MIAMI (AP) — A month before their fellow major leaguers will report for spring training, Aroldis Chapman, Yuli Gurriel and several other Cuban big leaguers assembled on an intimate field in Miami this week and slipped on gear with reminders of home. Joined by aspiring baseball prospects and grizzled retirees, they donned blue hats adorned with tiny Cuban flags and a rallying cry just above the red brim:
“Patria y Vida,” they read. “Homeland and Life.”
The breakaway group of players mostly born in and defected from Cuba is alternatively known as the Cuban Professional Baseball Federation, FEPCUBE, and most recently, the "Dream Team." It aspires to represent the patriotic ideals of Cuban people, if not the Cuban government itself.
“We’re representing something bigger than ourselves,” manager Brayan Peña said.
No independent Cuban baseball team has competed in an international competition, but FEPCUBE had hoped to change that later this month at a tournament in Colombia. Those plans were spoiled this week when organizers announced the tournament was canceled, citing reasons beyond their control.
The free Cuban team says the tournament was nixed under pressure from the Colombian and Cuban governments to keep FEPCUBE from participating.
The club is unaffiliated with the Baseball Federation of Cuba (FCB), the sport’s governing body in Cuba. FEBCUBE organizers had previously conceded to playing under the “Dream Team” moniker, as well as ending their use of the “Patria y Vida” slogan after Colombian sports authorities denounced the team’s use of the Cuban flag and other national symbols.
“Sometimes things happen in life you have no control of,” FEPCUBE president Armando Llanes Jr. said. “We just got to move on. The opportunities for us are too many ahead for us to be worrying and pondering on what just happened.”
The goal for the team of about 30 players remains the same.
“We’re representing the free Cubans," said Peña, also a minor league manager in the Detroit Tigers farm system. "We’re representing something that we all have in our heart, and that’s our people. That’s the people that we love and that’s the people that have sacrificed so much for us.”
The mission brought together an impressive collection of major league talent this week.
During practice on Tuesday, Chapman, a seven-time All-Star, tossed pitches to a coach for about half an hour. Jorge Soler, the 2021 World Series MVP, blasted balls into the outfield during batting practice. Batting champion and Gold Glove winner Yuli Gurriel and his younger brother Lourdes Jr. briefly stopped their on-field work to sign autographs and take pictures.
The preparation went on, even after the Intercontinental Series in Barranquilla, Colombia, was called off. The Cuban club was supposed to compete with teams representing Colombia, Japan, Curacao, South Korea and the United States.
The dispute underlines the region’s complicated intersection of sports and politics.
The Colombian government had distanced itself from the tournament earlier this month because of the “free and independent” team of Cuban players, saying in a statement that it was a private event that the entity does not support.
Colombia rejected the “actions and demonstrations” of FEPCUBE that used the name and representation of Cuba without the authorization of the island.
Baseball is the premier sport in Cuba, but the talent and competition there has waned in recent years as hundreds of players have defected from the country to play elsewhere. The island has largely prohibited professional sports since shortly after the Cuban revolution 65 years ago, with star players offered small payments from the government for national team participation.
Longtime sanctions by the U.S. make it largely impossible for Cubans to play professionally for an American team without defecting. Meanwhile, Cuba historically has not allowed Cuban players who defected on their national team rosters.
For last year's World Baseball Classic held in Little Havana, a majority-Cuban enclave in Miami, the U.S. for the first time allowed Cuban-born MLB stars to play for their homeland in the tournament. The team, with its mixed roster of current Cuban players and defectors, was met with both support and disdain in the city, which houses the nation's largest Cuban population.
There were no mixed feelings when the Cuban team took the field at Miami Dade College for its first exhibition game Wednesday.
Ex-pats whose prideful roots are often woven with contempt for the political oppression they escaped arrived as early as two hours before the first pitch, many wrapped in Cuban flags and MLB jerseys.
Alberto Sarmiento, 36, has played baseball his whole life but had never identified with a team that represents him as a free Cuban.
“To me, this (team) means everything,” said Sarmiento, who traveled from Orlando for the game and was ignited by the news of the tournament's cancelation. “The fact of the matter is they’re up against an entity that doesn’t want them to be on the field at all. It doesn’t matter whether they wear a blank uniform. I know everybody on that team is Cuban and represents me.”
Several hundred people watched the Cuban team defeat the college's baseball team 3-2. Some plopped down on the metal bleachers and jumped to their feet when the team made a play. Others pressed their faces against the fence separating fans from players and screamed “Viva Cuba!"
Rene Arocha threw out the ceremonial first pitch. On July 10, 1991, Arocha became the first active player to defect from the Cuban national team when he walked away from the squad during a layover in Miami. Eddie Oropesa, a 52-year-old MLB retiree, threw a few pitches during the game wearing the same hat he wore when he defected from the national team in 1993.
“It brought me a lot of emotion," Oropesa said in Spanish afterward. “It reminded me of the hard work that my family and I have gone through, and for that I’ll always be grateful”
The team's path forward is unclear after the tournament's cancelation. Llanes said the immediate goal is to celebrate the victory of even getting the group together.
"This is historic," said Yuli Gurriel, who won two World Series championships with the Houston Astros. "Five or ten years ago people thought this could never happen. From the moment it was discussed, I wanted to be part of it, and I have no regrets.”
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