ANTONIO "TONY" CASTRO is quick to point out that he is a man without a title. One of nine confirmed children of Fidel, the Cuban revolutionary and former president, he holds no official government office and treads lightly on the Castro name. A practicing orthopedic surgeon in Havana, Castro, 43, typically responds to political questions about his father by politely steering the conversation in a different direction -- usually to baseball. As a vice president of the International Baseball Federation, a position he has held since 2009, Castro has been a fierce and outspoken proponent of a distinctly antisocialist concept: Cuban players' right to play professionally, earning money both in Cuba and abroad. At home, he uses what clout he has to grease the wheels of a hard-line sports bureaucracy that oversees the Cuban national team, which is facing financial hardship, equipment shortages and a rising number of player defections. And there are signs that his voice is being heard. In the fall, the Council of Ministers, which is headed by Castro's uncle Raul, approved a new rule that allows Cuban baseball players to play in professional leagues outside Cuba and earn a salary. The move is widely seen as the start of Cuba's opening its doors to the rest of the world. Yet because of the U.S. economic embargo, the new rule does not yet fulfill Tony's dream of seeing Cubans in the major leagues without defecting. During a candid interview in September at the historic Hotel Nacional in Havana, Castro explained why he'll continue to push for closer ties with Major League Baseball.
Why is baseball so important to the people of Cuba?
In Cuba, when you speak about baseball, baseball is not a sport. It's a culture. When the boy is born, the father's gift is the bat and the ball. Through baseball, we teach our children everything about life. We can show our children how to win, lose, respect other people and work in groups.
What are the challenges for baseball in Cuba right now?
A lot, a lot. The economic problems for sure, because we need bats, we need gloves, we need balls, we need everything. We have players going to play and win millions of dollars [in America]. I mean, you have a player who can go from playing on a high-caliber team here in Cuba, where you can't even get bats ... to the next day making millions playing for the Yankees or the Dodgers or any other major league team. We've lost a lot of ballplayers. I think that we have to work, not only on the Cuban side but on the side of the United States as well, in Major League Baseball, to -- try to find a realistic solution to this problem.
Last season there were 21 Cuban-born players in MLB, including Dodgers rookie star Yasiel Puig and A's home run derby champ Yoenis Cespedes. Most recently, in October, the Chicago White Sox signed Cuban defector Jose Abreu to a $68 million deal. But the real problem, as Castro sees it, isn't that they've joined the major leagues; he insists he wants to see Cubans playing at the highest level. Rather, it's that those players are not allowed to return home to play for the Cuban national team.