MIAMI — Jose Fernandez pitching to Yasiel Puig in Miami.
Young Cuban stars going mano a mano in Little Havana.
A highlight of a baseball season spiced by a new generation of talented Cuban ballplayers.
Article continues below ...
When Puig steps in against Fernandez on Monday night when the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Marlins, there will be various emotions — elation, pride, anger, resentment, apathy — running through a community of Cuban immigrants.
How can that be?
It’s generational. Older Cubans are more likely to retain a love of their homeland’s national sport, while younger ones are inclined to favor soccer or, if they live in Miami, LeBron James and the Heat.
The old Cuban guard itself can be divided even further thanks to a certain cigar-smoking communist revolutionary leader.
More than 50 years after taking control in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s name and actions rile supporters and detractors.
“I don’t want to talk about the new generation of Cuban players,” one 70-something male Cuban fan said while walking into Marlins Park on Friday night. “Tell them to stay where they are.”
The gentleman’s sentiment being that the current players hail from Castro’s Communist country and fled to America simply for money and comfort.
Younger immigrants, who like their baseball-playing peers were born into Castro’s Cuba, understand the desire to play on America’s fields of dreams.
“I wish it was like soccer, where the players can come here and play in the major leagues but still play for their national team,” said Gabriel Diaz, a 19-year-old Havana native who has lived in Miami the past four years.
For older Cubans, there’s joy and satisfaction at watching their countrymen excel in the majors.
“There’s a great deal of pride because they come from a heritage of very good baseball that used to be played in Cuba since the beginning of the century and continued for 50 some years before Castro came into power,” said 77-year-old Jorge Clavijo, who arrived in the U.S. 53 years ago. “It’s in the DNA of the Cuban players.”
Clavijo spoke while standing next to friend Benito Garcia, 65, outside Little Havana’s popular Versailles Restaurant, located about two miles from Marlins Park.
“Although Cubans are divided politically, there’s one thing that Cubans are unanimous about: baseball,” said Garcia, who has lived in the U.S. for 52 years.
Puig, 22, from Cienfuegos, defected in 2012. He has fueled the Dodgers’ revival and has become a nearly daily television highlight clip by himself.
Fernandez, 21, from Santa Clara, escaped in 2005 and settled in Tampa. He was Miami’s lone All-Star representative this season and, if he avoids injury, appears destined for greatness.
Adeiny Hechavarria, 24, from Santiago de Cuba, was acquired from Toronto during the offseason. He defected with Gold Glove caliber defense in 2009.
Those three players will be on display during the four-game Dodgers-Marlins series this week. Other Cuban major leaguers of note include Reds left-handed closer Aroldis Chapman, 25, from Holguín; Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes, 27, from Campechuela; and Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias, 23, from Havana.
“It feels good because we’re playing well for our country. And as Cubans, it’s good to see everyone playing well,” Hechavarria told FOX Sports Florida through a translator.
“There’s a connection, I talk to Cespedes and Chapman, so we keep in touch. In Cuba, I never knew Puig. He knew of me, though. I’m two years older and he knew of me playing in the national series.”
Fernandez didn’t know his fellow Cuban big leaguers before defecting from his homeland on his fourth attempt.
“It feels good. There’s a lot of Cuban talent in the big leagues, no doubt,” Fernandez said. “It’s incredible when you got people from Cuba who were born in the same city you were or close by, and they struggled to get out of Cuba … they didn’t have shoes, they didn’t have clothes … I know how hard it is.
“That’s why I appreciate it and I appreciate the chance the United States gives me to be in the place I am.”
The earlier generations
Baseball’s integration not only helped African Americans, it also aided Latin players. Cubans such as outfielder Minnie Minoso and pitcher Camilo Pascual made fans take notice during the 1950s and ’60s. Then came stars such as shortstop Zoilo Versalles, pitcher Luis Tiant and first baseman Tony Perez.
After a bit of a lull period, Cubans such as pitcher Livan Hernandez, his brother Orlando “El Duque,” outfielder Jose Canseco and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro made big-league impact, though Canseco’s and Palmeiro’s legacies were tarnished by involvement with performance-enhancing drugs.
It makes some wonder just how many major leaguers could have, or will, come from Cuba.
“Cuba hasn’t had the opportunity to expose the talent on the island like a Dominican Republic, Venezuela or Colombia,” said Marlins Spanish radio broadcaster Felo Ramirez, recipient of the 2001 Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award.
“There were many players back when I started broadcasting (with Havana’s Radio Salas in 1945) who easily would have been 20-game winners or Hall of Famers.”
Perez, a perennial run producer for Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the 1970s, applauds the new Cuban stars.
“It makes me feel great. I’m very happy they have a chance to get out of Cuba and play the game they want to play,” said Perez, currently special assistant to the president with the Marlins.
“These kids make me proud. They went through a lot of horror stuff in Cuba. Some of these guys being in jail because they tried to get out, and now they’re here playing baseball and playing good.”
Perez added that today’s Cuban players have more help (e.g. translators) in getting acclimated that those of his era did not.
Cookie Rojas, a veteran of 16 major league seasons and current Marlins Spanish TV broadcaster, was asked to compare today’s Cubans to the earlier players.
“I don’t think there’s much difference,” Rojas said. “It seems like some of them are a little bit stronger … more home runs, more power, which I think is good.
“I guess it comes with the vitamins today and the food we eat. When those kids come out of Cuba being hungry, and all of a sudden come over here in the United States and get stronger with good food and good vitamins, it makes a big difference.”
Both Perez and Rojas expressed envy that Cubans such as Fernandez and Hechavarria can play big-league ball in Miami.
“It’s very special, playing in front of the Cuban people down here,” Perez said. “I would have loved to have a chance to play in front of my people, but it wasn’t my turn. Now they can do it, and I’m very happy they can do that.”
“There’s nothing like playing at home,” Rojas said. “It’s like you say ‘Well, I’m back in Cuba, or Havana or your own town.’ I think it would be outstanding to play major league baseball with your family, friends and fans here rooting for you.”
And what if Fernandez and Hechavarria were to play on a World Series winner in Miami?
“After we won the World Series in 1997, these five blocks exploded,” said Garcia, alluding to the streets around Versailles. “For the next 12 hours police had to route the traffic around it, and I think the main reason for that was Livan Hernandez. The man became a god here in Miami.”