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.
What do you want to see happen in the future?
I think we have to look for a solution to this now. The fans don't have to keep losing out on seeing their ballplayers here, or for them to go and play in other leagues and then not be able to come back and play with the Cuban national team. I think our ballplayers who trained here earned the right to go play in other leagues and measure themselves against a higher level. They should be able to do it -- without fear -- and come back and play with their national team. And then in one way or another also play in the leagues here in Cuba. Then no one loses. And they don't have to be separated from their family, from their friends.
Since 1960, when the U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Cuba, players on the island have been forbidden from playing professionally in America; also because of the embargo, MLB forbids teams from hiring Cuban citizens. So if a player leaves Cuba to play in the U.S., MLB requires that player to defect, thus renouncing his Cuban citizenship. As of January 2013, a new Cuban law has lightened the restrictions on returning to the island.
What scenario do you see in terms of salary? If a player wants to sign with a team for several million dollars, would there be some sort of requirement that some of that money go to the Cuban government?
The way I feel, in the future the money is for the players. The most important thing is the player's money, and they decide to do with this money what they want to do. I don't see this as a problem, no.
If baseball players are allowed to make millions and bring that back to Cuba, doesn't that contradict the idea of socialism -- that there aren't supposed to be millionaires?
I don't see the problem with that because now in Cuba we have artists and musicians who travel outside and bring their money back here. Maybe not millions, but in life, you have a social difference. Let me tell you, the baseball players here in Cuba, all the people love them. If one player comes with millions, everybody loves this guy for sure because the baseball in Cuba is different. The most important [thing] for people is not the millions. The most important [thing] for the Cuban people, for the fanatics, is to see this guy play at the highest level.
The average wage in Cuba is about $20 a month. Under the new rule, in addition to what they make playing abroad, top athletes could earn from $40 to $200 a month playing for Cuba. There are new incentives for the teams as well, with the national championship team earning a $2,700 bonus (not including individual player bonuses). While this sort of pay-for-play system might seem commonplace, it's a capitalist incentive -- and Cuba is still technically a country ruled by communism, a structure under which the government is supposed to treat and pay everyone equally and private enterprise is banned. Baseball isn't the only area in which the government is backing off its socialist principles. Recently, artists and entertainers have also been allowed to work abroad.
Have you approached MLB about letting Cuban players come back and play for the Cuban national team in the offseason?
We need to discuss this, because the rules are the rules. U.S. law impedes the Cuban ballplayers from playing in the big leagues without breaking with their country. That is, they have to break ties with Cuba. They have to become, whether they want to or not, defectors. Because they say that the money that a ballplayer earns could benefit Havana. That's a crazy idea, isn't it? I think Cuba has to budge. Cuba has to do things. Also on the side of Major League Baseball, we need to sit down together and talk about this openly, to search for a realistic solution to this issue.
Because of his role as a VP for the International Baseball Federation, Castro has been able to develop relationships with MLB and USA Baseball officials. Castro says he's been to New York and sat in the offices of MLB and talked about the issue of Cuban players in the majors. MLB officials -- who won't say anything on the record about Cuba -- clearly have an interest in Cuban players but insist there isn't much they can do while the embargo is still in place.
What would it mean to Cubans to see players like Puig and Cespedes playing in the World Baseball Classic?
Oh, it's amazing. If you walk through the streets and ask everybody, the people for sure will tell you it's a dream. They want to see these players play a game with the Cuban national team. And you know the problem exists and [Cuba and MLB] need to resolve this. The question is, why not? Why don't we find the solution? The only thing we need is the will to do that. For sure we can find a solution, but we need to work together -- everybody.