Cuba's baseball revolution: Why players are turning pro

Cuban athletes had been banned from going pro for 50 years

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Isla de la Juventud is a small, sleepy island with a big passion for baseball, and this year it has been at vanguard of a revolution in the game.

For more than five decades, all professional sport has been banned in Cuba, with athletes drilled to perform for the love of their country, not cash.

But this summer, La Isla's team captain played as a pro in Mexico.

"I never thought it'd be possible," Michel Enriquez admits, back in his hometown of Nueva Gerona.

But the small experiment he was part of is now being rolled out across baseball and other sports.

Michel Enriquez's house and car on La Isla de la Juventud Michel Enriquez says his salary in Mexico allowed him to buy some luxuries

In a huge policy swing, Cuba says it will allow players to sign for professional sides abroad.

"I think it's very positive," Enriquez says, as he drives to a training session ahead of the season's first home game.

Start Quote

Michel Enriquez

We can afford things with our own salaries and don't have to wait for gifts from the state,”

End Quote Michel Enriquez Cuban baseball player

He manoeuvres the silver saloon slowly through the narrow streets to avoid other traffic, mostly horse-drawn carts and bicycles with extra passengers balanced precariously on the handlebars.

His car was a recent reward for his years representing Cuba at the highest level. Before that, he would catch the bus or hitch a lift to training like everyone else.

Like all Cuban athletes, the star third baseman received a salary linked to a phantom profession - a state job he never did as he was playing baseball full time - of around $23 (£14) a month, plus bonuses for his many medals.

But Enriquez says that by playing in Mexico for just one month before he got injured, he earned "$5,000 or $6,000" (£3,075-3,700).

"We're moving away from the idea that the state has to look after us, and we're taking care of ourselves," says Enriquez, explaining how the policy change has made it possible for him to buy furniture, furnish his kitchen and install air conditioning in his home.

"I think it's a big advantage. We can afford things with our own salaries and don't have to wait for gifts from the state," he argues.

State cut

There are restrictions built into the new arrangement.

Players must return to Cuba for the local season, and a state sports body will manage all contracts, deciding which players can benefit from it, and taking a cut of the cash.

Officials suggest the cut will amount to 20% of a player's total earnings - money which will help fund Cuba's vast national network of free sports coaching that formed players like Enriquez.

For those who do not go abroad, the new policy will link their salaries to their actual job. It also doubles their basic wage to $40 a month, with up to $100 extra for medal winners.

Described as a "just" move by the government and "only the start", the changes seem aimed at slowing the talent drain of players that has had a devastating impact on Cuban sport.

For the past fifty years, athletes have been forced to defect to turn pro, and the chance of earning big money with foreign clubs has proved highly alluring.

The ideological about-turn means they are now free to compete in foreign leagues, and then return to Cuba.

Off limits

But there is a hitch.

La Isla's team during a match in December 2013 Players for La Isla welcome the change of policy

American sanctions against communist Cuba will keep US Major League baseball off limits.

"There is more money in the USA than in any other country, and also the best baseball. But [as a Cuban] the only possibility you have to play, is to cut your ties with your country," sports journalist Reinaldo Taladrid explains.

"You could play baseball in the USA and live in North Korea or Iran, but not in Cuba," Mr Taladrid points out.

He is therefore doubtful that the new measures can stop the defections.

Warming up for training - crunching bones and stretching - La Isla players tend to agree.

The team here is noticeably young precisely because so many members have defected; another promising pitcher skipped the country just before the season started.

"I think more money will help," team director Armando Johnson says. But he fears the reforms can only slow the talent flight, not stop it.

"It's not just the money, but the satisfaction of being at the top level of world baseball," Mr Johnson says. And that means the USA.

Home advantage

Still, after his own experience, Michel Enriquez is hopeful.

"Players can think … that it's better to earn thousands and be able to return to your home and help your family financially, than to have millions and never see your family again," he argues.

Michel Enriquez speaks to some young fans during a match in December 2013 For Michel Enriquez it is important to be able to return to Cuba

But it is a tough call, especially when younger players hear stories like that of Jose Dariel Abreu.

The star slugger left Cuba and recently signed a jaw-dropping $68m-deal with the Chicago White Sox.

It is Abreu's old side, Cienfuegos, who troop out to take on La Isla that afternoon.

"We could never pay that much!" La Isla fan Miguel sighs, during a break in play.

His own club cannot even afford new floodlights, years after they were destroyed in a hurricane.

Woman painting the lettering La Isla's grounds could do with a cash injection, fans say

"I think we do need to pay our players more though," his friend suggests. "Maybe then it'd be harder to steal them."

The match is a nail-biter, finally snatched in dramatic style by La Isla just before sundown, to the delight of the small crowd who drum, chant and sing throughout.

Talent galore

It could be a taste of what is to come.

Despite decades of talk of the purity of Cuban amateur sport, players say the fact they will be paid more will help them perform better.

La Isla's team during a match in December 2013 The players are motivated by the chance of being spotted by talent scouts

And so will the knowledge that talent scouts will be watching closely, ready to snap up the most promising with lucrative deals once the season ends.

"I came back to Cuba with extra motivation," Enriquez admits.

"Because I see possibilities now, that's the stimulus. I can go back to play in Mexico, or for any other team that's interested, and then return."

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