Kevin Kindelan, eight, a “hot” shortstop for the Central Havana Junior League baseball team, and teammate and first baseman Leonie Venego, seven, both dream of stardom in Cuba.
Kindelán said he wants to play for Cuba’s national baseball team, but Venego has his eyes set on the big prize after recovering from a major swing-and-come-miss composure during a recent practice session.
“I want to go to the major leagues and be like Yuli Gurriel,” he said, referring to the Cuban star first baseman, the Houston Astros baseball team, Cuba’s longtime northern rival in the United States.
Success in baseball, Cuba’s national pastime and the pursuit of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is being measured beyond its borders.
That marks a massive exodus of Cubans from the communist-controlled island, which has been plunged into social and economic crisis.
Cuba’s economy It fell by 11 percent in 2020 and has only risen since then, according to official data, hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the addition of Cold War-era restrictions on the US.
“In the last six years, the number of baseball players leaving the country has tripled compared to the decade from 2000 to 2010,” said Francis Romero, a Cuban baseball expert and author who lives in Florida. “No major league … can survive that.”
And many young players are no longer motivated by communist ideology or patriotism, Romero told Reuters news agency, a force that has helped lead Cubans to great success for decades, including Olympic gold medals in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Athens in 2004.
“Players once waited a long time to migrate, to prove themselves. Now they leave at the age of 16 and 17,” he said. “Many Cuban players are not aligned with the government’s ideology or politics.”
At the “pontoon” soccer field in central Havana, with its muddy fields and cannabis-covered dirt lanes, some of Cuba’s youngest players train, making their first exciting moves, catching and slapping.
But no one — not even these kids — escapes Cuba’s economic crisis — or the picture of migration, says youth coach Irakli Chirino, a former player in the Cuban National League and at Pontoon.
“Here, we don’t have gloves, bats, shoes, or balls to play with … and when we do, they’re very expensive,” Chirino told Reuters at a late spring practice.