Montreal

How a Quebec baseball team is changing the game for Cuba

A Quebec City baseball team is paving the way for Cuban players who want to play professionally outside of the Caribbean island. It's seen as an experiment of sorts, as diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. improve.

Quebec Capitales paving way for Cuban players who want to play pro outside of the Caribbean island

A Quebec City baseball team is paving the way for Cuban players who want to play professionally outside of the Caribbean island. 2:18

When Roel Santos puts on his team jersey, there is symbolism at play that's hard to ignore. 

The 28-year-old is one of a handful of Cuban baseball players with the Quebec Capitales this season, in the independent Can-Am League.

"We are coming here, into another culture, another level of baseball, another way of thinking," Santos said through a translator at a recent pre-game batting practice.

Santos is among those playing in Quebec City as part of a groundbreaking deal seen as another sign of warming diplomatic relations between Cuba and Canada — and its more powerful southern neighbour.

"It's trust, it's a handshake," said Capitales president Michel Laplante in an interview at the Quebec City stadium.

He spearheaded the agreement with the Cuban Baseball Federation two years ago.

"They had doubts about this, that it would work," he recalled. "And I said, 'I think it's going to work,' and it did."

Opening doors

Because of the long-standing trade embargo with the United States, most Cuban players can't sign directly with teams south of the border.
A Cuban fruit vendor attends to a customer in Old Havana. The Caribbean island has opened its doors to more private enterprise amid a thaw in relations with the United States. (Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

Under an agreement reached in 2014, Quebec City became the first place in North America where Cuba has given approval for its players to compete professionally.

 'The lesson in all of this is just to build trust, and once the good relations, the trust, is there, you can do a lot.'- Michel  Laplante , president of Quebec Capitales

The Capitales travel to the U.S. for games and there remains a looming risk a player could be lured by a major league team — and defect.

But that hasn't happened yet, and this year, teams in Ottawa and Kitchener have Cuban players on their rosters as well.

"My goal was not to do politics," said Laplante.

"Politicians are telling me that it's opening doors. The lesson in all of this is just to build trust, and once the good relations, the trust, is there, you can do a lot."

Michel Laplante, president of the Quebec Capitales, spearheaded the agreement with Cuba two years ago. (CBC)

In May, centrefielder Santos, shortstop Yordan Manduley, 30, and third baseman Yurisbel Garcial, 30, arrived in Quebec City, trading in their Cuban national team jerseys for those of the Quebec Capitales.

Like many Cuban players, Santos dreams of playing in the major leagues and hopes this deal can help pave the way for him to do that legally. 

"It depends on the relationship between Cuba and the United States," he said. "Through this, doors will continue to open and we can have more opportunities."

Garcial hopes for that too.

"If we can participate in this league and other leagues, that's fundamental," he said.

Defections and their risks

Cuba is trying to stop an exodus of players who often risk their lives to leave the country, hoping to secure lucrative major-league contracts. 

Some turn to human smugglers and organized crime to reach the U.S. 
Yordan Manduley, Roel Santos and Yurisbel Garcial are pictured at the Quebec City stadium. The players are part of a deal between the Cuban Baseball Federation and the Quebec Capitales, which allowed them to sign with the Quebec team this season. (CBC)

With this deal, and similar ones in Colombia, Mexico and Japan, Laplante said, Cuba wants to show its players that there is another way. 

"To tell their players, look, we are doing things with you," he said.

"Yes, you don't play in the major leagues right now, we don't have a deal with the U.S., but there's different opportunities that we can offer you."

John Kirk, a professor at Dalhousie University who has written extensively about Cuba, said the country has likely chosen players for this deal who are no longer in the prime of their careers, so have a low risk of defecting.

"It's a way for the Cuban government to express its concerns about proper migration, as opposed to people leaving on rafts," he said. This also showcases improving diplomatic relations with U.S., he said.

"While it is still a symbolic step, it is one that I think is very, very important in strengthening bilateral relations," he said. 

"This establishes a feeling of confidence between Cuba and the United States."

Cuba vs. Les Capitales 

Another sign of that strengthening relationship is a series of games the Cuban national team played in the Can-Am league in June. The Cubans made stops in Canada and the U.S. to face off against several teams.

At a recent game in Quebec City, a delighted crowd cheered on the visitors. 
Fans wave the Cuban flag at a recent Capitales game in Quebec City. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

Cuban-Quebecers waved the Cuban flag and held signs with slogans like, "Te amo Cuba" (I love Cuba).

On the field, the three Cuban players with the Capitales faced off against their own national team.

"It's hard because it's our team, our country," Garcial said before the game. "But right now, we have to defend the colours of the Quebec Capitales."

About the Author

Alison Northcott is a national reporter for CBC News in Montreal.

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