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Emotions run deep as Cuban baseball team returns to Miami for WBC

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MIAMI — Until Sunday, the Cuban national baseball team had not played here since Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959.

The island’s signature team has played in the United States in the decades since — but not in this stateside hub of the Cuban diaspora, a city reshaped by Cubans fleeing political and economic repression. More than 750,000 people born in Cuba live in the Miami area, according to a recent census. Hundreds of thousands more claim Cuban heritage.

So Sunday’s World Baseball Classic semifinal between the underdog Cuban team and the powerful U.S. squad seemed less like a historic baseball matchup than a historic event. It was, in some ways, a controversial showdown in the fifth iteration of a tournament that had never risen to the level of prominence required to incite political tensions.

But within hours of Cuba qualifying for Sunday’s semifinal at LoanDepot Park in Little Havana, calls to protest the team’s presence spread on social media. Rapper El Funky, famous for protest anthem “Patria y Vida,” posted an Instagram video asking Cubans to speak out. Prominent YouTuber Alex Otaola, an outspoken critic of the Cuban government, did the same. So did SOS Cuba, a group that advocates for human rights on the island.

Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo Jr. issued a statement in which he called the Cuban team’s presence “of the utmost disrespect to the entire Cuban exile community that this team is here.”

“I am outraged, and I stand with the families of the political prisoners who are currently being tortured in the regime’s prisons without being able to see their families. I stand with the opposition and all those who peacefully express their opinion about the baseball game,” Bovo said. “We cannot tolerate agents of the regime enjoying the freedoms of this country while the Cuban people are in dire need and being subjected to the abuse and repression of the cowards of the regime.”

MLB officials had braced for protest outside the stadium and accounted for the possibility activists might try to buy seats in visible locations to hold protest signs where the world would see them. Extra security followed the Cuban team to its workout Saturday, then again to the stadium Sunday.

But in the relatively quiet hours before the game, the variety of perspectives of Cuban fans was on display inside and outside the stadium, and the nuance of the sentiment toward the national team was evident. U.S. star Nolan Arenado, whose father grew up in Cuba, said, “There’s a lot of anxious feelings.”

As the Cuban team took batting practice Sunday afternoon, fans with Cuban flags and jerseys clung to the right field wall, hoping for high-fives, baseballs or autographs. Cuban jerseys outnumbered U.S. jerseys on fans outside the stadium. Some fans carried Cuban flags draped around their shoulders. Some had written “Patria y vida,” the protest slogan that translates to “fatherland and life” — an inversion of the revolutionary slogan “Patria o muerte,” or “fatherland or death” — in the white lines of those flags. Others carried signs that translated to “Down with the dictatorship” or chanted “Freedom for Cuba!”

Manager Armando Johnson, who Saturday answered questions about the team meeting with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel before departing for the tournament, spent the moments before his team’s biggest game in recent memory taking questions about what might take place outside the stadium.

“We don’t think about what they say out there or possible aggression,” Johnson said, a message echoed by his players in multiple interviews since their arrival in Miami.

“It doesn’t affect us. [At] events, you have fans supporting you and fans against you. That’s natural in baseball,” said longtime Cuban staple Alfredo Despaigne, a designated hitter who has played professionally in Japan. “… Everyone is free to feel and to think whatever they want. It won’t affect us.”

But in practice, those differences of opinion have already affected the team dramatically.

For the first time, the United States granted a license to the Cuban Baseball Federation that would allow major leaguers to represent their country in the World Baseball Classic. On paper, the way was clear for stars such as José Abreu, Yordan Alvarez, the Gurriel brothers and others to restore Cuba’s status as a title contender.

The Cuban government touted their participation as a positive sign for Cuba, suggesting that the country was opening its arms to players who had to defect to earn a living in the majors — the same players the government often labeled as traitors when they left.

The Cubans had long been an international juggernaut, even without stars who left to pursue more lucrative professional careers in the United States. Cuba won three of the first four Olympic gold medals awarded in baseball. It reached the final of the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, all the while discouraging its stars from leaving for the United States and denouncing those who did.

Slowly but surely, Cuba’s restrictions on professional sports forced more and more talented players to defect. Some of the tournament’s biggest stars, such as Mexico standout Randy Arozarena, adopted new home countries.

Other expatriates, including a group of Cuban players led by reliever Raisel Iglesias, organized the Association of Professional Cuban Baseball Players to give Cuban pros abroad “voice and representation in professional tournaments, exhibitions and other international activities.”

From 2021: ‘Patria y Vida’ and more from the Latin Grammys

That group hoped to earn entry to the World Baseball Classic by representing Cubans abroad. But because it was not part of a national federation, and therefore not a member of the World Baseball Softball Confederation that governs international competition, it was not allowed to compete.

None of the players involved in that effort joined this Cuban national team. In fact, of the top major leaguers, only Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox agreed to do so. As a result, they have inspired mixed reactions.

This weekend, a reporter asked Moncada about “Patria y vida,” a slogan associated with protests of the Cuban government in 2021 that resulted in a massive government crackdown against those calling for more rights and spurred the exile of another generation of activists.

Moncada said he couldn’t answer the question, that “I’m a baseball player; I don’t have anything to do with that.” By Saturday, the clip was circulating on social media, where activists expressed frustration about the fact that he not only agreed to represent Cuba but didn’t speak out against the government despite his comfortable position in the major leagues.

“This boy who has never raised his voice to say, ‘Stop crushing the Cuban people,’ this boy who has never raised his voice to say, ‘Release the political prisoners,’ ” Otaola said in a video posted Friday, arguing for fellow Cuban Americans to withhold support from players he says do not advocate for their countrymen.

“I am not a brother of accomplices,” he said. “I am a brother of victims.”

Moncada was in Cuba’s starting lineup Sunday night, batting second and playing third base. He is a crucial if somewhat controversial member of a storied, if always controversial squad — a team that nevertheless was one win away from advancing to the World Baseball Classic final.

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