Eight-year-old Kevin Kindelan, a “hot-handed” shortstop for a Central Havana junior league baseball team, and team-mate and first baseman Leoni Venego, seven, both dream of stardom in Cuba.
Kindelan says he wants to play for Cuba’s national baseball team, but Venego, recovering his composure after a big swing-and-a-miss during a recent practice session, has his eyes set on a bigger prize.
“I want to get to the Major League and be like Yuli Gurriel,” he said, referring to a Cuban all-star first-baseman for the Houston Astros, a baseball team in the United States, Cuba’s longtime rival to the north.
Success in baseball, Cuba’s national pastime and a favorite pursuit of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is increasingly measured beyond its borders.
That mirrors a broader exodus of Cubans from the stagnating communist-run island racked by the social and economic crisis.
Cuba’s economy shrank 11 percent in 2020 and has only inched upward since, official figures show, plagued by the coronavirus pandemic and further throttled by the US’s Cold War-era embargo.
“In the past six years, the number of baseball players that have left the country has also tripled compared with the decade between 2000 and 2010,” said Francis Romero, a Cuban baseball expert and book author who lives in Florida. “No baseball league … could survive that.”
And many young players are no longer as motivated by communist ideology or love of country, Romero told Reuters news agency, a force that for decades helped drive Cubans to great achievements, including Olympic gold medals in baseball in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004.
“Players once waited a long time to emigrate, to prove themselves. Now they leave at 16 or 17 years of age,” he said. “Many of the Cuban players are no longer aligned with the ideology or the politics of the government.”
At the “Ponton” ballfield in central Havana, with its muddy infield and cannabis-shrouded foul lines, some of Cuba’s youngest players train, taking their first excited swings, playing catch and slapping hands.
But no one – not even these children – escapes the effect of Cuba’s grinding economic crisis – or the draw of migration, says youth coach Irakly Chirino, a former player in Cuba’s national league who began his career at Ponton.
“Here, we don’t have gloves, bats, shoes, or even balls to play with … and when we do, they are too expensive,” Chirino told Reuters on the sidelines of a late-spring practice.