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When Cuba takes the field on Wednesday in Taiwan to kick off the latest edition of the World Baseball Classic, the country will make history by featuring some notable names from Major League Baseball. Luis Robert Jr., the White Sox standout, will be patrolling the outfield while his Chicago teammate Yoán Moncada will be manning the infield. The Chicago Cubs left-hander Roenis Elías will be on the pitching staff and the former Mets slugger Yoenis Céspedes will be in the lineup as the designated hitter.
“The year of the last Classic, I was going to go but I couldn’t because I made the decision to leave Cuba,” Robert said in a recent interview in Spanish. “So for me, it’s a dream.”
Yet the team is also notable for those who won’t be taking the field against the Netherlands, such as the Houston Astros star Yordan Alvarez, one of the game’s most feared hitters. And what about other M.L.B. standouts like José Abreu, Aroldis Chapman, Jorge Soler and Yuli Gurriel?
“There are a lot of players who have the quality to be on that team and they weren’t invited,” said Oakland Athletics infielder Aledmys Díaz, who defected from Cuba in 2012. “So it’s really hard for one to go.”
The roster’s makeup shows how Cuba navigated a breakthrough in allowing those who left the country to play — but clearly on its terms. The W.B.C. team has a mix of Cuban amateurs and professionals abroad, including players such as Elián Leyva, who has played in Mexico, and Ariel Martínez, who plays in Japan. While the inclusion of such players has injected talent into a national team that languished internationally, it was still not among the favorites to win the W.B.C. thanks in part to the exclusion of some of the country’s most notable M.L.B. stars.
The United States and Cuba have long been at odds on the issue of Cubans playing abroad. Because of longtime sanctions by the United States, players from the Caribbean island wanting to play in M.L.B., the world’s most prominent professional baseball league, defect and establish residency in a third country, often Haiti or the Dominican Republic, so they can sign with teams as free agents. And it has been such a sore spot for Cuba that the Baseball Federation of Cuba has not allowed those players to be on its national team.
Baseball matters a lot in Cuba. In the six Summer Olympics featuring the sport, Cuba has won three gold and two silver medals. In the W.B.C., the quadrennial competition returning this year after a pandemic-induced delay, Cuba was the runner-up in the inaugural 2006 tournament. The sport has long been intertwined with society and politics in the communist country.
But as hundreds of Cuban players defected over the decades, the country’s national team increasingly struggled on the international stage. Cuba didn’t qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and hasn’t won a medal in the W.B.C. since the tournament’s first iteration. The team is currently ranked No. 8 globally by the World Baseball Softball Confederation.
“Everyone is leaving,” said Leonys Martín, a 35-year-old outfielder in the Seattle Mariners organization who defected in 2010. “There aren’t players over there.”
Each time the W.B.C. came around, Cuban players who defected were saddened that they couldn’t participate. So last year, a group of those players formed the Association of Cuban Professional Baseball Players, with the goal of assembling the best team of Cuban talent all over the world. The group swelled to 170 members spanning the major and minor leagues and other foreign professional leagues.
Despite a public campaign, the association didn’t succeed — even in securing, at the very least, exhibition games. The reason: The W.B.C., although operated as a joint venture between M.L.B. and the league’s players’ union, is sanctioned by the W.B.S.C., the sport’s global governing body. And according to the confederation’s rules, only recognized national federations can select their national teams.
As the national federation blasted the Cuban players’ association last year, accusing it of having political objectives and trying to usurp its legitimate place, the federation also expressed a further softening stance on defected players. The federation didn’t respond to requests for comment, but its president, Juan Reinaldo Perez Pardo, said in a statement in April that he wanted to continue his discussions with players “who love Cuban baseball.”
But even with the ability to include M.L.B. players, many prominent players were not picked or chose not to participate. Martín, who escaped to Mexico on a yacht and lives in South Florida, said he declined his invitation. Among his reasons: the way he said the government and federation had treated him, his family and other players, such as by denying him entry into Cuba seven years ago despite a previous visit, and from being called a traitor.
“Now they’re asking for help,” he said. “For my part, I’d never help them with anything.”
Díaz said he wasn’t even invited. It could be because he defected in the Netherlands while with the Cuban national team, a major offense to Cuban officials, or because he was a vocal member of the upstart association. He believed the latter helped put pressure on the Cuban government.
“In my case, if you ask me, I wouldn’t have accepted because I’ve seen they’re not interested in inviting everyone,” Díaz said. “Everyone on that team has ability and they’re going to give their best on the field, but there are players who have the quality to be there but aren’t because of their way of thinking or acting.”
Regarding the players who did accept an invitation, Díaz said, “The beautiful part of living in a free society is that you respect the opinions of others and what they do.” He added, “I’ve had the chance to play with them in the past, and I always wish them the best in the tournament and that they play their best baseball. I have nothing against them.”
Some M.L.B. players turned down invitations, such as Adolis García of the Texas Rangers or Miguel Vargas of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the son of a longtime Cuban player, because they said they wanted to focus on their health or their major league team. And some are playing for other countries, such as Randy Arozarena, who became a citizen of Mexico after defecting.
But others have faced criticism for accepting invitations. When three players — Andy Ibáñez of the Detroit Tigers organization, the then-Met Yoan López and Leyva — confirmed their presence on a preliminary Cuban roster, Raisel Iglesias, the Atlanta Braves pitcher who has led the charge in the upstart association, said they had been removed from the group.
“I told them they live in Miami and they know how the city of Miami acts,” Iglesias said in November on a Cuban baseball video channel. “They’re living in the most Cuban city in the world. That’s the way it is. You know how people think and you’re responsible for your actions, and people on the street are going to have their opinion of you.” He added later, referring to the Cuban federation, “People say, ‘You’re acting just like them.’ We are. We can’t have people playing on two different sides.”
Moncada, 27, and Robert, 25, who are of a younger generation of Cuban players who left the island, both said they were not part of the association and accepted invitations from the Cuban federation. Moncada, who departed Cuba in 2014 with permission from the government, joined the W.B.C. squad because he said “it was always a dream” to play on his country’s national team.
Robert said it wasn’t hard to say yes to the Cuban team “but it was a little strange because there are some who sadly cannot play.” He added, “You feel a little bad for them but I made my decision.”
Robert and Moncada said they didn’t have any hard feelings toward those who said no and respected their choices. Moncada called the inclusion of Cuban players who left a positive development — with the potential for more.
“One day, I’d like to play and represent Cuba with all the Cuban players that are here,” he said, “if we can.”