The Baseball Posts: How The Blue Jays' Shortshop Escaped From Castro by Adam Bunch

They've been playing baseball in Cuba for 150 years, which is about as long as anyone has been playing baseball anywhere. The sport was still just a few years old when it first came to the island. After a long evolution, the game had spread quickly across the United States once a standard set of rules had finally coalesced in New York City, helped along by the invading and retreating armies of the Civil War. The very same year that the Union Navy steamed into the harbour of Mobile, Alabama ("Damn the torpedoes," their admiral is said to have cried, "Full speed ahead!"), a young Cuban student was in town studying at the local university. Nemisio Guillo. When he returned home to Havana, Guillo brought a baseball and a bat back with him. He and his brother Ernesto, who had also studied in Mobile, organized Cuba's very first team. Soon, people all over the island were playing the new sport.

But this was back in the days when Cuba was still ruled by the Spanish Empire. Baseball had arrived just in time to see four decades worth of violence as the Cuban people rose up to fight a series of wars for their independence. Eventually, the United States would get involved, siding against Spain and sparking the Spanish-American War. So for the Spanish, baseball was a sign of American influence in Cuba. They banned the game, hoping that Cubans would spend their time watching bullfighting instead.

It didn't work. By the time the 1900s arrived, Cuba had won its independence and there were organized baseball leagues all over the country. Soon, black players from the States — unwelcome in their own country's racist Major Leagues — would be playing in places like Havana and Santa Clara, while white Cuban players headed north to the Majors and some of their darker-skinned countrymen became stars in America's segregated Negro Leagues.

And then came the 1950s. And Fidel Castro.

It was in 1959, just a few years after Jackie Robinson trotted out to second base in Brooklyn to break the colour barrier in the Major Leagues, that Castro led his Communist army to overthrow the Cuban government. A lot of things would change in Cuba after that, and baseball was one of them. Instead of banning the sport as a symbol of Americanism as the Spanish had done, Castro made Cuban baseball a symbol of Communism. The professional leagues were disbanded, replaced with an amateur system that was supposed to reflect the values of the new regime. “We can say, " the young dictator declared, "that our athletes are the children of our Revolution and, at the same time, the standard-bearers of that same Revolution.”

Castro at bat
Baseball immediately became an important cog in Castro's propaganda machine. Just a few months after seizing power, he organized exhibition games to raise money for Havana's local team. Most of the players were revolutionaries from his army, and he even took the field himself, pitching a scoreless inning with a little help from a not-entirely-objective home plate umpire. In the years to come, a myth would grow: he'd once been so good that he was scouted by a Major League team. It was total bullshit.

But while Castro might have been a fan of baseball, he sure as hell wasn't a fan of the United States. Cuban players, now making much less money than they had before the Revolution, weren't allowed to leave the country to play for American teams any more. Their only chance to shine on the international stage came during tournaments like the Olympics. To this day, the Cuban national team is known as one of the best in the world — amateur players barely known to anyone outside of Cuba have regularly defeated teams made up of American millionaires. And they've done it with it flair and style.

In Castro's Cuba, player salaries might have always been modest, but things got even worse after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was less money than ever. Stadiums fell into disrepair. There was a shortage of equipment. So in the 1990s, a wave of defections began; players risked life and limb to leave their families behind and escape to freedom — and potential fortune — in the United States. Castro has called the loss of athletic talent "a throat-slitting against Cuba robbing us of minds, muscles and bones".

Some players have done especially well after leaving the island: Orlando Hernández, "El Duque", helped lead the New York Yankees to back to back to back World Series championships in the late '90s; his brother Liván was a two-time all-star; Rey Ordóñez won three Gold Glove awards playing shortstop for the Mets.

And now there's Yunel Escobar.

He was born in Havana in 1982. He grew up to become one hell of a baseball player. By the time he was 13 years old, he was already representing Cuba in international tournaments — the starting shortstop on the national junior team. That's how he got to watch his very first Major League game on TV: in a hotel room in Mexico with his best friend — the team's catcher — Brayan Peña. The Atlanta Braves happened to be one of the teams playing that day, and so Escobar and Peña secretly adopted them as their favourite team, going as far as to have jerseys smuggled into the country.

Brayan Pena
Sports Illustrated told the story of the two friends in this excellent article by Melissa Segura. In 1999, when they were 17 years old, they headed to Venezuela to play in the Junior Pan Am Games. It was there, in Caracas, just before the championship game, that Peña slipped quietly out of their hotel. A car was waiting for him. He'd made his decision: he was never going back to Cuba, he was defecting to the States in the hopes of launching a career in professional baseball. Six years later, he'd be playing in the Major Leagues. For the Atlanta Braves.

