PM.