Success Brings Tough Choices for Cuban Baseball Team

"Baseball is not judged by the price of the athletes but by the heart of the people."

That's how Frederich Cepeda, the left fielder for the Cuban national baseball team, summed up what his team's remarkable run to the finals of the first World Baseball Classic has meant to him, his team, his country -- and maybe to the game of baseball itself.

Cuba has dominated international baseball competitions for years, but its victories were all in tournaments without major league players. The United States arrived at the WBC armed with the likes of Derek Jeter, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez. The powerful Dominicans had superstars Miguel Tejada and David Ortiz. The Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Japanese, Mexicans and even South Koreans all had at least a few major leaguers sprinkled in their rosters.

But the Cubans? They came in a complete mystery to fans and their opponents, and not by accident.

Valiant Ragtag Team

While major league teams have set up baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and hired scouts to scour talent in the Far East, the only Cuban route to the "Las Grandes Ligas" has been the same one that so many countrymen have taken to American shores: defection.

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez -- Cuba's biggest star in the 1980s -- was found in 1997 by the U.S. Coast Guard with his wife and six others on a deserted island in the Bahamas. The story goes that they had been eating conch to survive and, not yet on U.S. soil, thought they would surely be returned to Cuba.

But the Coast Guard officer in charge was a baseball fan and knew of Orlando's brother Livan, who had defected a year earlier. Orlando Hernandez had been banned from Cuban baseball for helping his brother get out of the communist country. Instead of a return ticket to Havana, Hernandez received a multimillion-dollar contract and a set of Yankee pinstripes.

The Cubans lost their next great pitcher, Jose Contreras, when he defected during a 2002 tournament in Mexico. He soon signed a $32 million contract, leaving family behind in Cuba. Castro labeled him a traitor, and his wife has had frequent run-ins with the government.

The anxiety hurt Contreras' performance on the field, and he was sent to the minors. In 2004, however, he got the news that his wife and daughters had landed with a boatload of other defectors in the Florida Keys.

Contreras and Hernandez were together in Chicago last fall, leading the White Sox to their first championship since 1918.

Millionaires Vs. State Employees

Fidel Castro has lashed out at Cuban players "who cannot resist the millions of the Major Leagues." Still fiery at 79, Castro insists that Cuban baseball has always thrived despite losing stars like Contreras and the Hernandez brothers.

"When one leaves, another 10 better players emerge," he said last November as the World Baseball Classic beckoned. On this, if nothing else, Castro seems to have a point.

This Cuban team almost didn't make it to the WBC at all, but that wasn't because it wasn't good enough. It was politics.

The Bush administration objected to the possibility that Cuba could make money by winning the event, in violation of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo. An agreement was reached that Cuba would donate any winnings to Hurricane Katrina relief. Amid intense security to prevent defections, the Cubans began their play on March 8 in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Twelve days later, the American, Dominican, and Puerto Rican stars have all gone back to their state-of-the-art big-league spring training camps and millionaire teammates. And the Cubans are still here to play Japan in the championship game.

90 Feet or 90 Miles Away

They will play in a sold-out major league stadium in front of well-heeled Americans, with seats going on eBay for $150. The game will be televised by ESPN, which paid $5 million for WBC rights.

Japan's best player, Ichiro Suzuki, signed a four-year, $44 million contract in 2003, and Japan's roster is laden with highly paid stars from the U.S. and Japanese major leagues.

The Cuban players are paid about 23 pesos per month.

Surely if they win, and perhaps even if they lose, they will be greeted as conquering heroes upon their return to Havana. What little glory there is to be had in today's Cuba will be theirs.

But each of them faces a heartbreaking choice. In San Diego, riches and freedom that surely even the most patriotic among them has contemplated is no farther away than a foul ball into the stands or a home run over the fence. Even back in Cuba, every glance to the sea will be a glance at a big league check waiting to be cashed and a big league life waiting to be lived.

It is 90 feet from home plate to first base. It is 90 watery miles from Havana to Key West.