Peña had never shared his escape plans with Escobar. He figured it was safer for his friend that way: he knew the shortstop would be questioned by the Cuban authorities after the defection. But, as it turns out, that didn't matter: they refused to believe Escobar when he told them he didn't know anything. They hounded the shortstop relentlessly. For the next two years, guards followed him nearly everywhere he went. His coaches benched him for not being loyal enough to Castro. He got fined for the way he wore his pants (baggy, like Americans do) and for flipping a ball to a kid in the stands. He was banned from playing international tournaments.

In the end, the harassment drove Escobar to plan his own escape. But since he wasn't allowed to the leave the country anymore, his defection would be riskier. Even now, the details of exactly how he managed to evade the authorities are a bit sketchy; he doesn't like to talk about it much, in case it tips the Communists off and they make it even more difficult for others to follow in his footsteps. But in the fall of 2004, he somehow managed to evade his guards and climb aboard a boat of refugees. There were 35 of them, including five of his teammates from Cuba's most famous team, Industriales. For two and a half days, the boat headed north through shark-infested waters, toward Florida. And once they got there, it took another week and a half to find a safe harbour. The passengers suffered through "dehydration, hunger and sickness". Escobar kept quiet, out of fear. "Someone might just throw you off the boat if they didn't like you," he told Sports Illustrated.

But in the end, the boat hit the beach in Miami. Escobar was free of Castro, free of the dictatorship, free to pursue his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. And unlike so many who have risked the journey and failed, things were going to work out for Yunel Escobar.

He found Peña's mother, who had followed her son to America, and was reunited with his best friend. The catcher was still in the minors then, yet to play his first game for the big league Braves, but when he recommended Escobar to the organization, they listened. They drafted the shortstop the very next year and gave him nearly half a million dollars as a signing bonus. Within a few short years, his dream had come true: he was playing in the Majors, with his best friend, on their favourite team. And he had already established himself as one of the most exciting and promising young players in the game. In 2009, he hit .299 with 14 home runs, enough to even get him a few votes for MVP of the National League.

It was, for a while, a storybook ending to an amazing story.

But a couple of years have passed since then, and things have, of course, changed. Peña's career didn't get off to nearly as impressive a start as Escobar's did. After a few years, Atlanta released him. He now plays back-up for the not-very-good Kansas City Royals.

As for Escobar, his 2010 season was a disappointment. Halfway through the season, the Braves began to turn on him. There was grumbling about his attitude: that he was lazy, a showboat. His teammates complained about his annoying habits, the way he whistled on the field, that he didn't always run flat out on every play. He was benched, more than once, after disagreements with his manager. There were rumours that the organization was fed up with him, that they were looking to trade him for someone else.

But not everyone blamed Escobar. Just as there were rumblings that he might have an attitude problem, there were rumblings that the problem might have more to do with the Braves than with him. Some suggested the conflict was simply a result of "cultural differences". And that they weren't limited to the fact of a fairly dark-skinned Cuban playing baseball in the deep south, for a team called the Braves, in front of  fans who still delight in offensively mimicking racial stereotypes with their bullshit "tomahawk chop" chant. Some of those differences might be as obvious as the fact that Escobar needed to speak to reporters and teammates through an interpreter; some, more subtle forms of racism about the stereotypical flashiness of Latino players. Maybe, some figured, if he got a chance to play for a new team, in a new city, with new teammates, he'd thrive again.

Yunel Escobar
And at that very same time, more than a thousand kilometers to the north, in a whole different country, there just happened to be a team looking for a young shortstop with a lot of potential. A team which just happened to play in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. And which just happened to be putting together a core of young players, including a few rising stars from Latin America. The kind of team where instead of being isolated, Escobar might just fit right in.

And that's how Yunel Escobar ended up playing shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays.

He became a fan favourite immediately, bunting for a hit and making two spectacular defensive plays in his very first game with his new team. And in 2011, despite a few injuries, he re-established himself as one of the best young shortstops in the sport. This year, he'll be playing an important role on a Blue Jays squad filled with Spanish-speakers like Jose Bautista, J.P. Arencibia and Edwin Encarnation, along with flashy young superstars-in-the-making like Brett Lawrie and Ricky Romero.

He does, it seem, fit right it. For now, Yunel Escobar has found something of a new home — on the left-hand side of the Blue Jays infield. He just had to travel more than two thousand kilometers, risk his life, escape a Communist dictatorship, and overcome racial stereotypes to find it. Which is going to make cheering for him this year all that much sweeter.

UPDATE: In September 2012, Escobar has turned up on the other side of prejudice. He wore a homophobic slur on his face during a game at Fenway Park, leading to a three game suspension and calls for him to released by the Blue Jays. We've written another post about that, which you can find here.


Again, you can read the Sports Illustrated profile on Escobar and Peña here. And a bit more about their story here. You can read a bit about Escobar, the Braves and race by the always-awesome and now Grantlandian Jonah Keri, here. You can read more about the immediate baseball-y aftermath of the Cuban Revolution here. And about baseball in Cuba in general here and here and defections here and here.


The Baseball Posts are series of posts about, um, well, baseball. You'll find them all here. Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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